Themes and Trends from the British Election: Part I

After waiting a few weeks to see how it would all shake out, I remain quite pleased with the outcome of the British election. The David Cameron-/Nick Clegg-led coalition seems to be functioning both effectively and efficiently, having presented its main aims while in office in the May 25th Queen’s Speech and managed to find a way to compromise on hot-button election issues like Europe and voting reform – at least for now. While coalitions in general are often seen as failures-in-waiting, or awkward combinations of strange bedfellows who can’t stand each other for long, such a future is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

There are a few encouraging themes and trends that have come out of this election and subsequent government, and a few I wanted to highlight as potential cause for concern. I’ll start in today’s post with what I see as the positives:

  • The coalition narrows focus.

No government can accomplish everything. Past governments – and, more importantly, voters – seemed to understand this. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s Speech from the Throne after he took office in 1896, for example, was about half a page long, and discussed the forthcoming compromise to the Manitoba Schools Question (regarding whether English and French/Catholicism would both be taught in schools in the province), and a minor tariff.  Student council presidents set out longer and more ambitious plans today.

Yet a large part of the trouble with modern elections is that they are never really fought over one issue, but many. The British one, for example, had several major themes, including the fiscal deficit, immigration, Britain’s supposed “broken society,” irresponsible MPs, and the ever-present concern over education funding and support for the NHS. Political parties want to be everything to their voters, even when those things are contradictory.  And they inevitably disappoint when they are unable to radically change society as they say they set out to do.

But it seems that this government has a natural focus, given that its main players had to agree upon key priorities before they even took office together. In the British political Venn diagram, there are many ideological areas in which the Tories and Lib Dems overlap, particularly when it comes to the best way to deal with the current financial situation. It’s refreshing to see that, in the areas in which they don’t agree, they are staying relatively silent – for now. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this narrowing of focus will result in a more efficient government that can overcome the stereotypes of bureaucracy and actually achieve the major reforms that are necessary.

  • There is a new emphasis on commonalities over differences.

I’ve never really believed that political parties line up neatly on a spectrum, especially if we take an international view. (Try explaining to a devout American Democrat, for example, why it would in many ways be ideologically analogous to vote Tory in Canada. Impossible task.) Each country has its own quirks, and the plurality of special interest groups masquerading as national political parties in modern elections makes a two-dimensional continuum an especially outdated concept.

Canada, for example, has intense regionalism which colours all party politics, so that a moderate might as likely vote Liberal in British Columbia as Conservative in Ontario, all the while believing in essentially the same basic tenets of sensible fiscal policy and social freedom. But a moderate in Quebec will often vote for the Bloc Quebecois, because that party is able to take a popular stand that makes sense to a broad base of people and distinguish itself from the other main parties on a single issue (namely, separation).

I abhor this explosion of single-issue politics, as it creates an artificial divide between ideological positions that are actually quite similar. In the American context, for example, this hair-splitting has reached an almost farcical level, with the rest of the world looking on in disbelief as two parties that are both far to the ideological right of the rest of the world bicker over to what extent the Bible can be taken literally or which ignorant, nativist bigot can more legitimately be styled a “conservative.” These of course are the burning questions that affect our world in 2010, no?

In Britain, the political “spectrum” can more easily be conceived of as a triangle. Labour under Tony Blair moved quite far toward the right, and David Cameron, a self-styled Blair follower, brought the Tories out of the still-unpopular Thatcher/Major territory and planted himself some distance to the left of his predecessors. The Lib Dems float about in the middle of the two, but somehow the three have not landed on top of each other on a political continuum. They all have different opinions about Europe, nuclear deterrence, and education, for example, and they never completely agree.

But with the coalition comes the promise of some kind of appreciation that there are many basic beliefs that the Tories and Lib Dems hold in common, and that their supporters do too. Hopefully this will set the example that in politics, as in life, people who have differences of opinion can still work together effectively keeping in mind the things they do agree on.

  • This is an opportunity for the post-election mudslinging to happen behind closed doors.

Hopefully Labour’s defeat, and Cameron and Clegg’s exemplary harmonious relationship, will teach its MPs that the public airing of dirty laundry about a leader – no matter how Scottish and growly and supposedly unable to run the country – will get you nowhere. Electoral mutiny is unacceptable and unwise in a first-past-the-post system that gives equal weight to a vote for a local MP or national leader. M. Bernier, you might be wise to take note of this as well.

What do you make of the new government? Are you as hopeful as I am about the prospect of government actually achieving something? Will this coalition pave the way for future amicable multi-party cabinets? And could other democracies learn something from Britain?

Stay tuned – Part II comes tomorrow.

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