In recent weeks the state of relations in the Coalition has led some Lib Dems to express the fear (and some Conservatives to express the hope) that the public is turning against the whole notion of coalition. Perhaps the thought is that some commentators and voters might have initially believed that coalitions between parties would be intrinsically better than single-party government – some version of that naive and annoying mantra: "Why can't politicians stop their petty arguments, grow up and all work together for the national interest?" Since that mantra was always utter tripe, the kind of infantile idiocy people produce when they understand nothing whatever about policymaking or democratic politics (or, similarly, if they are Liberal Democrats), the folk that believed it were probably, if voters at all, not particularly influential ones.
There were a few variants of that bogus nonsense back in 2010, even amongst Conservative commentators, alas. [Have you worked out, yet, that I find this claim annoying? Being by definition wise readers, if only by your choice of reading material, you may have worked out that the mantra concerned is a direct and total rejection of adversarial politics, as such a rejection of the entire constitutional arrangements of the UK as they have developed these past eight hundred years, and hence the straightforward claim that almost everything I hold dear in politics is wrong. So I have my reasons for not treating it gently.] There were those that said it would be better to have the constraining hand of the Lib Dems to calm our wilder impulses and gentle our harsher schemes. They argued that the process of working with another party would intrinsically make politics more pragmatic. They appeared to believe that a Good Thing. I do not, and I especially think it wrong to seek pragmatism over ideology when we face such uncertain times as now. Without an ideological compass to guide you, Pragmatism is of no use when you are in waters not previously charted by Experience.
But none of the above entails the rejection of the principle of coalition. Every significant governing political party is a coalition. For example, I have argued before that the Conservative Party is an ever-shifting coalition of Whigs, Tories, Paternalists and Corporatists. The advantage of single-party government is not that one thereby avoids coalition, but that coalitions are worked out and proved (in the old sense of tested and tempered) before the General Election, so that voters get to commit to choosing something transparent and (hopefully) coherent, principled and practicable as opposed to the uncertain results of a post-election coalition negotiation, where voters did not choose it transparently and the package may be impracticable, incoherent and unsullied with underlying principle.
But even post-electoral coalition will be a perfectly sensible course sometimes – and it is a course the Conservative has gone down many times with a range of partners. Coalition isn't bad in general.
Coalitions can take two importantly distinct forms. They can be arrangements of practical necessity and convenience, for a limited period. Or they can be an attempt at the re-alignment of politics with previous parties (or parts of parties) combining on a long-term basis. As an example of the first case, the long list of German coalitions including the Free Democrats did not entail the absorption of the Free Democratic party into other parties. As an example of the second case, the National Liberals stayed with the Conservative Party long after the initial period of coalition and eventually the parties were fused.
One of the problems with the 2010 Coalition was that it was unclear what its architects had in mind. Was this simply a short-term arrangement of necessity, directed at seeing off a fiscal emergency? Or was it an attempt to realign British politics with the parties combining over the longer term?
Much of the rhetoric of the early days of the Coalition appeared to hint at the realignment concept. The Party leaders emphasized how much they had in common, philosophically as well as in respect of the urgent issues of the day. Yet I hope and believe it was inconceivable that the Conservative Party could ever compromise sufficiently with the Lib Dems on constitutional matters for a long-term arrangement to be sustainable. In truth, the Liberal Democratic party exists precisely to promulgate constitutional changes that the Conservative Party exists mainly to oppose. There is no serious element of the Lib Dems that is anti-proportional-representation, Eurosceptic, and that in general regards it as part of its mission to preserve the organically evolving traditions, culture and Establishment of the Whiggish mixed constitution. Conversely, although as a larger party the Conservatives are able to tolerate beliefs further from the core than are the Lib Dems, one cannot really envision a Conservative Party lasting long with any purpose that did not include some form of constitutional Conservatism.
And thus we come to the core Error of the Coalition. It would be (and is) simply impossible for the Conservative Party to accept compromising with the Lib Dems on those constitutional matters that the Lib Dems hold most dear. The Lib Dems fondly imagined that as soon as they held the balance of power, some other party would eagerly concede proportional representation and the vesting of the Lib Dems, Free Democrat-style, as permanent holders of that balance. But that could not be. The proper way to have formed a governing coalition with the Lib Dems should have been to concede to the Lib Dems the enactment of policies on health, welfare reform, education, and so on that they would want. The Lib Dems complain that they voted for tuition fee rises but Conservatives won't vote for electing the House of Lords. But it would have been infinitely better to have implemented whatever the Lib Dems wanted instead of tuition fees and never brought forward the Lib Dem version of Lords reform. I care deeply about education and health and welfare. But these are matters one can compromise over to form a coalition. Constitutional matters are not.
If there is to be a further phase of Coalition agreement, it should have the following elements:
a) The areas of common programme should be restricted to non-constitutional matters, and there should be a reasonable amount of give-and-take, with Lib Dems getting some of their manifesto policies or other ideas implemented on Green issues, education, health, and so on.
b) The Conservatives must not be restricted from bringing forward their own constitution-affecting schemes in areas such as Europe. It should simply be that the Lib Dems are not obliged to vote for them – they would be Conservative Bills, not government Bills. (That may mean that the government timetable needs to be reduced/contained, to provide enough space for important Conservative-sponsored Bills.)
A coalition based on compromising in areas where we can truly compromise is the way forward. Attempting to compromise on the uncompromisable is the quick route to failure and collapse.