Sunday, May 16, 2010

Principled Compromise

Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of the Westminster System of parliamentary government. Having a purely ceremonial figurehead as head of state strikes me as a waste of resources and having a hereditary head of state is undemocratic. Drawing the members of the executive (often referred to as the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in Westminster countries) from the ranks of the legislature leads to a weak separation of powers. Having unpredictable election cycles hampers citizen participation in the election and enables those already in power to time elections for political advantage. Allowing the legislature to dissolve the executive through a simple vote of no confidence often leads to instability, as was famously exemplified by the Weimar Republic.1 Finally, the strict party discipline that the threat of no confidence votes engenders leads to a loss of independence for individual members of the legislature.

All of these factors, combined with the fact that Britain’s Labour Party had been in power for 13 long years, had made British politics rather uninteresting for me. Until this year, that is, as it became increasingly clear that Labour would almost certainly lose the election even before its date had been announced. Then, after the election was announced, came the UK’s first-ever televised prime ministerial debates, the first of which was widely seen to have been won not by either of the two big parties but by Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. Finally, the election itself was a rare nail-biter which resulted in the UK’s first hung parliament since 1974.

The 2010 election left the Conservative Party (often called the Tories) with the most seats in Parliament but just short of commanding a majority. The Labour Party technically came in second but with an overall loss of 91 seats, it clearly had no mandate to govern and only dim prospects2 of forming a coalition government. The last of the major British parties, the Liberal Democrats, actually lost 5 seats in spite of leader Nick Clegg’s impressive performance in the debates but held on to enough seats to put the Conservatives over the top if included in a coalition. On May 12, the Liberal Democrats announced that they had agreed to form a coalition with the Conservatives.

Although it makes sense numerically given the results of the election, a Conservative–Lib Dem coalition is unusual to say the least. Often when coalition governments form in parliamentary countries, they are coalitions of parties with similar ideologies such as Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition in Germany. This new British coalition, on the other hand, is a right-left coalition. Obviously, such a coalition could not come into being without some compromises from both sides. Some of those compromises have been published:

  • Trident: Lib Dems will drop opposition to replacing nuclear missile system but will be able to “make the case for alternatives” and funding will be scrutinised
  • Heathrow: Plans for a third runway, opposed by both parties, will be scrapped
  • Nuclear: Lib Dem spokesman will be able to speak in opposition to new power stations—and Lib Dem MPs will abstain from vote
  • Higher education funding: Lib Dems allowed to abstain on votes—reflecting party’s promise to abolish tuition fees in the long term
  • Spending cuts: Tory plans for £6 billion cuts this financial year will go ahead
  • Tax: Tories sign up to Lib Dem plan to raise income tax threshold to £10,000 in the long term, which will “take priority” over Conservative inheritance tax cuts.
  • There will also be a “substantial increase” in personal tax allowances for lower and middle-income people from April 2011—rather than the Conservative plan to raise employees’ NI thresholds
  • But a plan to raise NI thresholds for employers will go ahead
  • Voting system: Bill will be brought forward for referendum on changing to AV but parties will be able to campaign on opposite sides of argument
  • Marriage/civil partnership tax breaks: Lib Dems will be allowed to abstain from votes
  • Europe: Both sides agreed there would be no transfer of powers to the EU over the course of the Parliament and Britain would not join the Euro during that period
  • Immigration cap: Lib Dems accept Tory plan for limit on non-EU economic migrants
  • House of Lords: Both parties to back plans for wholly/mainly elected chamber elected by proportional representation. MPs will not be able to throw out the government unless 55% vote to do so—a higher threshold than currently
  • ‘Pupil premium’: More funding for poorer children from outside schools budget, as demanded by Lib Dems

There is much to like and much to dislike about the specific policies but what I like most about all of this is the principled, pragmatic compromise that this agreement represents. It reminds me, in many but of course not all respects, of the compromises that lead to the Constitution of the United States. Neither side gets exactly what it wants but agrees to a position somewhere in between in order to promote the national interest. Sadly, while Britain embarks on this brave new voyage, America is trending in much the opposite direction. Recently, a three-term Republican Senator, known for reaching across the aisle, was rejected by his own party for not being ideologically pure enough. This is a shameful episode not because the Senator himself was or was not a great person but for the reason he was ousted.

America has lost its spirit of principled, pragmatic compromise and we need to get it back before it is too late.

  1. The constructive vote of no confidence used in Germany today is a vast improvement on the traditional, British-style vote of no confidence. 

  2. Labour had lost so many seats that even a coalition with the Lib Dems would have been in the minority.