Wednesday 21 April 2010

The party of coalition in British politics? The Tories (obviously)

"England does not love coalitions", Disraeli famously told the House of Commons in 1852. Yet, as that came the day after his strenuous efforts to secure an understanding with John Bright's Radicals failed, so the full story rather reflects his earlier claim that "a Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy".

Ask which has been 'the party of coalition' in British politics and there is only one possible answer: the Conservatives.

There has not been no British coalition government, in peace or war, for the last 150 years which did not include them. The Tories insisted on forming peacetime coalitions for thirteen inter-war years (1918-22; 1931-40) even when they held single-party Commons majorities of their own; they would have done the same in 1951 if Liberal leader Clement Davies had not turned down Churchill's offer of a Cabinet seat. And Heath was always more willing that Wilson to agree terms with Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. A century before, it was coalition government - with the defection of the Whig Liberal Unionists in 1886, creating the Conservative and Unionist alliance - which ended the long Liberal dominance of British politics, as the Tories profited enormously politically from being on the wrong side of history over Irish home rule.

Strikingly, the Conservatives were frequently willing to offer the Premiership to a smaller partner, an offer turned down by Hartington in 1886 (with his Liberal colleague Goschen taking the Treasury a few months later) but accepted by the Liberal Lloyd George in 1918 and of course Labour's leader Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, as part of an attempt to project the idea that these coalitions were not simply Tory fronts.

Most in today's Conservative party seem unaware of the depth of their pro-coalition history.

Why? Because history begins in 1979. For the ideologised post-Thatcher party, coalition is indeed anathema, as it never was for Disraeli. The post-Thatcher Tory party remains cut off from the party's historical, political and intellectual traditions by the enduring impact of Keith Joseph's famous declaration of 1975 that the history of actually existing British post-war Conservatism has been a betrayal - and "not Conservative at all".

Power-sharing, negotiation, compromise - the very stuff of politics - and any attempt at pluralist political reform are viewed primarily as attempts to shut the Tories out. Yet a deeper progressive Conservativism might have learnt from their history, rather than apparently being cut off from it. It would not see all political negotiation as an offence against strong government, and so would see in the increased pluralism of a post-devolution, multi-party politics enormous opportunities for a supple, pragmatic Tory statecraft. It would probably be preparing to compete and deal on electoral reform, rather than implying it would cling to the wreckage of first-past-the-post even if it blew itself up by providing a bizarre result with little democratic credibility at all. Indeed, it might particularly favour the Alternative Vote at least, for it would finally lock in Cameronism, just as the early '70s Tories were the party of devolution and more interested than Labour in electoral reform.

It could be argued that a substantively progressive Conservativism might prefer to be fifteen seats short of a majority than to have a majority of fifteen. Which would be more difficult for a centrist Conservatism - having to secure a LibDem abstention on supply and confidence, or to risk becoming, like John Major, the prisoner of the Eurosceptic Tory Taliban, who retreated to the hills after 1992 and are ready to resume, two decades later, their battle over the Maastricht Treaty.


Back to Disraeli - because he also offers a fascinating glimpse of one possible progressive Conservative negotating strategy.

The reason his budget faced defeat was that he proposed more support for Tory landed interests (as he was now selling them out on protection), a populist measure to cut tax on tea and appeals to liberals by cutting taxes on earned (but not unearned income), along with increased defence spending.

While claiming to balance the budget.

But that claim to have addressed the deficit quickly fell apart under scrutiny - at which point he launched his ProgCon coalition strategy.

As Ian St John's Disraeli and the Art of Victorian politics, sets out, by 15 December 1852, Disraeli realsed his budget was facing defeat, and asked the radical John Bright to call on him late that evening.

St John writes:

He pleaded with the Radicals to abstain on the Budget ... He would then proceed with a series of reformist measures, 'get rid of the old stagers' and looked forward to the day when he and the Radicals would sit in the same Cabinet. The Tory party had stood for a good deal from him and 'would stand a good deal more if necessary'.

Bright heard him out but was unable to take seriously any such deal with the Radical's erstwhle enemy - adding in his Diary, 'he seems unable to comprehend the morality of our political course'.

Disraeli decided to go down fighting and delivered his famous speech at 1am the following night, during a thunderstorm, as described by a contemporary, also quoted in St John's book.

'Yes' he cried. 'I know what I have to face. I have to face a Coalition!' There was tremendous cheering as the orator looked significantly at the two benches opposite, the one above the gangway tenanted by the Whig leaders and the other by the Peelite chiefs. 'The Combination may be successful. A Coalition has before this been successful'. Then, raising his voice and lifting his right hand, he proceeded: 'But Coalitions, although successful, have always found this, that their triumph has been brief'. And after a pause for an assenting cheer, he brought his right hand down on the table of the house. 'This too I know, that England does not love Coalitions'.

Up to a point, perhaps.


MatGB said...


Tories were in an electoral pact and coalition with the National Liberal Party until the NatLibs voted to merge into the Conservative and Unionists in the 60s. There were two NatLibs in Cabinet until MAc sacked them in the night of the long knives (Hill and Maclay).

Some say a pre-election pact isn't a coalition, this is bollocks, two parties at the cabinet table makes a coalition.

Anonymous said...

I hope we get a Lib Dem - Tory coalition in the event of a hung parliament. The voting evidence suggests it is the logical one although I guess electoral reform will be the stumbling block -

Still, it would give Labour the chance to demonstrate that the Lib Dems are essentially a party of the centre-right in a way that we are not, to renew our policies, and to reach out to those genuinely progressive MPs who have, by some mischance, ended up in the Lib Dems. A half dozen at the moment but maybe more like 15 in a party of 100.

Still, I see that, after the white flag was run up yesterday, Progress are now running openly pro-LD pro-coalition articles. If the last hope of Labour as an independent party is Ed Balls then I'm even more worried than I was yesterday.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks, Great point about the National Liberals in the 1950s Cabinets. As with the turned down offer in 1951, it is an example of the voluntary cross-party arrangement and coalition, though I think the argument that this is fairly symbolic is a fair one.

MatGB said...

Sunder, absolutely, was symbolic in many respects, except it did give Tories access to constituencies and voters that would never ever vote Tory; areas in the Highlands, etc.

It essentially became pointless with the introduction of FPTP for all seats, before that many seats used Block Voting and there were alliance slates in places (in some, Liberals, Nat Libs and Cons all put up one candidate each to LAbour's two; evidence was a lot of Lib voters supported Labour with second vote, but Tory and Nat Lib voters split all over the place).

Myth that current electoral system is traditional is just that; coalitions were the norm until FPTP gave one party dominance as an option.