Britain in Transition

A colleague posted something recently on Facebook about how Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Prime Minister candidate in Great Britain, studied a year at the University of Minnesota from 1989-90.   Nobody I’ve talked to can remember him, however.   I have a passage in my private journal of how at a get together to talk about a paper he was present, but I have no recollection of him.   To be sure, that year I had become “ABD” (All But Dissertation), having passed my three preliminary exams (each one eight hours long — International Relations, Foreign Policy, and West European Politics).  I was no longer taking seminars so I didn’t the same contact others would have had with him.  Still, I wish I could at least conjure up a memory.

The election taking place in Great Britain could be historic.   Britain has a parliamentary system, meaning that there is no President.   The head of Parliament also heads the executive branch of government.   To Americans this seems strange, as we associate “checks and balances” with governance.   In Britain there are quite literally no checks and balances.   The legislative and executive branches are one, with the Prime Minister atop each, while there is no judicial review or constitution.   Whatever Parliament passes becomes law.

Moreover, while nominally a bicameral system, the power rests in the House of Commons, as the House of Lords can only delay laws.   Thus Parliament can ban any kind of speech it wants, overnight nationalize health care (which it did in 1945) or overnight privatize large industries (which Thatcher did in 1979 – 80).   The power in the hands of the Prime Minister is immense due to party loyalty and the two party system.    A Prime Minister can be removed if the party rebels against him or her, but that is rare.

What keeps Britain within the confines of a functioning democracy without massive abuses of power is tradition and a political culture with clear rules — albeit normative rather than legal constraints.  When Margaret Thatcher won a vote to remain head of her party in 1990, a vote she fought hard to win, she nonetheless stepped down from office because the size of her victory was too small in light of British tradition.   Such a centralized system probably could not function in most places, but Britain proves that tradition and culture is a more powerful constraint than laws and constitutions.  (Theoretically the Monarchy could step in if Parliament broke treaties with the Monarchy, but that’s never been tested).

Yet Britain has never truly been a full two party system.   Third parties have been common, with the Liberal Democrats in various guises a continual rival to the big parties, Labour and the Conservatives.   Previously Labour had been the third party, but they replaced the Liberal Democrats as one of the top two after World War II when Clement Attlee led Labour to a victory over Winston Churchill and the conservatives.

The British have a “first past the post” system, with only one vote for each citizen: who should represent their district.   They do not vote directly on the Prime Minister’s position, that’s done in the House of Commons.   So if someone wants Nick Clegg to be Prime Minister, they must vote for the Liberal Democrat running in their district.    Districts are won when a candidate gets a plurality — simply more votes than anyone else.   Thus, even though the Liberal Democrats have often got decent percentages of the overall vote, they have not won many seats.   They might get 15% of the vote in a district, but almost always Labour or the Conservatives would get more.   That means in every election one single party has had a majority in the House of Commons, and has been able to govern.

Yet this time, the three parties are neck and neck, with the Liberal Democrats apparently in the lead.   What does this mean?   There are a few options:

1.  Could the Liberal Democrats supplant Labour or the Conservatives as one of the top two parties?   Perhaps they could do to Labour what Labour did to them over six decades ago?   Probably not — Labour has a lot of safe districts and core support.   The Conservatives at one point looked so weak one could have imagined them losing out, but they’ve had a resurgence under David Cameron.

2.   Will the Liberal Democrats gain enough seats to force a coalition government?  This is an intriguing possibility.   If the seats are split three ways, then the parties will have to negotiate to form a coalition government.   Since the Prime Minister would rely on support outside his party, that would limit the power of a Prime Minister in an unprecedented way.   Britain, always so stable, could have coalition crises or other events, a real challenge to its political culture.

If there is a coalition, the Liberal Democrats would be a likely part of it, since the Conservatives and Labour are more distant from each other ideologically.   Yet coalitions often defy such ideological logic.   Labour and the Tories (the Conservatives) might decide that Clegg is a short term phenomenon, and they can hold their position atop the system by forming a coalition together.  The danger in that is that this makes the Liberal Democrats the only opposition party, something likely to strengthen them.   Negotiations would be interesting.

3.   Will the Liberal Democrats force a change to a proportional representation system?   One thing they’ve always “threatened” is to change Britain’s age old electoral system to one of proportional representation, thereby giving third parties more of a chance to be part of a government.   This would likely make coalitions the norm rather than the exception, and end the stable dominance of whichever party wins a British election.   On the positive side, this seems to have a surer check on any abuse of power.   On the negative side, this is a breaking of British tradition, and many fear that if that tradition cracks, then the glue that holds Britain’s political culture together might be in danger.   Since they rely on tradition and culture for their stability, this could have fierce unintended consequences.

All of this is hard to predict.   Since individual races matter, depending on how the vote comes out a party might get a large chunk of the vote but very few seats.    Slight variations in vote totals can have an exaggerated impact on the final outcome.   It is possible that either Labour or the Conservatives will win outright and avoid a coalition (much more likely for the Conservatives to do so).   Despite the Liberal Democrat surge, they face problems in winning seats.   Still, at least from a political science perspective, this is a really fascinating election!

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