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

  • 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.

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    Pollsters discovered one reason for this. Swaths of respondents, in some cases a majority, said they'd prefer a hung Parliament. The mordantly witty response to this finding — that Britons would prefer their Parliament hung — contained more than a grain of truth. The ideal of public service underpins many political careers, but last year's exposés by the Daily Telegraph and its Sunday sister paper about the misuse of parliamentary expenses amplified a mistrust of politicians that had bloomed during the Blair years — that time when spin led the black arts of politics and the Prime Minister took Britain into a war in Iraq that turned out disastrously.

    It all started so differently. "A new dawn has broken, has it not?" asked Blair on the morning of his 1997 election, and many Britons who had shed their customary carapace of humor-infused pessimism to greet Labour's return to power with real hope dared to believe he was right. The long, tough years of Conservative rule under Margaret Thatcher and her gray successor John Major had polarized the country between haves and have-nots, city financiers and unemployed factory workers, hard-nosed entrepreneurs and bleeding-heart liberals. Labour and Blair seemed to herald a fresh consensus and a rising economic tide that would lift all boats. There were some notable successes, an erosion of outdated certainties, the rise of a more confident, plural society. But by the time Blair left office in 2007, the consensus was fraying, the gap between Britain's richest and poorest had widened despite an overall improvement in living standards, and the manipulations and evasions of the government spin machine, most notably as it attempted to sell the Iraq war to a skeptical public, had undermined faith in the Establishment.

    That Establishment includes Britain's brilliant, often brutal national press, as accustomed to the exercise of influence as any veteran head of state. The Sun famously claimed credit for Major's 1992 victory with the banner headline "It Was The Sun Wot Won It." Eighteen years later its ineffectual campaign for Cameron suggested it was the Sun wot had lost clout, just like the Tory party it championed and the Labour Party it sought to rubbish.

    Statistics tell part of the story. At its high point, in the mid-1990s, the circulation of the Sun was more than 4 million. It's now down to 3 million. That print publications have to strive harder for authority in the fragmented, digitally driven marketplace is hardly a revelation, even if the impact of the Telegraph 's coverage of the expenses scandal graphically illustrates the folly of writing off the old media just yet. But the Sun used to know its readers just as instinctively and viscerally as the big political parties knew their core voters. Now there is a disconnect. In the 1955 general elections, Labour and Conservatives together won 96% of the popular vote. This month their combined tally was 65%, with the rest fragmented among everyone from the Lib Dems to nationalists on the Celtic fringe, neofascists and Greens — who elected their first ever MP, a quite astonishing feat in Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system. So at the top of the agenda for the new government — and the media seeking to define public responses to it — must be figuring out just who these variegated, willful, unbiddable New Brits are and how to communicate with them.

    Doing the Deal
    "I voted for a hung parliament because I wanted politicians to grow up and work together. Tell them to get on with it, would you?" Ignoring the fact that there weren't actually boxes on the ballot forms marked "hung," a London cabdriver dropping his passenger at Westminster on the fourth — and what proved the final — day of negotiations toward a coalition expressed a sentiment that was easily understandable. Voter satisfaction at bucking the system had given way to anxiety about what might come next. The markets were jittery, with the FTSE 100 share index losing more than 100 points on May 11 as rumors circulated that the Lib Dems had done a deal to keep Labour in power.

    As the parallel Lib Dem–Conservative and Lib Dem–Labour talks progressed, there wasn't much sign of grownup behavior in the notoriously infantilized culture of Westminster. (Parliament's architecture may recall a church, but in reality it's more of a Hogwarts, an elite institution dedicated to fostering competition.) There were tales of slanging matches behind closed doors and fierce confrontations in corners. "Politicians of all parties react emotionally [to the situation], as I do," said one Lib Dem MP, who proceeded to rip into his own party colleagues for holding out hope for a deal with Labour. "We are on an island with the Tories, but some people hope a lifeboat driven by [Labour's] Ed Balls is going to come along," he said. "What they don't realize is that the lifeboat is going in the wrong direction and it's sinking." Former Labour Cabinet minister David Blunkett appeared no more enamored of the possibility of a deal with the Lib Dems. "Can you trust the Liberal Democrats? They are behaving like every harlot in history," he told the BBC.

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