The politics of coalition
With due respect to its authors, the chances of a book published by UCL’s Constitution Unit is unlikely to prove a racy page-turner. But that is precisely the appeal of this book, edited by the unit’s director Robert Hazell and researcher Ben Yong: to reach a considered view of the behaviour and actions of the coalition, looking beyond the ephemera of the daily news cycle of coalition exposés and the constant chatter of armchair commentators.
Published at the beginning of this year, this book draws on extensive interviews with ministers, parliamentarians, advisers and officials in an exhaustive account of every aspect of the coalition’s life in power: from the arrangements which govern the coalition at the top of government, to the operation of individual departments and interdepartmental committees, the effects on the respective parties in parliament and in the country, and the changes coalition has brought to the relationship between government and parties with the media. Make no mistake – this is a dry, academic tome, with an avowedly academic voice. But the experiences shared by its varied cast of interviewees lighten its tone, and provide real insight into the detail of how Britain’s first peacetime coalition since the war works in practice for its participants. Often lengthy and almost always enlightening, the fact that many quotations are tantalisingly anonymous explains how the authors were able to induce such candour in those close to the heart of a government which is still in power.
The book opens with an account of the coalition’s formation, put, crucially, in the context of prior experience of coalitions in both British political history and in the recent past of many advanced democracies. The speed of the formation of the coalition is notable in comparison to many others – five days, set against a typical two to five months in many European countries – but what is most remarkable is how similar the rest of this coalition’s birth is to those elsewhere. From the length and scope of the coalition agreement to the new governance institutions put in place to police disputes to the pressures facing the major and minor partners, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is shown to be rather humdrum, and certainly unexceptional, in comparison to coalitions elsewhere.
The book’s surprises lie elsewhere. In particular, given the public narrative of the coalition since this year’s budget, it is notable how the book depicts the operation of the government as being relatively successful since the coalition’s formation. This is to an extent a result of it being published before the coalition’s recent difficulties, but it is difficult to ignore the facts laid out: ministers, advisers and officials alike describe their working practices and relationships to be harmonious and collegial. Inter-party disputes are largely dealt with informally through regular working groups and small meetings rather than in set-to confrontations, and there is a general sense that ministers from both coalition parties entered the government with the express wish that the coalition should succeed (although a cynic might reason that they knew that they would be judged harshly if one-upmanship caused it to fail).
Tellingly, politicians and officials alike often compare the concordant atmosphere of the coalition favourably with the experience under the last Labour government. To an extent this is understandable: civil servants are happier with governments which operate through cabinet and official channels, something which is more necessary under a coalition where there is formal acknowledgement of differences within government and a resultant need to obtain explicit approval from both partners for policies, while Tory and Lib Dem ministers sense an opportunity to define themselves against the perceived discord between personal factions in the Labour government. This illustrates an important point: ultimately all governments are coalitions, although most are comprised of a single party. In single-party governments differences of opinion, or of personal or tribal loyalty, are ignored or pursued covertly: in a multi-party coalition they cannot be. If as we hope the next election provides a Labour government with the majority needed to govern alone, there are perhaps lessons on how to manage inter-departmental and inter-personal relationships constructively from a government which was forced to face and deal with them.
Ultimately this work, while worthy and eminently useful as a comprehensive guide to the coalition’s first two years in office, will show its age rather quickly: when the curtain falls on the coalition it is the entirety of its history that will be judged, not just the period to the end of 2011. But a genuine and significant contribution to serious scholarship has been made here. The analysis of the formation of the coalition and the drafting of the coalition agreement is comprehensive, and will be drawn on in future histories; and if the authors are able to draw on the same cast of characters to write a full obituary of the coalition after its demise, they will be able to produce an authoritative and memorable account. In the meantime, it is well worth reading by those with a serious interest in the way Britain’s current government functions.
David Green is a member of Progress and a former Labour party organiser. David tweets @itsdavegreen