Alex Massie

Who’s Afraid of a Coalition?

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You English, sometimes you are the crazy people. Here's Iain Dale for instance, dismissing any notion of a Tory-Liberal arrangement:

All coalitions end in failure, the partners don't agree, postponement and indecision become the order of the day. Britain today does not need a two-headed donkey.

This, as anyone with any knowledge of politics anywhere else could tell you, is piffle. It's not even true of British politics. Few people would argue that the Labour-Liberal coalition at Holyrood was one of democracy's grander moments but it wasn't obviously worse than, say, a majority Labour ministry might have been and it was, in fact, all too stable and all too able to get things done. Not good things, you understand but definitely things anyway. 

And of course there are any number of international examples that disprove Dale's argument. Sometimes these are unlikely beasts indeed, such as John Bruton's Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left coalition in Ireland: a partnership that, if anything, proved to be unusually honest while also, of course, having the great virtue of excluding Fianna Fail from government.

So look, there are plenty of people who are entirely relaxed about the prospect of a hung parliament. This too seems a perfectly sensible, even rational response to the election campaign thus far. It is not the end of the world if no-one wins a majority. Life will go on.

We don't know, of course, how a Westminster coalition would work because we haven't experienced a proper one since the war but there's no intrinsic reason for supposing that it couldn't work.

So the question becomes: who's in it? If Nick Clegg, playing Salome, is demanding Gordon Brown's head on a platter then that's a demand that Labour should find mercifully easy to accept even if the country might be less enamoured of the prospect of sending Labour in to bat again.

If a referendum on electoral reform is all that's needed to purchase Liberal support then, crikey, the Tories should be able to manage this. Again, Cameron's Conservatives say they're in favour of referendums on any number of issues and, while it might not be many people's number one issue, there's little doubt that a voting reform petition would attract enough support to bring the issue before parliament in the manner endorsed by the Tories own manifesto. (The same might be said, incidentally, of a referendum on Scottish independence.)

As Guido points out there are many issues upon which the Liberals and the Tories more or less agree. So, again, a Tory-Liberal coalition hardly seems the worst outcome and is, anyway, vastly preferable to a Labour-Liberal deal. Perhaps it isn't ideal, but that's politics and political reality for you. Coalition government is not the harbinger of the End Times.

The Tories should perhaps be careful about over-doing the Clegg-bashing for fear that it will drive the Lib Dems towards Labour. Is that what they really want to do? It's not obvious that this would do anyone many favours, far less improve the Conservative position.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.