Harmony at the heart of the British coalition
WORLD VIEW:A new study finds the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is bold and decisive
THE STORY of every coalition government, no matter the country, is the same – one where outsiders look daily for evidence of splits and divisions among people who must co-operate yet must also struggle to maintain their independence.
For its first 18 months, despite the perception often created by a British press uncomfortable with, if not downright virulently opposed to coalitions, the British government has been more peaceful than could have been imagined in May 2010.
The story behind ministerial doors is told by a remarkable book, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, published this week by University College London’s highly respected Constitution Unit.
Since shortly after the coalition’s formation, its researchers have been allowed extraordinary access inside the corridors of power to observe the internal workings of Britain’s first coalition government for 65 years.
“Watching them in action quickly exploded the British myth that coalition government must be unstable, weak and indecisive,” says Prof Robert Hazell, who co-authored the book with Dr Ben Yong. “This one was remarkably bold and decisive – and at the centre, remarkably harmonious.”
Based on interviews with more than 140 ministers, MPs, lords, civil servants, party officials and interest groups about the coalition, the book vaporises a few myths, notably that the Liberal Democrats – the smallest of the three main parties – had been the best prepared for the days after the election.
“That is not correct: they prepared well for a hung parliament, they did not prepare well for government,” say the authors, even though senior Liberal Democrats had established a negotiating team by late 2009.
“I think we were good at working out what we wanted from the coalition government. I don’t think we were very good at working out what we wanted out of government,” one Liberal Democrat minister commented.
Exhaustion played its part. The party’s negotiators strove to agree a programme for government with the Conservatives, while crowds of journalists and the public waited outside the cabinet office on Whitehall for white smoke.
Having focused on policies, the smaller party paid less attention to the mechanics of government needed to give voice to them and even less to the division of portfolios – despite the perception that politicians think only about jobs.
Faced with a choice, the Liberal Democrats opted to spread their ministers across government, to ensure they had eyes everywhere, rather than focusing on key departments that they could make their own.
“By part three of it, which was bums on seats, [Liberal Democrats leader] Nick [Clegg] did it completely on his own. I think we got a completely duff deal,” says one minister.