The Great Experiment

With David Cameron installed as prime minister on Tuesday evening, for the first time in almost seventy years the United Kingdom has a coalition government again. Will it hold?

Elections in early May produced a hung parliament with the Conservatives just twenty seats short of a majority. Negotiations between Labour and the minority Liberal Democrats reportedly broke down on Tuesday which paved the way for Tory leader David Cameron to ascend to 10 Downing Street. He was asked by Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government in her name after eight o’clock GMT that same day.

In his first speech as prime minister, Cameron admitted that Britain suffers “deep, pressing problems,” including a huge budget deficit, a mounting sovereign debt as well as a “political system in need of reform.” It seems likely that some sort of agreement has been reached with the liberals on remodeling Britain’s electoral systems which currently denies them proportionate representation in Parliament. At the last election, the party won 23 percent of the national vote but just 9 percent of the seats. Instant runoff voting, also known as alternative voting (AV), is something that might be considered.

The next government’s foremost priority will be to get spending under control and prevent Britain’s already record debt from skyrocketing. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are well aware of the need of reform. According to David Cameron on Wednesday, under Labour the country endured “a chronic short-termism in government.” The next five years, he promised, would allow long-term decisionmaking.

On foreign policy and defense there may be greater discord. The liberals have campaigned against renewing the Trident nuclear defense system, arguing that it belongs to a different era. Both Labour and Conservatives warned against unilateral disarmament however. Some sort of compromise, including defense reform but nothing too significant to upset old guard Conservatives, will likely be worked out.

Unlike the Tories, Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly pro-Europe and favor joining the eurozone eventually. Party leaders have agreed that Britain won’t give up the pound during this Parliament. Whether the country will nonetheless seek a more active place in EU politics remains to be seen.

Commentators have been quick to point out possible causes for future consternation. Writing for the Times, Daniel Finkelstein notes that by allying himself with the Liberal Democrats, “Cameron has the potential to lift himself and the party above normal partisan politics.” He may emerge as a national leader and transform his party in the process to be seen as “broader, more generous, more capable of listening and of compromise.” But there is the danger that this coalition could split the Tories. Both Tim Bale at The Guardian and Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic predict grumbling on the right with Cameron possibly conceding too to Nick Clegg’s party. Barry Legg is more assertive. “David Cameron,” he believes, “has sold out the Tory Party.”

From whipping Tory MPs through in support of a referendum on AV, the number and nature of cabinet places he’s going to give to the liberals, to surrendering the bedrock of the Westminster system — by giving way on fixed parliaments — Cameron gains office but not power.

Liberal Democrat voters may not be happy either, suggests Jackie Ashley. Before anything else, they wanted to keep David Cameron out of 10 Downing Street. “This isn’t what they voted for.”

James Joyner at New Atlanticist takes a more nuanced view. He notes that the British people overwhelmingly rejected Gordon Brown, not Cameron. For Labour to remain in government would have appeared illegitimate. Indeed, according to E.J. Dionne, that’s exactly why Labour didn’t actually want to stay in power.

As unusual as the current coalition may seem, according to Joyner, “it really couldn’t have gone the other way.”

It would have been simply bizarre [for the Liberal Democrats] to have run as an alternative to Labour and then form a government that kept Labour in charge.

What’s more, David Cameron didn’t really “sell out” to Nick Clegg. Alternative voting doesn’t really undermine the Westminster system. Appointing several liberal secretaries won’t undermine conservative policy. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have already agreed to drop plans for a “mansion tax” on properties costing more than £2 million and to a cap on non-European immigration.

But the most important tasks ahead include social and economic reform and on these issues, there has been no evidence of infighting between the coalition partners as of yet.

The coalition agreement makes specific mention of the “substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government” and promises to “roll back state intrusion.” Nick Clegg on Wednesday announced that it would be this government’s “simple and yet profound ambition” to “put real power and opportunity into the hands of people, families and communities to change their lives and our country for the better.” That, said Clegg, is what liberalism is all about and it perfectly echoes the “big society” rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservative Party.


  1. The UK would be well advised to study all the proposed reforms in great detail before implementing so complex and confusing a voting method as IRV/STV.

    Many communities in the US that adopted IRV are dumping it – and it doesn’t always ensure majority winners. It’s very complex to administer. Geeze – your country can’t even make sure that everyone who is registered to vote can vote because you don’t print up enough ballots for everyone. You don’t want to pass up such an easy fix to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  2. Learn from Scotland’s lessons. Scotland switched from hand counted paper ballots to computerized voting machines for the first time when implementing STV in May, 2007. They decided to use different electoral systems and voting procedures. The results of so many changes and a complex ballot resulted in a loss of 100,000 ballots and voter confidence.

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