I have been reminding myself of the political history of coalition governments in recent times. There has been more of it than is commonly realised. In pre war Britain there was considerably more: thirteen out of twenty five years. These governments were born of crisis; the result of a lack of national confidence, of war and economic depression. These crises render it difficult to assess the effectiveness. of coalition governments. Arguably they lengthened and deepened the Great Depression and coalition foreign policy did nothing to deter the Fascist threat to world peace, and their defence policies weakened Britain’s ability to defend itself. It is wrongly believed by political opinion today that Conservative dominated governments are committed to effective defence and robust foreign policy – a recollection associated with Winston Churchill – but the facts speak otherwise. Even in more recent times Conservatism has led to weak defence policy and the run-down of our armed forces.
However, a balanced judgement of the effectiveness of these coalitions would give them a fair-wind. On the whole they have been popular and when tested in the polls they have consistently scored 52-57 percent of the vote (very similar to the current Coalition rating of 55 percent). While the thirties were a bad time for the numerous unemployed they were thought of favourably by those in work: rising real standards of living and falling house prices benefited the middle classes and the employed and Britain and Britons dozed while Europe descended into chaos and dictatorship.
In the end these coalitions failed and the causes and circumstances of failure were common. The crises that created them were resolved and when given the opportunity of severance the parties that constiuted them reverted to their tribal loyalties. Goodbyes were said without regret. Who lost out? Liberals have always been the losers and the Conservative Party the winners. (1931 and 1945 are obvious exceptions). Although coalition in 1931 propped up the Labour Party more often than not it was the loser. The Conservatives always gained.
The Lib Dems in entering this present Coalition are propping up and de-toxifying the Conservatives (thank you very much). But they are flirting with disaster. They have bought some period of time of time in government and a chance to influence policy but they risk many more years of ineffectiveness. But none of this is inevitable. History tells us that in the end it is the individual who shapes destiny. Providing the Lib Dems stick close to the Tories and its leadership exercises good judgement, and given the chemistry between Clegg and Cameron, some element of Liberalism will stick to government and thus Lib Dems will have influence, perhaps, for more than one Parliament : a new breed of Con/Lib, National Lib/Con politicians will arise. But goodbye Lib Dem councillors, farewell Scotland, Wales and northern Britain and hello southern and western England.
The sixty four million dollar question is how long will this Coalition last given that its days are numbered? It depends on you, dear citizen, and on the ability of the Labour party to rebuld itself and become relevant to the future. It must get its head out of the last thirteen years if it is to mount a challenge. In many ways they were good years and Labour can be proud of its achievements but it is no longer the time for gazing at one’s naval. The time has come the walrus said to think of other things. Go on then , think of them.