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.

    (3 of 3)

    Yet even in this febrile atmosphere and despite the obvious gulfs between the Europhile Lib Dems and Euroskeptic Tories (during the second leadership debate, Clegg accused Cameron of aligning the Conservatives in the European Parliament with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes"), signs of increasing détente between the two parties weren't hard to spot. "This is a time for cool heads," a Lib Dem comforted a Conservative. "If you guys keep your cool, Labour will f___ it up."

    Labour did. Notwithstanding Brown's announcement on May 10 that he would step down as party leader — an essential prerequisite for any deal, because whoever may or may not have won the election, Brown certainly lost it — Labour's attempt to stitch up a coalition of the center-left disintegrated, triggering a series of events that left constitutional experts scrambling to keep up. Cameron moved into 10 Downing Street two hours before his putative Lib Dem partners ratified their end of the coalition agreement in a midnight session. Nobody seems entirely clear how the impending by-election in Thirsk and Malton in northern England will play out. A date will soon be set for the contest — delayed, as the rest of the country voted, by the death of a candidate. The Conservatives and Lib Dems will fight each other, but Cameron joked he may even share a car with Clegg, to save gas when they visit the constituency.

    Amid the sense that Britain is witnessing not just a transition of government but also a sea change, it's easy to forget how unremarkable coalition governments really are. In the European Union, the only remaining majority administrations are in France, Malta and Greece. Witnessing the Greek government's struggles to implement austerity measures, Britain's Conservatives have some reason to be cheerful about having failed to win an outright majority, as they prepare to share the blame and the burden of selling unpalatable policies. "Hard and deep cuts are coming. There will be a lot of unrest, strikes and protests," says John Van Reenen, director of the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. He adds, however, that while most electorates respond to economic hardship by turning to more extreme parties, Britain's does not. Extremist parties fared badly on May 6. (A joke doing the rounds after the catastrophic electoral performance of the far-right British National Party asks how the BNP differs from a bus. Punch line: A bus has seats.) "Brits are prepared to put up with quite a lot before they start rioting in the streets as the Greeks do," says Van Reenen.

    More of the Same?
    Cameron and Clegg, however, cannot rely on a certain passive strain in British political life. They recognize that they'll need broad public support for their plans to lop £6 billion off government spending in this year alone. Such steep cuts would always be a hard sell. Coming from a political elite that has at best communicated imperfectly with voters and at worst has been seen arrogantly to feather its nest at taxpayers' expense, the cuts may prove too much to swallow. Britons' consent will depend, at least in part, on their new government's ability to convince them that Westminster really has changed.

    And that is something of a moot point. There is palpable excitement in Britain, a sense that the fresh-faced 43-year-old Cameron and the fresh-faced 43-year-old Clegg might bring out the best in each other and their parties. But in their similarities there are potential pitfalls. Both attended elite, fee-paying schools (Eton and Westminster, respectively). Both were students at Britain's two most prestigious universities (Oxford and Cambridge, respectively). They lead parties stacked with white men from similarly comfortable backgrounds: 54% of Tories were privately educated and 41% of Lib Dems, compared with a national average of about 7%. Among candidates seeking to succeed to the Labour leadership, the front runners are all white men, all Oxford graduates, aged 40, 43 and 44. Only 4.1% of MPs are from nonwhite backgrounds, less than half the total percentage in England and Wales and especially conspicuous in London, where nonwhite residents make up 31% of the population.

    Women, 22% of MPs, were largely invisible during the election campaign, or they were assigned walk-on roles as decorative spouses. Such an imperfect reflection of the wider population received scant attention from media that more closely reflect the makeup of Parliament — overwhelmingly white and male — than of their audiences.

    These bald numbers tell only a small part of the story of how Westminster became so detached from modern Britain. The speed of social change; the profoundly transformative effects of globalization; the digitized, interconnected, buzzing 24-hour culture: these forces are leaving institutions across the world struggling to keep up. Still, if the new brooms of the British government wish to avoid being quickly swept away themselves, they ought to start getting better acquainted with the people who put them into office.

    — With reporting by Eben Harrell / London

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. Next Page