Published in December 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
Coalition or cabal
In the mid-1990s your celebrated book The State We’re In met the intellectual needs of a country governed by a party running out of steam. But on 2nd May 1997, within hours of the election result, removal vans arrived in Downing Street. John Major announced he was off to the Oval. It was the clean break for which you and the nation had yearned.
At first, you were bowled over by the wonderment of it all. The Observer declared that it was “The Paper for the New Era.” But before long your rebellious spirits reasserted themselves. After a brief honeymoon, the Observer did not flinch from criticising the new government. You seem to feel instinctively that there may come a time, however far off, when Tony Blair, too, will deserve the removal van treatment.
But if we implement the system recommended by Roy Jenkins, general elections will only exceptionally lead to the dismissal of sitting governments. The usual result will be the coalition negotiations which have wearied the public in so many countries with proportional representation (PR). The role of elections is to provide a means to elect and, more important, to dismiss a government. This is a more basic function than electing individual MPs.
Since the second world war, British elections have led to the dismissal of the sitting premier roughly once every eight years (1945, 1951, 1964, 1970, 1974, 1979 and 1997). Only once has the incoming government lacked an overall Commons majority (February 1974). Under the Jenkins scheme, nine out of 14 elections since 1945 would probably have resulted in hung parliaments and coalition governments. Liberals would have been in office and would have been able to determine the identity of the premier nine times. Paddy Ashdown and his predecessors would have used their pivotal role to demand fully-fledged PR, which would have allowed them to act as king-makers every time. Any unpopular premier could have remained in power provided he offered sufficient goodies to the Liberal leader in the post-election coalition dealings. (Is this Tony Blair’s “insurance policy” for 2006?)