Timothy Garton Ash: Fair Britannia, Splashing Around in Coalition Waters

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University.]

In Berlin last weekend, people kept asking me about the May 6 British election and I kept asking them the German for “hung parliament.” None could help me. The German for “hung parliament” is simply “parliament,” because the proportional representation system the country adopted in 1949 routinely produces parliaments with no overall majority, the result so feared in Britain. At a quick count, the Federal Republic has had less than two years of single-party or tolerated minority government in the past 60. Yet it somehow fails to resemble the ghastly chaos with which conservative, popular British newspapers like the Daily Mail and The Sun are now trying to scare their readers....

Obviously, it does not follow that because you have a “hung” parliament like Germany, you will end up with German economic success, any more than it follows that you will end up with Italian political instability – or Italian food, for that matter. But Germany does show that you can have an effective economic policy with a coalition; and Greece shows that you can have a lousy one with a clear single-party majority. It all depends who does it and how....

As a recent study from the British Academy’s new policy centre shows, the first-past-the-post system worked reasonably well back in 1951, when 97 per cent of the vote went to Conservatives or Labour. In the 2005 general election, those two parties got just 69 per cent between them. This gradual erosion of two-party politics has been turned into a mudslide by popular revulsion at the recent MP expenses scandal.

So this may not be the perfect moment, but it is where Britain is now. Unless there is a major shift in the last week of the campaign, it will have a “hung parliament.” Then, British politicians will need to start behaving more like Germans – but without clear rules, without experience of the game and 10 times faster....

Whether this is a formal coalition or a tolerated minority government, there must be agreement on a way forward on electoral reform and a way forward on public finances. After a half-century of unjust exclusion, the Liberal Democrats would be both mad and wrong not to insist on the former; the national interest demands the latter. The lead British analyst for Moody’s credit rating agency recently told the Financial Times that a fiscal plan agreed to by coalition “could actually be quite positive, because it would imply broad popular support.” But the politicians will have to get there, and fast – to a place they have never been before, while committing to spending cuts for which none have prepared the British public.

And that is only the beginning. They will then have to make up a whole new way of doing politics, as they go along, without any rulebook to guide them. It should be quite a ride.

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