LONDON – Volcanoes have consequences – and I’m not just thinking about the chaos caused to air travel by Iceland’s unpronounceable last eruption (known to the Pentagon as E-15).
In 1783, a volcano in Iceland spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that the entire northern hemisphere was cooled for almost three years.
This resulted in crop failures and famine, and some historians argue that it helped to precipitate the French Revolution.
Should we blame the “British Revolution” of 2010 on E-15? This undoubtedly would be going too far. But the agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government does look revolutionary to many British voters.
In London, governing arrangements that other countries take for granted look like a radically new type of politics.
The election produced an inconclusive result, even though the Conservative Party received 7% more of the popular vote than the second-place Labour Party. The failure to equalize electorates in different constituencies counted heavily against the winners, as it takes more votes to send a Conservative MP to Westminster than it does a Labour MP.
But the coalition negotiated by David Cameron’s Conservatives with the third-place Liberal Democrats (which should give the government a comfortable majority in Parliament) is not so novel as some people think.
In the last years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, coalition governments were quite common in Britain. It is only in the years since the Second World War that one-party government has been the rule, though the country did have an informal pact between Labour and Liberals in the 1970’s.
Benjamin Disraeli, the nineteenth-century prime minister, famously said that Britain does not like coalitions. Although it is too early to judge, opinion polls suggest that the British people do at least like the look and the purpose of the current one.
But can this infatuation possibly last?
At the local level, Conservatives and Liberals tend to be at daggers drawn. This is partly because Liberals have usually thrived by winning seats from Conservatives when Conservative administrations are unpopular.
Conservatives, for their part, think of Liberals as combining sanctimoniousness with hard-ball electoral tactics.
Moreover, there are substantial policy differences between the two parties, with Liberals placing political reform at the top of their agenda, in order to establish an electoral system that would suit them better.
Despite all this, the marriage has taken place, with the two parties’ smart, attractive, and socially similar leaders – David Cameron and Nick Clegg – taking a bold gamble on their ability to get this new show on the road and to keep it there.
Cameron and Clegg have agreed, in a constitutional innovation, that the coalition should last the full five years until the deadline for the next election. They have hammered out a common platform that has involved give-and-take on both sides.
The Liberals have taken five seats in the Cabinet, and more in the lower ministerial ranks. The Conservatives have agreed to hold a referendum on whether Britain should change its first-past-the-post electoral system to an alternative-vote arrangement.
For both parties, the biggest justification for this unorthodox act of political courage is the scale of the economic problems facing Britain.
The Liberal-Conservative coalition inherits, by common consent, the worst economic legacy since the war, with a huge hole in the public finances that is starting to look ever deeper as new ministers get a chance to inspect things for themselves.
Indeed, Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour budget chief, left a note to his successor saying “I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards and good luck.” It was meant to be a joke. But there won’t be many laughs when cherished public programs are cut, welfare entitlements curbed, and taxes raised.
The bond markets will demand quick and effective action. So the new government has no alternative but to begin the long haul of restoring the nation’s finances to the black. The lesson for other governments is clear: if you want independence of action, don’t put yourself in hock.
From the Conservatives’ point of view, there is much to be said for sharing responsibility for what has to be done. The Liberals, meanwhile, have a golden opportunity to show that they are capable of government, rather than simply flakey representatives of the “None of the Above” party.
As the months pass, both parties will probably find that they face their greatest political difficulty in managing the fringes of their own camps – rightists in the Conservative Party, who don’t like the centrist moderation of the coalition’s policies, and leftists in the Liberal Democratic Party who don’t want to support a largely Conservative government.
But if the coalition works and lasts, then we will see not so much a political volcano in Britain as a real shift in the tectonic plates. Nothing will be quite the same again.
Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU Commissioner for External Affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.