If the current Coalition government lasts its full five-year term, it has now passed its midway point. In the Number 10 rose garden press conference which announced the Coalition, Nick Clegg proclaimed ‘a new kind of government; a radical, reforming government.’ All changes are nowadays called ‘reforms’, and opinions differ as to whether the changes being made to universities or the health service, for example, are ‘radical’, and if so, whether for better or worse. However, we can clearly state that this form of government is not new. In fact, British history has many examples of liberals and radicals ‘selling their souls’ to the Conservatives in exchange for a share of power, always, I would argue, with sorry consequences.
An early parallel?
In the 1780s, King George III’s efforts to reassert royal power against a Whig-dominated parliament lay thwarted with the loss of the American colonies. William Pitt the Younger was a brilliant orator (who would certainly have won any TV debates going) from an impeccably Whig family background – but in his early 20s he was just too young to lead the Whig grandees. So George and Pitt decided (as today’s Coalition would put it) ‘to work together in the national interest’. George made Pitt Britain’s youngest-ever prime minister, before or since, initially without a parliamentary majority but ruling in the king’s name, and he proceeded to form the coalition that became the modern Conservative Party.
According to William Hague’s highly sympathetic (but otherwise impeccable) biography, Pitt was a radical liberal thinker who pretty well invented notions of international law and was a close (if long-ineffective) friend of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner. But brought to office to bolster royal power, Pitt soon found himself required to resist the contagion of the French Revolution: he connived in the dismemberment of Poland to build his anti-French coalition, and led the country into a 20-year war against France – a war which long-outlived him. He invented an unprecedented array of new taxes to pay for it, further squeezing living standards at a time when the early phases of the industrial revolution and the revolutionary spirit of the age were already creating discontent.
The Tory coalition which Pitt created was in power for nearly 50 years – the era of the Peterloo Massacre, the Luddites, and rotten boroughs. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were prosecuted under Pitt’s repressive laws.
History repeats itself
After Pitt, there were other ambitious radical leaders who, for one reason or other, persuaded their followers to throw in their lot with the Conservatives, ditching their radicalism in the process, weakening their erstwhile parties and allowing the Conservatives power they might not otherwise have enjoyed.
In the 1880s, Joseph Chamberlain, a vigorous supporter of property taxation and fairer taxes in general, broke with Gladstone’s Liberals on the issue of Irish home rule. From the early days of widespread suffrage in Ireland, the great majority of the Irish had voted Nationalist, and Gladstone, after trying much else, had come to see what we would now call devolution as the only adequate response to their grievances. To Chamberlain this dent to national unity (albeit a forced unity) was unacceptable, and ultimately of greater importance than all his old radical beliefs. He and his supporters blocked ‘home rule’ and allied themselves with the Conservatives. Before long, his Liberal Unionists were swallowed up by the Conservative party, giving them nearly 20 years of rule, along with the more dubious gifts of a highly sectarian brand of unionism, and protectionism.
In 1916, the Welsh firebrand Lloyd George (who in his time had opposed the Boer War, introduced old-age pensions, and invented Supertax to pay for them), became disillusioned with Asquith’s ineffective prosecution of the first world war. In alliance with the Conservatives, who had recently joined the coalition, he became prime minister and led the country to a decisive, if bloody and costly, victory. In the negotiations which produced the treaty of Versailles, he connived with Clemenceau in imposing the impossibly penal conditions on Germany which fatally weakened the democratic Weimar Republic from the outset and set the scene for Hitler’s rise to power. With his new Conservative allies, he outmanoeuvred President Wilson (who wanted a peace based consistently on national self-determination) to expand the British and French Empires to their greatest ever historical extent, colonising most of the Middle East in particular, with disastrous consequences that persist to this day. After the war, this one-time opponent of imperialist wars encouraged Greece to attack Turkey in its weakened and defeated state, a war that backfired and led to a huge ethnic cleansing of Greeks from Asia Minor, where they had lived for centuries. He imposed first the Black and Tans, then partition, on Ireland. At home, he decimated public spending in a process immortalised as the ‘Geddes Axe’, to which the current Coalition’s plans have been compared. Lloyd George didn’t last long as the head of this coalition, as within six years the Conservative backbenchers had overthrown him, in the Westminster coup still celebrated in the name of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee. But the lasting domestic effect was the destruction of the Liberals as a party capable of forming a government and long period of effective Conservative hegemony.
