British politics goes continental

With UKIP’s success in the local elections and recent polls, Britain may be moving rapidly to a four-party system before we’ve got used to a three-party one. In fact, the trend towards continental-style multi-party politics has been going on for some time. The share of the vote taken by the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – has fallen from 96.8% in 1951 to just 65% in 2010. The scores of the three largest parties – 36-29-23 – have a very European look about them. And it’s not just UKIP: the SNP are well established as a party of government in Scotland; Respect and the Greens have MPs at Westminster.

Giulio Andreotti's often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.

Giulio Andreotti’s often chaotic governments presided over considerable economic success.

Until now, Britain has had no real experience of multi-party politics or the sort of shifting coalition governments which are common on the continent. Brits tend see multi-party systems as unstable, riven by bickering (both personal and political), prone to repeat elections, collapsing governments and a revolving door of prime ministers. We think of Italy, above all, which after a brief period of two-party pendulum politics seems to be reverting to post-war type, or the supposedly chaotic French Fourth Republic, which Charles De Gaulle put an end to with his presidential system in 1958. We tend to overlook Germany’s long and distinguished record of coalition government, perhaps because its two-and-a-half party system looks very similar to ours.

But the era of collapsible governments and multi-party politics coincided with what many see as a golden age in Europe. Italy may have had 48 governments between 1946 and the collapse of its post-war party system in 1993 (Giulio Andreotti, who died last week, was seven times prime minister between 1972 and 1993), but the Italian republic was a remarkable economic success during that period. Chaotic it may have seemed to the outsider, but Italy worked; the saying at the time (supposedly taken from Galileo) was eppur si muove – ‘yet it moves’. In 1987, Italian politicians celebrated il sorpasso: the moment when Italy briefly overtook Britain – stagnating under Thatcher – as the world’s fifth largest economy. It didn’t last long, but it’s a wonder it happened at all. Then came Berlusconi and a period of more ‘stable’ governments, and the Italian economy stagnated, then sunk without trace.

In France, there were 38 governments between 1946 and the end of the 1970s, when France’s political system began to crystallise into the left-right blocs we see today. (France’s tradition of multiple parties right, left and centre survives thanks to the two-round voting system, but only two are really parties of government). But this was the time of les trente glorieuses – the thirty glorious years – when France’s economy boomed and its generous welfare state reached its height. There’s no need to point out Germany’s success, achieved with perpetual coalition government since 1949.

Of course, there’s no proven link, and not everyone sees the post-war decades as a golden age. But at the very least we can say that multiparty politics, government instability and coalition administrations are not always a disaster. Fractious, argumentative – even chaotic – political systems can work.

The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.

The unfortunate Pierre Pflimlin, last prime minister of the French Fourth Republic, whose 1958 administration lasted just two weeks.

Maybe governments just don’t matter as much as we think they do. Belgium managed quite successfully without a government for 16 months after the June 2010 election. Another reason may be that the constant dialogue that has to go on in multi-party governments: the much-derided ‘smoke-filled room’. In Britain and the US, we tend to elect one party and leave them to get on with it for four or five years, with the opposition carping impotently from the sidelines. With multi-party systems, you may have to negotiate on every bill or every significant tweak in economic policy. This itself brings a kind of stability. Things get talked about a lot more, decisions are taken more slowly, and perhaps a lot of bad ideas fall by the wayside.

Perhaps the most important factor is that for parties to work together long-term they have to share some common values about what the country can or should be, or some sense of overriding common purpose. We saw this in Britain with the Churchill’s wartime coalition, but in France it survived in the idea of the Republic, to which almost all major parties subscribe, and the notion of social solidarity it entails. The main German parties all support the social market model. I’m not sure what common purpose Italian parties have; perhaps it’s just the need to – somehow – keep the show on the road. Italian politicians seem to relish an atmosphere of permanent crisis, and a battle for national survival can be a powerful galvanising force – as we saw again with Britain’s wartime coalition.

I doubt anyone will look back on the Cameron-Clegg era as a golden age. But the Coalition isn’t really a coalition at all: it’s just two parties locked in the same (smoke-free) room together, waiting for someone to find the key. It hasn’t worked because neither side really expected it to last, or sees coalition as a permanent feature of the political landscape. The Tories in particular seem to think the result of the 2010 election was a statistical fluke. But all the signs are that European-style multi-party politics is here to stay in Britain. We’d better get used to and start trying to make it work.

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  1. […] reached a critical point beyond which, instead of the three-party system we expected, we are seeing multi-party politics or even ‘no-party’ […]

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