"This brief tour through of Britain’s political past reveals something else: to be Prime Minister you do not need to be a party leader or the leader of the biggest element in a coalition..."
The prospect of a hung Parliament has provoked the Conservatives – along with their allies at the Daily Mail - into trying to scare the living daylights out of us.
Some horror stories have a basis in fact. Does this one?
David Cameron in particular claims to fear for our country’s future should the election not produce a party with a working Commons majority. He also has longer-term concerns should any resulting coalition government abandon the ‘decisive’ nature of the current electoral system.
Cameron asserts that changing first-past-the-post means perpetual hung parliaments. That of course would depend on which electoral system replaced the one we presently have.
But to what extent has first-past-the-post delivered ‘decisive’ outcomes? And when it hasn’t – and even when it has - what has been the result?
How decisive were the governments elected with apparently workable majorities as recently as 1992 and 2005? In both cases internal party divisions often brought the business of government to a halt. Colleagues at Nottingham have in fact made a name for themselves analysing parliamentary rebellions and establishing quite how far the Parliamentary Labour and the Conservatives are often coalitions of the unwilling.
But let’s look further back in history, to the start of the twentieth century. So indecisive was the election held in January 1910 another one followed in December, which saw the Liberals and Conservatives finish on virtually the same number of seats. The Liberals led by Asquith however stayed in power thanks to the support of Labour and Irish Nationalist MPs. Despite that, it was this Liberal government that brought Britain into the First World War – quite a decisive act all things considered.
A wartime coalition was created in 1915. A year later Asquith was unseated as Prime Minister by his erstwhile colleague Lloyd George. The former however remained party leader and many Liberal MPs refused to support the new coalition, which was now mostly composed of Conservatives. Lloyd George = still a the Liberal - led this Conservative dominated coalition to victory in 1918 and continued to govern until 1922.
The 1920s saw the Liberals, Conservatives and Labour contest four elections - 1922, 1923, 1924 and1929 – on relatively equal terms. In fact, only two of these saw a party win a working Commons majority – three party politics is certainly not conducive to decisive outcomes.
The minority Labour government elected in 1929 and supported by the Liberals ended in 1931 after the Cabinet split over how best to balance the budget. Prime Minister MacDonald was however persuaded (by himself more than anybody) that the world recession required him to form a coalition government including all Conservatives, some Liberals and a small number from his own party. This ‘National’ government went on to win the 1931 and 1935 elections. Despite not leading the biggest party in the coalition MacDonald remained Prime Minister until 1935.
It was this government that in May 1940 gave way to the Churchill coalition. Neville Chamberlain who gave way to Churchill after Labour said it could not work under him remained Conservative leader until his death in November: only then did Churchill become both Prime Minister and party leader.
We associate the post-war period with two party politics and decisive general elections. We are right to do so - except for 1950. And 1964. And February and October 1974. Even at its supposed height of effectiveness ‘first-past-the-post’ was unreliable.
Cameron is wrong, then, if he thinks that first-past-the-post invariably delivers ‘decisive’ results and ‘decisive’ governments. Sometimes it does and sometimes – as in 2010 maybe - it does not.
This brief tour through of Britain’s political past reveals something else: to be Prime Minister you do not need to be a party leader or the leader of the biggest element in a coalition. Nick Clegg the next Churchill? Ramsay MacDonald more like.
Professor Steven Fielding