Early last summer I wrote a Crosscut article comparing US and British procedures for forming new administrations after an election. It highlighted the difficulty all new presidential administrations face in building up their teams. At that time the Obama administration had a large number of senior posts unfilled and had suffered some serious rebuffs and embarrassments in the confirmation process — all these things remain true, incidentally.
That sort of delay, I said, was unthinkable in Britain, where, I smugly claimed, “the transition takes a few days at most,” and that “within a handful of days of an election more than 100 political appointments are made and the majority of the new team are at their desks.”
We shall find out this Thursday or Friday whether these boasts are made good this time round. If, as commentators seem now to be saying, David Cameron’s Conservatives win a very slim overall majority in the House of Commons, the normal processes will be followed and he will have a full team up and running by early next week. But if, as remains very possible, he gets no overall majority he will have to make an alliance with Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal/Democratic party. Clegg was the unexpected star of the three televised debates between party leaders used for the first time in a British election though of course familiar fare in the US.
The one result few if any commentators expect is a further period of Labor government and the continued residency of Gordon Brown in 10 Downing Street.
If there is a hung Parliament a Conservative/Lib-Dem alliance would be the only way forward but would be far from easy to fix up. Clegg’s party would press Cameron to drop the parts of his program most objectionable to the Lib/Dems and would expect a significant number of key political appointments. Clegg would also insist on a commitment to electoral reform favorable to minority parties such as his own. There would be an agonizing period of horse-trading between them, which might last some days or possibly even longer.
In the meantime, anomalous as it may seem, Gordon Brown and his ministerial team would, at least theoretically, remain in charge of the country, because there is no change of government until another party leader can be confident of securing a majority in the House of Commons. Until such a change occurs the existing government staggers on in a ghost-like way.
Whatever the result, Britain is in for a period of intensely difficult government. It has the same problems of war, debt, unemployment, the rising costs of the ageing baby boomer generation, and concern over educational standards and international competitiveness as the US. But these concerns have to be tackled against an economic recovery that is more fragile than in North America. They will need decisions on taxation (which will have to go up) and public service costs (which will have to go down along with the pay and benefits of the people who work in them), and a further reorientation of the British economy towards exports and away from domestic consumption. These would be hard enough for a government which was politically secure. They would subject a coalition to huge internal stresses and public challenges.
Things would be made worse by the fact that the policy differences between the Cameron and Clegg parties are larger and more deep-seated than between the Clegg party and Gordon Brown’s Labor Party. The areas of debate and difference in British elections are, at least on the surface, narrower than in a US presidential election. You do not hear people saying that they want change to “get my country back.” The debate is more about how the country should be managed for the next few years, and what shifts in policy there should be, than about fundamental values or visions of what the country should be.
Many of the options for change — tweaks in the taxation system in favour of the well-off, or the poor, less paper work in heath service management systems, smallish shifts in public education policy — are presented as hugely important but are in fact fairly modest in scope.
Even so, the parties do have distinct positions, and the Lib/Dem party, mildly left-wing, is closer to the moderately left-wing Labor party than to the moderately right-wing Conservatives. One issue that could be particularly difficult and divisive in a Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition is the European Union. Though both party leaders have affected a pragmatic stance towards Europe in the run-up to the election, the Conservatives are generally on the cold side of tepid and include some rabid Europhobes, and Clegg, who actually worked for the European Commission earlier in life, has a Spanish wife and — imagine! — has given his three children Hispanic first names, leads a party with a long tradition of positive enthusiasm for the Union.
Patching together an alliance across these differences would be difficult to start with and as time passes keeping it together would get harder still. The most likely upshot would be a further election within 6-12 months. In the meantime, the finance markets would exploit British government weakness to damage the British currency and increase the cost of financing British sovereign debt at a time when there will be a lot of that debt to sell.
All countries have their election rituals, and whatever people think about the issues and the politicians offering themselves for election there is a certain festival sense about election day and election night when the results start coming in. The result in each of the 600 or so constituencies is announced at a televised public meeting by the Returning Officer, usually a city or county official relishing his (less often her) moment of glory. Their styles vary from wonderfully pompous to bored to completely incomprehensible, and each announcement is followed by breathless mental arithmetic from pundits on the broadcasting panels.
Then come speeches from the candidates, most of them beginning, “Mr Returning Officer, I would like first to congratulate you and your splendidly efficient staff on the magnificently competent manner in which this election has been organized.” Brits, like their American cousins, enjoy the hoopla and excitement of the process just as in both countries people speedily become resentful or cynical about its outcome.
The overall result is usually known by the early hours of Friday morning, say supper time on Thursday in Seattle. If the result is extremely close the uncertainty can continue into working hours on Friday while they complete the vote counting in rural constituencies. And if there has to be a coalition we may not know until well into next week what it will really look like or what its program will be.
But if tradition is followed, the removal vans will start to roll into Downing Street on Friday morning.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!