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The British conceit has long been that its electoral system was superior to others because it delivered decisive, unobstructed government. The muddle and backroom dealing of minority and coalition administrations were for lesser nations. Let them keep their consensual hemicycles. Britain is the mother of parliaments. The House of Commons was laid out for politics as combat.
Putting aside the inconvenient stability afforded by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of the past five years, this was always a dubious proposition. Winner-take-all politics presumes a monopoly of wisdom. It encourages unnecessary, often bad legislation and is the midwife to hubris. Think of Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, which decreed the duke and the dustman should pay the same amount of property tax, or the burning righteousness with which Tony Blair took the country to war against Iraq.
Conservatives, in particular, should be wary of a system that gives one party or other parliamentary carte blanche to upend the status quo. After three general election victories, Thatcher ended up more a Maoist than a Tory as she turned her fire on the customs and institutions of the nation. Yet a quarter of a century later David Cameron, who styles himself as a traditionalist Conservative prime minister, insists that the alternative to an outright victory is instability and chaos.
The argument for single-party government is also ahistorical. While it is true that it has been the norm since the end of the second world war (with the exceptions of the present coalition and a Labour minority administration during the 1970s), the experience during the previous 100 years was different. For most of that period Britain managed to run a global empire with minority or coalition governments.
Few among the British elites seem to have grasped much of this. As they look at the opinion polls Whitehall Mandarins fret that the formation of a new government may take weeks and that, even then, the new administration may be precarious. Business leaders say the country needs a prime minister with a governing majority — though, one suspects they might prefer stalemate to an administration led by Labour’s Ed Miliband. City analysts say the markets could be “spooked” by an inconclusive result and the prospect of a second election.
I am not sure why. A glance at the vast, badly-framed legislative programmes of past administrations suggests the nation would prosper from a period of no government. How many times can you reorganise education or the health service and still claim to be doing some good? To listen to the hare-brained promises made during the past few weeks — Mr Cameron’s extraordinary plan to tear up property rights by sequestering the assets of private housing charities is one that springs to mind — is to feel relief that neither the Conservatives nor Labour seem likely to secure a majority.
The unravelling of the old political order is anyway making this discussion irrelevant. Whatever the balance between the two main parties when the ballots are counted, the election will most probably be decisive only in demonstrating that the first-past-the-post electoral system no longer delivers single party rule. Even assuming a sharp fall in the number of Liberal Democrats, more than 80 and perhaps up to 100 members of a House of Commons of 650 will come from parties other than the Tories or Labour. Numbers like that make it hard to see how left and right can again expect to secure sufficient seats for a majority.
The shift is structural as well as cyclical — a reflection of a decades-long erosion of the core support of the old parties, and the more recent rise of nationalism in Scotland, as much as a verdict on a particularly lacklustre generation of political leaders. There are echoes here of earlier days. Prime ministers at the turn of the 20th century were denied majorities at Westminster by Irish nationalists.
It will take time for today’s political leaders to admit the rules have changed. The most likely consequence of an inconclusive election next month is another one within a year or so later. But at some point the politicians will have to admit that the old system no longer works. They will then discover that countries elsewhere in the world are routinely well governed by coalition or minority administrations. Finally, they will be dragged kicking and screaming to accept the inexorable logic of proportional voting.
Along the way they may also reflect that the present arrangements have produced a House of Commons hopelessly unrepresentative of the nation it is supposed to serve. Less than a quarter of its members are women and less than 5 per cent are drawn from ethnic minorities. It is time, as they say, for change.