Mark Fox writes is Chief Executive of the Business Services Association and a former Parliamentary Candidate. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Coalition governments, governments with small majorities, governments with no majority at all are not new or indeed unusual in British politics. Smallish majorities with regular changes of government are the ‘norm’ in our history, not the exception. Between 1977 and 1979 James Callaghan governed with a rolling coalition around issues, which may well be the model for the next parliament.
Winston Churchill led a coalition government for a period when he was not a party leader. Ramsey Macdonald led a coalition composed mainly of opposition party MPs.
Our system of “first past the post” delivers winners in each constituency. A leader of each party is chosen by members of that party. The person who can command a majority in the House of Commons on key votes becomes the Prime Minister. It is a stable system which has delivered democratic government for over a hundred years.
Leaders and governments come and go. It is healthy that it should be this way. We see in local government where one party dominates over a long period of time it is unhealthy for the party concerned and the administration delivered.
In Scotland, it is the effective collapse of multi-party politics rather than a significant rise in nationalism that led to the rise of the SNP. It remains the case that the Conservative Party should put much more effort in at national level to re-establishing itself in the Scottish political landscape. It should not just be left to the Scottish Conservative Party.
Much more unusual in the British experience are the repeated landslide general election victories of Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair. Clement Atlee’s 1945 victory was the response to a unique social and political period. But it is these recent results that continue to condition the thinking of so much of the comment and analysis of the current political scene. We have become lazily used to having one dominant party in government, and this has not been healthy for either good government or for the two main parties.
As the parties have struggled to attract voters and members so criticism of the system has grown. Increasingly we hear “Westminster is out of touch” or “Westminster style politics puts people off” as if “Westminster” was a sort of separate living being all of its own, uncontrollable and self-directing. Criticising Westminster has become a comfortable displacement activity. It has become a convenient myth promulgated by those who are unable or unwilling to develop a persuasive and compelling policy platform for their party.
In so doing, these Westminster-bashers, latter day political flat-earthers, are distracting us from the real challenge of British politics and undermining the democratic institution that protects us from dictatorship.
The SNP and UKIP demonstrate that people will go out and vote, and will listen to politicians who address the issues that concern them. But it is not good enough to just pander to people’s fears and worries. Serious national political leadership requires an ability to draw people together, to build coalitions of broadly-based popular support around key economic and social issues. It requires reaching out into and across the country in a bold and confident fashion. It is the antithesis of a core vote strategy.
It is also dangerous, too. Our democracy rests on the broadly based acceptance that those elected to the House of Commons have a legitimate role to play and even if we did not vote for the government in power we broadly accept the laws that are passed and the leadership that is offered.
One of the most insidious aspects of Alex Salmond’s independence referendum campaign was his use of the word “Westminster” as one of abuse. A professional politician all his life, he fed off and stoked the resentment felt by many about a government that seemed remote from the everyday lives of the Scottish people. Actually, what he was doing was effectively undermining the democratic process that governs the United Kingdom – and that was his purpose to de-legitimise Parliament. He was all too effective and the long-term consequences have yet to be properly worked through. That danger though exists in other, more subtle forms, too.
Politics thrives on the competitive clash of ideas, passions and visions. To be healthy and vibrant we need politicians actively competing for our time and attention. We need them to provoke us, engage us, irritate us and challenge us. We need them to be brave and bold, and to feel insecure and anxious so they do not become complacent or take our support for granted.
Our voting system and model of government will deliver a Prime Minister and a government. The government maybe composed formally of a multi-party coalition. It may be a government that builds coalitions in the House of Commons on a an issue-by-issue basis. But we will have a government. When it ceases to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister and the government will fall and we will have another General Election – whatever the fiction of the fixed-term Parliament legislation nonsense may suggest.
The important thing is we get to choose inside a system in which we can and should have confidence. In the meantime we must jealously guard our democracy from those that spin the seductive but spurious line that all would be well if only we changed the system.