Today the news reporters keep reminding us what a historical event this new UK coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberals is. I agree, it would have seemed far more natural for Labour to join forces with the Liberals, but the numbers after the election in the Hung Parliament just didn’t add up to that union. Whether there were any other factors that made this new coalition possible, I don’t know. I’m sure the personalities and policies did matter, but in any case, I’m glad we finally have a government and a new Prime Minister. And I wish the new Government well.
Some 25 years ago, as a young student of political science, I wrote my thesis on the SDP and its relationship with the Labour Party. The emergence of a new party was then a remarkable development in British Party politics, one which threatened the existence of the UK’s two-party 1st past the post system. Just like now, when a Hung Parliament has given rise to questions about the electoral system, in 1981, four high-profile politicians, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers defected from the Labour Party and set up the SDP. After a massive media campaign the party, established to ‘reconcile the nation’ and ‘heal divisions between classes’, hoped, together with the Liberals, to win a majority of seats in the general election of 1983. The Gang of Four, as the defectors came to be called, claimed the Labour Party had become too left-wing and had ‘been infiltrated by Trotskyist elements’ under the leadership of Michael Foot. On the other hand, the SDP accused Margaret Thatcher (who’d come into power in 1979) of dividing the country in half – North versus South. In my thesis I discussed whether the SDP would divide and surpass the Labour Party in the same way as Labour in itself split up the Liberals in the 1920’s. My conclusion that this would not happen were born out in 1988 when the SDP joined the Liberals forming the present Liberal Democratic Party. No changes to the electoral system were made, and the two-party politics carried on as normal. Until this election.
Watching the reporters skulk outside the Liberal Club, or the Labour Party HQ, or the Houses of Parliament reminded me of the summer of 1985 when I visited those places to attend interviews with very junior political minions who’d agreed to see ‘a girl from Finland writing some kind of a paper’. Being afraid of getting lost in the Tube system (which I had done too many times by then) I walked everywhere in London. I even once bumped into David Owen, who stopped to apologise. I was so stunned to come face to face with one of the characters in my play (as it were) that I couldn’t get a word out. One of the many missed opportunities in life I now so profusely regret. Even though in the end I won a prize for my thesis (I’m still puzzled about this one), an interview with Owen would have lifted my thesis onto a different level. I could even imagine my lovely Professor’s smile when he’d read the text.
But more than having regrets, the historic news in the recent days has reminded me that occasionally even in Britain, a new party, or a new way of doing things emerges. As we’ve seen here in the last week or so, it doesn’t often take place as a result of violent demonstrations, climbing onto the barricades, or burning cars. Often it happens in smoke-filled rooms with claret being drunk as the Gang of Four did in the Eighties, or in a very Noughties fashion, during meetings between suited women and men, running from one office in Whitehall to another. It might also have something to do with economics, of course. After the oil crisis of 1979, the world did change. And now after we’ve stopped the banks from collapsing, countries are falling over.
Perhaps this is the reason why there are changes afoot. Perhaps the electorate just didn’t know which way to turn. And perhaps the best outcome has been achieved. A very European solution, Son says. I think this is actually a very British solution. It’s fair, it’s sensible, it’s partly Conservative. Let’s hope the new Coalition Government succeeds in defeating the recession in a fair and sensible manner too.