A coalition worth getting behind

David Cameron has been forced to earn the confidence of the House, not just assume it

A coalition worth getting behind

Alastair Grant/AP

Presumably the Tory press can now stand down. In the immediate aftermath of last week’s inconclusive British election, the headlines were filled with dread. “Now for the Shabby Deals,” the Daily Mail prophesied. When it seemed, some days later, Gordon Brown’s resignation might yet allow Labour to strike a power-sharing agreement with the Liberal Democrats to keep the Conservatives out, the tabloids’ worst fears appeared to have been confirmed. “This Shabby Stitch-up,” the Daily Express fumed, while the Mail was forced to reach for a new adjective: “A Squalid Day for Democracy.”

But now the Lib Dems have changed partners, the Tories are in, and all is well. Still, those of a less partisan bent were left with a bad taste in their mouths. The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson, for one. “What a miserable spectacle is unfolding in Britain,” he wrote at the height of the drama, aghast that “a party that won nine per cent of the seats” should wield such power, not only to pick the prime minister, but even to insist on reform of the electoral system as the price of their support. Yet wasn’t the past week the best advertisement against it? Should the Lib Dems get their fondest wish, he warned, and persuade the British public to switch to proportional representation, this sort of deal-making would become the norm.

Here’s hoping. Where the MailExpressSimpson sees only shabbiness and misery, I see magnificence: one of the finest hours for representative democracy I can recall. What we have just witnessed in Whitehall is the parliamentary system working exactly as it should—a prime minister being chosen by Parliament, on the basis of his ability to command the confidence of the House. Unlike most prime ministers, David Cameron has had to earn that confidence, not assume it; to assemble a majority, not to declare it.

It is true, as many critics have said, that the public did not vote for this. But the public did not vote for anything else, either. Certainly it did not vote for a hung Parliament, as pundits are in the habit of claiming, as if it were of a single mind and purpose. The public is in fact made up of many publics. Those who vote for any particular party do so, in most cases, in the firm hope that their party will form a majority. Rarely are their hopes realized; the electorate is usually too divided for that. Only for once the system reflected this. (The 36 per cent of the vote that held Cameron’s Tories to a minority was more than the 35 per cent that propelled Tony Blair to a majority in the last election.)

Faced with a fragmented electorate, MPs of all parties have gone about putting Humpty together again, piecing together a majority out of the shards of public opinion. It was to be expected this would be difficult. But after a time they succeeded. In a sense, they have been completing the work of the election: the two major parties having both failed in their quest to reach the median voter, the task was left to negotiations amongst MPs. The election may be regarded as having given them a mandate to negotiate, to reach the decision on a government that the electorate were unable to reach by themselves.

I say MPs, rather than party leaders, because that is very much what went on here. All three parties were sharply divided on the course they should pursue—the concessions they could or could not make, the coalition partners they could or could not take. Their leaders were forced to take these divisions into account, to consult, to reassure, to draw red lines around certain issues even as they negotiated on others. We are once again reminded of the usefulness of factions—groups of MPs of like mind, who gather together that they may better resist their leaders’ control. We could use a few of them in this country.

Shabby? I’ll tell you what would have been shabby: if the negotiations had been entirely a matter for the leaders and their advisers; if important and long-standing party principles had been cast overboard like so much ballast, or indeed if principles had been irrelevant to the discussion; if they had taken weeks about it; if they had failed. If, in short, British politicians carried on like their Canadian counterparts, that would have been shabby. But what I saw were serious people doing serious work. Evidently politics is still regarded as an important profession in Great Britain.

But wait a minute, Coyne, you appalling hypocrite. How can you celebrate this coalition, having been so critical of the last—the one the Liberals and NDP attempted to put together, with the support of the Bloc Québécois, in December 2008? But my point was not that the latter was illegitimate, only that it was unwise. And in any case there is a vast gulf that separates the two: for starters, between replacing a government that had just been elected, and one that had just been defeated. The British experiment in coalition government, moreover, shows every sign of stability, whereas the one headed by the Dion Liberals, desperate and vulnerable as they were, was guaranteed to fail. And of course, the present example is not dependent at every turn on the support of a party dedicated to the destruction of the country.

There’s coalitions, in short, and then there’s coalitions. This one’s not too shabby.