Coalition government has already changed British politics and our constitution. Now we need even more reformby Vernon Bogdanor / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
When David Cameron and Nick Clegg signed the coalition agreement on 10th May 2010, they were driven by complex motives. Ideological sympathy played a part; parliamentary arithmetic an even greater one. Whatever their reasons, the coalition is already having a dramatic effect on politics and the constitution. Some of that is healthy—but not all. For a start, the government faces real pressures to justify its legitimacy in response to cries that no one voted directly for it. Second, British electoral laws and principles of cabinet government must adapt even further to the deep social changes occurring in the country. Can the coalition deliver this?
An end to the realignment of the left
Even if the Clegg-Cameron government does not last, it has already had a profound effect on politics. Its immediate impact has been to call an abrupt halt to the project of a realignment of the left. That project was begun by Liberal leader Jo Grimond in the 1950s, and continued by his successors David Steel in the 1970s and Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s. Today, it is difficult for the Liberal Democrats to maintain that they are a party of the left, or that they could now become part of a new progressive alliance. Perhaps they will once again become not an anti-Conservative party but an anti-Labour party, as in the immediate postwar years under Liberal leader Clement Davies.
Yet, for that to happen, the two parties would have to fight the next election together—as some Conservatives have argued that they should. One newly elected Conservative MP, Nick Boles, published a book late last year, Which Way’s Up?: The Future for Coalition Britain and How to Get There, in which he argued there has been some ideological convergence between the two parties. This, he thinks, should be cemented by an electoral pact. His call was echoed by John Major in his Churchill lecture at Cambridge on 26th November 2010. The former prime minister hoped that “some way can be found to prolong co-operation beyond this parliament. It may be,” he mused, “that a temporary alliance will turn into a mini realignment of politics. After all, in a world that is changing so comprehensively, why should not politics change too? Neither party will admit that possibility at present, not least because it would upset their core vote but—if events turn out well for the coalition—I, for one, would not be surprised at that outcome.”