Saturday, February 20, 2010

'Britain doesn't do hung parliaments'

Or so I was told by a Conservative a few months ago when I pointed out what seemed to me the obvious truth that there was now such a broad range of vote shares that would result in a hung parliament that such an outcome could be considered reasonably likely. Well, the irrefutable proof that Britain does in fact do hung parliaments was on prominent display throughout Friday, with a full re-run of the BBC's coverage of the February 1974 election, which resulted in deadlock between Labour and the Conservatives. Just for added measure, the programme was full of lengthy discussion of precedents from previous elections in the twentieth century that also hadn't produced an overall majority for any party - notably 1910, 1924 and 1929.

But what was quite startling watching the programme (or a portion of it, I didn't quite manage the full fifteen hours!) was how some of the contributors still couldn't quite bring themselves to believe that Britain 'does' balanced parliaments, even with the numbers bang in front of their eyes. A rather harassed-looking trio of journalists repeatedly took issue with the BBC presenting team's speculation about the various permutations concerning coalitions or looser pacts. "It is virtually impossible for there to be deadlock under the British constitution!" one of them bristled. Another incredulously brushed aside the suggestion that anything could be read into the Conservatives' deafening silence about their intentions - "of course they're keeping quiet, how else would they react when they've just suffered such a bruising defeat?". So the British establishment's world view appears to be that there quite simply has to be a winner and a loser, even when the numbers stubbornly insist that no-one has won and no-one has lost. Amusingly, David Dimbleby popped up only minutes later to bamboozle the trio by revealing the real reason for the Conservatives turning mute - they had been locked in intensive discussions to consider a dizzying array of possible options for clinging on to office.

Not that those who were taking a rather less one-dimensional view of matters necessarily did themselves any more credit. There was an extraordinary sense of people simply 'making up' constitutional proprieties as they went along - to suit themselves, naturally. There was one particularly jaw-dropping moment when the programme's host Alastair Burnett observed "but most importantly, we have to wait for the Conservative Party to interpret what the will of the British people is". Hmmm. Call me picky, but were they really the most appropriate arbiters?

In truth, I think the lesson from the brief chaos of the first 1974 election is not - as Conservative supporters would dearly love us to believe just at present - that hung parliaments in themselves are undesirable, but that the arrangements for dealing with their aftermath urgently need to be codified. Specifically, the active role of the monarch needs to be completely stripped away. We actually don't need to look any further than the Scottish model for a comprehensive solution. Admittedly, in the wake of the near-deadlock in 2007, parties were still offering their own convenient theories about what was the 'proper way forward', but the huge difference was that everyone knew exactly how and when the matter would be resolved - not by the whim of the Queen (and certainly not by the grey suits of the Conservative Party), but by an open contested election in the Scottish Parliament for the post of First Minister. Can't do much fairer than that.

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