One-party UK government a thing of the past

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Coalition government could represent a revolution in the way that politics are conducted in Britain, and even the way UK politics are conducted in Europe, if the German experience is anything to go by.

The prospect is regarded by many in the British establishment with emotions ranging from concern to outright horror. A senior civil servant who was in Berlin last week told his German counterparts that he regarded a hung parliament as little short of a disaster.

Yet Germany, like the Netherlands, Belgium and most Nordic countries, has lived with coalitions for decades and the process of negotiating and operating them is the political norm. It is not always a pretty sight, decisions tend to take much longer than in a one-party government and the end result might be less legislation rather than more.

The speed with which the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties sealed their coalition agreement at the weekend would be described in Germany as “indecent haste”. There the process takes weeks, and ends up with a solemn and complex “treaty” between parties.

The complicating factor in Germany is the federal system, which means there are often elections at state level in the middle of the parliamentary term of a national government, creating tensions within the coalition as the different parties fight for advantage in the local polls. That was the case last week in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in the federal republic,i n the middle of the Greek debt crisis, with dire consequences for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling centre-right coalition in Berlin.

The most striking thing about a German government in office is the way in which internal differences are paraded in public. The three parties in Angela Merkel’s coalition – her own Christian Democratic Union; its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union; and the small liberal Free Democratic party – all produce regular initiatives to catch the public eye, before they are reminded of what is laid down in the coalition agreement.

Any attempt at a co-ordinated government “message” in the manner of the spin doctors of Tony Blair’s first Labour administrations is largely futile. Each minister competes for public profile. Each party wants to put its different spin on policy. Only after they have disagreed in public does Ms Merkel attempt to impose a semblance of order. She learned to “sit out” the debate from Helmut Kohl, the last CDU chancellor, until a consensus emerges.

All the parties are forced to compromise in negotiating the coalition agreement and the process continues throughout the administration. Ms Merkel’s first government, in 2005, was a “grand coalition” between the two big “people’s parties”, the CDU and Social Democrats (SPD). Although they could agree only a limited agenda, focused on constitutional change, they managed to take far-reaching decisions in office. One, the imposition of a rigid constitutional ceiling on public debt, is likely to haunt future administrations for years. Budget discipline tends to be something they all agree on.

Coalition government suits the workings of the European Union, where all decisions are compromises. UK negotiators in the EU, coming from the Punch-and-Judy politics of London, cannot adapt to slow consensus-building. They see all decisions in terms of victory or defeat. Yet forming coalitions with smaller countries is fundamental to the system. Germany is good at it.

The trend across Europe is towards more multiparty government. In both the UK and three days later in the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the big parties saw their share of the vote shrink ominously. In Britain, Conservative and Labour together totalled 64 per cent, compared with 98 per cent in 1955. In Germany, both CDU and SPD lost votes to smaller parties: the CDU dropped more than 10 percentage points to 34.6 per cent, its worst postwar result. The SPD was 6,000 votes behind on 34.5, down three points on its last result.

The Greens and the radical left Linke party in Germany have upset the arithmetic. More often than not, the big parties are unable to form politically coherent “centre-right” or “centre-left” coalitions. In NRW they may be forced into another grand bargain with each other, because the SPD-Green combination is two seats short of a majority.

The same is true in Britain. With or without electoral reform, the arrival of Scottish and Welsh nationalists, Greens, and the UK Independence party, plus the revival of the Liberal Democrats, means one-party government is a thing of the past. Even if this coalition proves short-lived, the politicians will be condemned to try the same again in future.

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