Unruly Britannia: Can This Coalition Government Work?

Britain's David Cameron and Nick Clegg have forged a coalition. Now they have to reconnect with the voters who put them into government

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Andrew Parsons / Reuters / Handout

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg walk into 10 Downing Street in London May 12, 2010.

A common lament among the citizens of liberal democracies is that politicians don't listen to them. On May 6, Britons turned that complaint on its head, ignoring the insistent warnings from their political classes and stridently politicized national newspapers that failure to elect a majority government could lead only to chaos and despair. In a collective act of joyful bloody-mindedness, the nation somehow found a way to subvert the electoral system that for the best part of a century had efficiently upheld the duopoly of rule by the Conservative and Labour parties.

The outcome of this mutiny isn't just a hung Parliament — or a "balanced Parliament," as its enthusiasts prefer to describe it. Deprived of the outright majority in the House of Commons his two-year frontrunner status had promised, Conservative David Cameron has been forced into partnership with the Liberal Democrats, starting the first formal coalition to rule Britain since Winston Churchill forged a government of national unity at the height of World War II.

You could argue that the country's fiscal deficit and ebbing confidence in the British economy threaten to flatten the bulldog spirit just as the Luftwaffe redrew British cityscapes. That seems reason enough for Britain's new leaders to reinvent politics. In some respects, they're off to a good start, promising an emergency budget within 50 days and an overhaul of the creaking political system through the introduction of five-year, fixed-term Parliaments and a referendum on voting reform. Cameron's first public utterance as Prime Minister paid graceful tribute to his Labour predecessors for leaving the country "more open at home, more compassionate abroad." What he did not go on to say — it may have struck too close to home — is that such openness has proved inimical to the preservation of the class-ridden, convention-honoring, pliant Britain that Conservative and Labour leaders have long relied on.

Ah, unruly Britannia: to focus purely on the new order in Downing Street is to miss the deeper significance of Britain's election and its aftermath. Voters elected a hung Parliament because they wanted to — in order to circumscribe the power of the politicians who presume to govern them. Britons are still subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, who, as their country's unwritten constitution demanded, graciously accepted the resignation of Labour's Gordon Brown and conferred the premiership on Cameron. But they're also citizens of a new world of their own making. It's one the Westminster establishment had better get used to, fast.

Hang the Consequences
"I hope this is the start of the new politics I have always believed in — diverse, plural and where politicians with different points of view find a way to work together," said Lib Dem leader, now Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, hailing the coalition deal. His appearance on the U.K.'s first ever televised debate between party leaders had for a while induced in some viewers opinion-poll-bending Cleggstasy but failed to translate into solid electoral gains. The Lib Dems emerged from the election holding the balance of power but without the enhanced moral authority to wield it that an increased vote might have promised.

Britons, in truth, seemed unhappy with all the choices that confronted them on election day. Like pub landlords wearied by the tiresome antics of their customers, they were clearly ready to call time on New Labour, the 13-year project defined by Tony Blair and bequeathed to Brown that constructed a free-market, center-left hegemony from a patchwork of different interest groups and demographics. But voters remained unconvinced by the oxymoronic positioning of Cameron's Conservatives as the agents of change and progressive politics. Despite a better-funded campaign than their rivals' and the hectoring support of some newspapers — most notably the mass-market daily the Sun, which switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories last autumn and promoted its new favorites with increasing desperation — Conservative support ebbed as polling day neared.

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