Sunday 14 December 2008
Alan Watkins: This is not the time for sharing
Many a government has ignored calls for a coalition, and this one will behave no differently
"England does not love coalitions," so Benjamin Disraeli said in 1852. The events of the succeeding century have borne this out. What has happened in the past few months has produced few calls for a coalition. Mr Frank Field has spoken in its favour; that is about all.
At the time of the party conferences there was a rhetoric of national unity, emanating chiefly from the Conservatives. This was because Mr David Cameron did not know quite which way to jump. The matter has now been resolved, at any rate to Mr Cameron's satisfaction, and to that of Mr George Osborne as well. Following the news of Mr Osborne's summer adventures in foreign parts, he had suffered a drop in his political fortunes. He is now restored to full, intolerable health and vigour.
Mr Cameron is playing the party game more enthusiastically than ever. At the beginning of the week, he took up the case of Mr Damian Green's arrest and Mr Speaker's weakness in straight political terms – and came within four votes of overturning the government ploy of persuading everybody to forget the unfortunate episode of the invasive constabulary.
In the middle of the week, the Tories managed to work themselves up to such a state of contrived glee (following Mr Gordon Brown's slip about "saving the world") that order was only slowly restored. By the end of the week, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne did not need to do very much on their own except leave it to the German Finance Minister.
Mr Brown, for his own part, seems to be enjoying his new-found status as a politician of whom the Europeans, or some of them, are suspicious (if it really is new, for he has long been known for striking superior attitudes). It can only be a matter of time, one feels, before admiring leading articles appear in The Sun and the Daily Mail, if they have not appeared already, telling the Germans to mind their own business and that we won the war.
It is one way, I suppose, of trying to achieve national unity. In another way, Mr Brown has chosen to widen the gap with the Opposition: just as Mr Cameron has done the same with the Government in the weeks since the party conferences.
Does anyone, for instance, still remember the "government of all the talents"? It was so christened, in a fit of vainglory on the part of No 10, echoing the name of a ministry of the early 19th century – and so called with an equal lack of justification. Some of them, such as Lord Jones, the former Digby Jones, and more recently Lord Lester, have now left the Government. It was never wholly clear, to me at any rate, that others such as Baroness Williams were in the Government at all. Lord Malloch-Brown gives the impression of having been a minister, man and boy. Even so, Mr Brown's experiment in national unity, if that is what it was, is clearly at an end.
In the 20th century, governments have gone into wars initially as party governments. It was so with the Liberals in 1914 and the National government in 1939. This was really a Conservative government led by Neville Chamberlain and was succeeded in 1940 by a Coalition government led by Winston Churchill and containing several Labour ministers.
The supposedly National Government came about in 1931 and was the result of a financial crisis exploited
(from the best of motives) by George V and his private secretary Sir Clive Wigram. Ramsay MacDonald remained in office out of weakness rather than wickedness and stayed as a figurehead until 1935, when he was succeeded by Stanley Baldwin. For the entire period from 1931 to the appointment of Churchill, the country was in effect governed by the Conservatives.
After the war, there were occasional outbreaks of coalitionitis. Until quite recently, opinion polls were given to asking: "Would you like to have a coalition?" The response was often surprisingly favourable. Usually there would be an economic crisis bubbling away somewhere in the background.
In 1950-51 the call for a coalition came from some Conservative politicians who had been disappointed at the result of the 1950 election, which Labour had won with a majority of only five. A few officials at the Palace joined in, too.
People seriously thought the Government would be unable to carry on. There were worries about the health of George VI, who was to die in 1952. The Labour ministers were as depressed as their opponents. The Prime Minister, C R Attlee, resolved the difficulty by holding an election which he went on to lose.
In 1968 Harold Wilson had a perfectly healthy majority (much as Mr Brown has today). Roy Jenkins was proving a remarkably adept Chancellor; the opinion of the political classes was that Labour would win the next election: but nevertheless there was talk of a coalition. Wilson would have had to be persuaded, or forced, to step down. The crazed chieftain of the Daily Mirror, Cecil King (who was not the proprietor), entertained a whole succession of notables to lunch in an effort to dislodge Wilson and to form a coalition, with himself in a prominent position. In the end it was King who was dislodged by Hugh Cudlipp, who effectively hopped on to King's perch.
The early part of the 1970s, under Edward Heath, was even more febrile than it had been under Wilson. But, oddly enough, there were no calls for a coalition. Instead, Heath proposed a "government of national unity" in the second general election of 1974, when he thought he was going to lose by a bigger margin than it turned out to be. Precisely what he had in mind was left unspecified.
The last bout of coalitionitis happened in the early 1980s. We must be careful here about our definitions. People often talk about coalitions when they mean alliances or accommodations between parties. The formation of the Social Democrats in 1981 led several observers to predict that no party could any longer be sure of possessing an absolute majority. In fact, what happened was that Margaret Thatcher went on to enjoy huge majorities. As Tony Blair was to do afterwards.
What went on – or did not go on – in the 1980s has cured me permanently of any desire to lucubrate at length on the responsibility of Her Majesty to send for one or other of the party leaders in the event of a hung parliament. A true coalition is an entirely different matter. I would not want such an outfit myself. There does not seem to be much demand for one.
Lord Mandelson has become a curious example of someone who is a member of the Government but somehow is seen to be separate from the Government. In reality he is, as a maternal grandson of Herbert Morrison, a tribalist through and through. It was Morrison who once said: "Socialism is what a Labour government does."
Neither Lord Mandelson nor Mr Brown might choose to express himself in this way, even though times may have changed in the past few months. But neither of them is likely to want a coalition, any more than Mr Cameron does.
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