Election result probably worst possible one for Britain


Britain needs a strong and united government to deal with its financial crisis, writes GARRET FitzGERALD

I HAVE to say that the British election result shows every sign of being the worst of all outcomes for the United Kingdom – subject to one possibility which has in the past seemed a rather remote possibility – viz. a coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

For, not since the second World Wart has Britain been in so great a need of a strong and united government – in this case to tackle belatedly its grave financial crisis, about which all three of its main parties have spent the last month remaining almost totally silent.

When parliament meets in less than two weeks time, it might, of course, be possible for Gordon Brown, or an alternative Labour leader, in conjunction with Liberal Democrat support, to knock together a government that would accord him a parliamentary majority

Leaving abstentionist Sinn Féin out of the arithmetic, if all of the more than half-a-dozen other parties and Independent MPs were to agree to vote for such a Labour leader, he could secure a majority of about thirty over the Conservatives. And even if, for example, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, or alternatively the DUP, were to vote with the Conservatives against the Labour leader of such a government because it refused to pay the price that either these Scottish/Welsh or Northern Ireland parties would demand for such support, there would still be a bare majority for such a Labour-led government.

But there is every sign that any such government would have to, depend on at least one Celtic fringe party – if I may apply that description to the DUP as well as the Scottish and Welsh nationalists! – that would be seeking exemption from impending financial cuts. Such a government would thus lack credibility in its primary and crucial task of sorting out Britain’s carefully obscured financial and economic crisis. Similarly a minority Conservative government without Lib Dem support would also be dependent on all the Celtic fringe parties seeking exemption from the spending cuts which would then be imposed only on England.

That is why this election result is potentially the worst possible for Britain.

At the same time one has to face the fact that three major obstacles could stand in the way of the only alternative – a Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance or coalition.

First of all the Liberal Democrats could hardly be expected to pass up a unique opportunity to achieve their ultimate goal of a more proportional electoral system, the concession of which David Cameron would find it very hard to concede – and perhaps impossible to sell to his party.

Even if he could accept such a deal, would it be possible for the Conservatives to agree to enact that electoral revolution without a prior referendum – or could the Liberal Democrats agree to leave their prime goal to be subject to the outcome of such a popular vote?

Next, and equally important from a Liberal Democrat point of view, what kind of assurance could Cameron offer to the Liberal Democrats that he would not use his power as prime minister to seek a dissolution in advance of the enactment of a new and more proportional electoral system?

Finally, how could the diametrically opposed Conservative and Liberal Democrat views on Europe be reconciled, or at least buried for the duration of such an alliance or government? David Cameron has seemed to suggest that by changing his position to one of opposition to new EU commitments he could get out of his almost certainly undeliverable commitment to secure the unanimous agreement – and it would of course have to be unanimous – of all Britain’s 26 EU partners to several fresh opt-outs from the European treaties, could he ever sell such a deal to his Europhobic party?

Despite his failure to secure an overall majority in this election, David Cameron now almost certainly has it in his power not just to become prime minister but, as a consequence of that, to save the British economy in its hour of need. But the price for him and his party would be very high – and his leadership capacity within what is a very fractious party would be severely tested.

Might he instead be tempted to let this chalice pass for the moment – leaving it instead to Gordon Brown or a new Labour leader to cobble together a non-viable alliance involving a coterie of parties which would be unable to tackle Britain’s financial and economic crisis – so that after a consequential second election the Conservatives might sweep to power with the clear majority that they have been denied on this occasion? For Britain’s sake I hope such a delaying tactic will not be adopted.

Finally, have you ever wondered why this antiquated system of electing a parliament by placing an X opposite a person’s name has survived in Britain for so long. In most countries it disappeared long ago. For. with this system, if the political allegiance of voters in different parts of a country were evenly distributed geographically, one party could win almost all the seats – as happened in Canada some years ago when a defeated government ended up with only two seats in parliament.

This system has survived in Britain only because that has never happened there. And this is because of the uneven geographical division between areas that in the 16th century adhered to the Church of England and to dissenting Protestant churches, later reinforced by the Industrial Revolution behind the Tory/Whig, and later Conservative/Labour political division. Because of this historical quirk, each side always retains a fair number of seats, even when it loses considerable political ground nationally. It is ultimately because of those long-forgotten religious divisions in Britain that what happened in Canada never happens in the neighbouring island – so this antiquated voting system has been able to survive – until now.