Two periods of Labour government interrupted the Conservatives’ hold on political power, but did little to disturb their economic policy. And in 1931 Ramsay MacDonald followed the pattern of Pitt, Chamberlain and Lloyd George. Faced with the economic crisis unleashed by the Wall Street crash and the failure of banks across the world, conventional opinion had no doubt of the cure for the resulting depression – public spending had to be cut (again). With the Labour government divided on the issue, Ramsay MacDonald formed a ‘national government’, which although headed by him and with national Liberal and Labour ministers and supporters, was an essentially conservative administration. While Roosevelt pursued his New Deal and Hitler rearmed, the National Government eschewed Keynesianism and – soon with Conservative prime ministers at the helm – presided over the ‘hungry thirties’ until the second world war.
Coming closer to the present day, the defection of the Social Democrats from Labour in the early 1980s can perhaps be counted as a half-example of this pattern. They didn’t of course go into coalition with the Conservatives, but by dividing the centre-left vote, and weakening Labour, they helped Margaret Thatcher to gain her huge majorities on a minority percentage share of the vote. The failure of the Social Democrats to survive, however, did follow historical precedent – they were swallowed up by the then centrist Liberal party.
Why do these coalitions form?
An interesting aspect of all these historical examples is that they challenge the Conservatives’ claim that they are the natural party of government. If that is true, it is in large part because at crucial times they have had help from outside their ranks to gain and sustain power. Since the party was founded, the Conservatives have been in government more often than not. But since the Disraeli, the only time they have governed alone, or at least without the luxury of a hopelessly divided opposition, was in the Keynesian ‘one nation’ 1950s when they had bought into the post-war consensus.
So while it may be the case that Britain is an instinctively conservative country, and while the Conservatives have been able to use fear in times of crisis to their advantage, the British people have never quite seemed ready in a crisis to give right-wing leaders, from George III to David Cameron, their wholehearted trust. This explains the Conservatives’ need, and motivation, to form coalitions.
But what drives the radical leaders and their followers? Clearly, there is the lure of power. But also, it seems that these leaders are amenable to the notion that external threats or an economic crisis make the progressive positions they previously adopted untimely or unaffordable.
To echo Mrs Thatcher, these people have been convinced that ‘there is no alternative’. And yet there usually are alternatives, and often there are better ones. Britain, an emerging constitutional monarchy, could have tried to befriend and moderate the French Revolution, rather than destroy it. Ireland could have been granted home rule in the 19th century, saving much trouble in the 20th. Britain could have shown more consistency of democratic principle, and more magnanimity, at Versailles. And she could certainly have adopted more expansionary economic policies to combat the difficulties of the 1920s and 1930s, which would have avoided a lot of misery.
It’s also true, of course, that there was an alternative to the draconian deficit reduction programme introduced by the Coalition in 2010. But played out against the background of the Greek financial tragedy, the Whitehall farce in the interval between the 2010 election and the formation of the current Coalition was in line with precedent.
For example, the 1931 ‘national government’ was formed for the explicit purpose of ‘saving the gold standard’ (that is, preserving sterling at an over-valued fixed exchange rate). Once that had been achieved, there would be a return to normal party-politics. A few weeks later, sterling left the gold standard, but the national government stayed on. Sidney Webb complained, ‘no-one told us we could do that’.
As with ‘saving the gold standard’ in 1931, the Coalition’s attempt to pay down the national debt prematurely is proving ineffective.
The historical periods of Conservative coalition have been lengthy (although in the longer view these periods are getting shorter) and usually end dramatically in a decisive progressive ‘moment’ – with the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Liberal electoral landslide of 1906 and Labour’s victories in 1945 and 1997.
In the end what has spelled the end for these coalitions has been a combination of the accumulated discontents against their failing policies, the stale recipes of long-standing incumbents, and a removal of the overriding fear (whether real or contrived) which brought them to power in the first place.
In the current context, the public have accumulated a fair amount of discontent in a short time. They are slowly becoming less paranoid about debt, and more reflective upon the pain of austerity, and its failure to work. But they have not caught up intellectually, even with the IMF, in their willingness to explore alternatives rationally. Even those Labour figures who understand Keynesian economics (which, in intellectual terms, the experience of the last few years has conclusively vindicated) seem wary of expounding it wholeheartedly. That is the Coalition’s biggest hope for survival.
In the long run, history suggests that the Liberal Democrats will ultimately pay a heavy price for joining the Conservatives in coalition. Less easy to predict are the long-term consequences for the Tories. Unlikely coalitions have kept them in power for long periods, but the results, even on their own terms, have been decidedly mixed. The party always seems to emerge in better shape than its partners, but that may not be enough to secure a Conservative victory in 2015 – in fact, the polls are beginning to suggest otherwise. There are useful lessons in history, but the future remains to play for.