Britain Is Now Governed By… Gasp… A Coalition!
I’ve now got used to thinking of David Cameron as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. From a personal perspective, it feels like a big change, considering that New Labour had previously held onto the Prime Minister’s office for essentially my entire adult life. Tony Blair, in the end, was in power for about as long as Jean Chrétien in Canada, and like Jean Chrétien he probably overstayed his welcome but stepped down soon enough that a hapless successor was left in the path of the swinging pendulum.
The parallels in recent electoral history between Britain and Canada extend well beyond this, and have hardly been lost on commentators. Britain seems almost to be following a script that was written in Canada some years ago, in which a centre-leftish party loses control of the House of Commons in an electon that leaves a centre-rightish party with a plurality of seats but not a majority. The result is what the British call a “hung parliament”, a term that might suggest to exasperated Canadians a delightful fantasy about stringing them all up and letting the gods sort them out.
One reason Canadians have been exasperated is that our politicians have simply not handled the situation very gracefully. I’ve seen a number of articles that have wryly compared the relentless partisan bickering and manoeuvring that we’ve all had to get used to with the seemingly polite and substantive negotiations that followed the British election. The spectacle of David Cameron of the Tories and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats launching their coalition with a playful press conference in the garden at Downing Street certainly made a nice change from watching Harper, Ignatieff and the others spit venom and petty accusations at each other.
However, I’m not sure that we should take recent events in the UK as an object lesson in how we might run our Canadian “hung parliament” more effectively. Most obviously, it’s early days yet for what some UK journalists are calling the “duopoly” of Cameron and Clegg, and there are plenty of Tories and Lib Dems who are less than fully committed to making the coalition work. The new government has already hit a bizarre snag over a proposal to increase the threshold for a no-confidence motion in the Commons to 55% of MPs, rather than the normal 50% plus one.
Furthermore, there is no real equivalent in Canadian politics to the Liberal Democrats, a third party espousing what strike me as broadly centre-left policies with a refreshing dash of civil libertarianism. Their coalition with the Tories was based on finding a degree of common ground that probably exists only between the Liberals and NDP in Canada, and the Liberals and NDP between them don’t have enough seats in the Commons to command a majority. Still, it would be nice if our politicians could imitate the constructive attitude that seems to be currently prevailing across the pond, even though a parallel parliamentary configuration is not possible at the moment. And if nothing else, Britain’s experience should help to defuse the horror of the very word “coalition” that seems to have seeped into sections of the Canadian media.
Despite my interest in the election’s implications for Canada, I certainly don’t look at British politics entirely through a Canadian lens. If Gilles Duceppe and Céline Dion are French Canadians, then I am more or less a British Canadian, especially considering that the British Isles are often considered to include Ireland. I’m interested in how things work out for Britain, and unfortunately I don’t see much reason for optimism in the new coalition government. David Cameron once famously described himself as the “heir to Blair”, and what I’ve read has done little to dispel the impression that he’s absorbed all the worst tendencies of New Labour: the squirmy political correctness, the blind, stupid obsession with change for its own sake, the endless media spin. (It’s telling that US President Barack Obama, who is practically the physical incarnation of those same banalities, was busily engaged in something approaching transatlantic fellatio within minutes of Cameron’s becoming prime minister.) Nick Clegg may be a little more substantive, but his fondness for the EU and for the idea of extending an amnesty to illegal immigrants amount to an assault on British sovereignty.
The Tories are likely to constrain Clegg’s more destructive impulses, and the two parties do seem to share a genuine desire to roll back the authoritarian excesses that were a miserable fact of life under New Labour. However, there’s a strong whiff of fecklessness about Clegg and Cameron, and I suspect that Britain will need far grittier and more determined leadership to turn its finances around and find its feet in the 21st century. But I hope, of course, to be proven wrong.