Britain's Surprise Coalition: Can a new partnership solve the U.K.'s old problems?

The British people have spoken,” said a commentator on May 7, 2010, as the final votes in Britain’s general election were counted, “but it’s going to take a while to work out what they’re trying to say.” And so it proved. The Conservatives had won the most seats (306), but not a governing majority (326). Labour had lost, but not as badly (258) as feared. The Liberal Democrats, whose unprecedented bounce during the election campaign should have robbed seats from the bigger parties, did little better (57) than in previous elections. The little parties—the Greens, anti-Europeans and nationalists—did even worse (28).

With an inconclusive vote, Parliament was hung. Gordon Brown remained prime minister, but power drained from under him and dangled over the other contenders, never quite landing. In that febrile, limbo time, as the party delegations went in and out of each other’s offices, what happened was pure politics of a sort that has not occurred in generations. The result is both impressive and unprecedented.


Days after the vote, Britain had its first coalition government in 65 years, a merger of David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Soon after the Queen invited Cameron to form the new government, he and Mr. Clegg appeared together on the lawn in Downing Street to declare that party differences had been put aside in the national interest in order to enable the strong, stable and determined leadership needed to address Britain’s big challenges. Mr. Cameron listed them: to safeguard national security, tackle the debt crisis, repair the broken political system and build a stronger society.

“But we’re not just announcing a new government,” said the prime minister, with Mr. Clegg smiling beside him, “but a new politics.” There was talk of a shift in the political landscape, a new “progressive partnership” that would enable a green economy, civil liberties, a big society where family and communities matter, where power is devolved to the people and politics is again “clean, open and plural.” Theirs, Mr. Clegg said, would be a “bold and reforming government.”

Commentators were silenced by the sheer audacity of what was being announced: not just a series of policy agreements and compromises—with Liberals installed at every level of government, including five ministerial posts—but something greater than the sum of two oddly shaped, differently sized parts. Like skeptics at a wedding, some said the partnership was misbegotten and could not possibly last; a Liberal-Labour pact maybe, they muttered, but surely not a Liberal-Conservative one. Yet the Clegg-Cameron body language confounded the critics: the coalition may have been forced on them by circumstance, but circumstance had bred a new offspring. “We looked at the option of a minority government backed with a confidence-and-supply agreement,” Prime Minister Cameron told journalists, “and thought: ‘This is so’s not going to achieve what we came into politics to achieve. Let’s aim for something bigger and better.’” For Mr. Clegg it was about obeying the mandate from the ballot box: “They told us no party deserved an outright majority. Yet at the same time it’s obvious we need stability. The only way you create stability is by creating a coalition with a common purpose.”

Coalition Plans

What draws together Liberals and Conservatives, it turns out, is a shared rejection of the statist managerialism of the Blair-Brown era, when the dizzy expansion of deregulated financial markets paid for a socially progressive, technocratic and increasingly bossy state. The two major crises of the Brown era—the September 2008 banking collapse and the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal—were symptomatic of the bubble of unaccountability in which both state and market rotted. The reformist, “Cleggeron” plans are to return power to the people, protect civil liberties, build a “big society” and regulate the banks. It is hard to imagine that narrative were it not for the backdrop of these crises, which provided an opportunity and justification for the remarkable new hybrid in Downing Street. This explains the focus in the coalition agreement on political (not just electoral) reform: to restore trust between governors and governed; to expand individual freedoms and restrict state power; and to regulate and reform banks.

On the economy, the two parties have agreed that the priority is to reduce rapidly the gargantuan deficit to restore the confidence of the financial markets, while ensuring that the pain of the cuts and the tax increases are borne as far as possible by the better-off. The coalition agreement promises to reform the financial sector through a bank tax, to curb “unacceptable” bonuses and increase the flow of credit to small businesses, while investigating the separation of retail and investment banking to put a stop to “casino” practices.

Far more radical and unexpected are the agreed political reforms, the area where the Lib-Dem influence has made itself felt. There will be fixed parliamentary terms, removing the government’s power to call an election when the date best suits it electorally. And the House of Lords finally will be replaced by a second chamber elected by a proportional voting system. The government also promises a referendum on reforming Britain’s current voting system, which gives the two main parties a massive advantage over the others. In this election, for example, the Conservatives won 306 seats on the basis of a 36-percent share of the vote, but the Lib-Dems got just 57 seats on a 23-percent vote share. The proposed new system will be less proportional than the Lib-Dems would like, but fewer, more equal-sized constituencies and an “alternative vote” system, in which electors rank candidates by preference and M.P.’s have to gain at least 50 percent of the votes, amounts to the biggest shake-up in Britain’s antique electoral system since the 19th century.

The ‘Big Society’

If political and electoral reforms are the Liberal Democrats’ distinctive contribution to the new government’s agenda (and Mr. Clegg says he is taking “personal responsibility” for them), the prime minister wants to be judged on what he calls the “Big Society.”

Derided and misunderstood by both left and right, Mr. Cameron’s vision of an invigorated civil society never quite took off during the election campaign. Yet it represents, potentially, one of the most important shifts in British political thinking in a generation. Catholics will see in it a reflection of the call for “subsidiarity” in the church’s social encyclicals and the “civil-society principle” emphasized in papal encyclicals from “Quadragesimo Anno” to “Caritas in Veritate.” In Catholic social teaching, the way out of the tragic cycle of Western modernity, in which unfettered markets break up communities and force the state to expand in order to pick up the social tab, is through an expanded civil society. Such a civil society would be able to hold the state and market to account, shaping and limiting them both.

The most important aspect of the new government’s Big Society agenda is that civil society is recognized at all. Labour largely saw only the state and the market; “communities” were seen as vehicles for social cohesion that needed “managing.” Charities and churches were part of the “third sector,” a term that Mr. Cameron believes is inherently disparaging. The changed attitude of this government is reflected in its new Office for Civil Society, with its own minister.

The Conservatives’ “Big Society” vision looks to expand the power of neighborhoods and communities to tackle social problems, agitating public authorities to secure gains for ordinary people. Remarkably for a Conservative prime minister, Mr. Cameron cites community organizing, first developed by Saul Alinsky in Chicago during the Depression, as the means.

The Conservatives’ Big Society paper describes community organizing as “a well-established methodology for building communities, strengthening ties between social groups and helping people to come together to address common challenges.” It goes on to mention the organization I work for, Citizens UK, as the main resource for training in community organizing. (Citizens UK is the largest affiliate outside the United States of Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation.) Here is where church social teaching and the Conservatives’ big-society idea potentially meet. For Citizens UK is made up principally of church congregations. There are more than 120 in London Citizens, which was founded by Catholics led by the bishop of east London in the 1980s, with the support of Cardinal Basil Hume.

When Mr. Cameron visited London Citizens in early April, he told us he recognized that government could not fund community organizing directly because then the organizers would become agents of the state, rather than civil society. He asked, “How could government better enable you to do what you do?” The main thing, we told him, was to listen to the concerns of civil society and to act on them where state action is called for. We suggested that a future prime minister attend our assemblies and respond to agendas agreed upon in the process of grass-roots democracy, which such organizing facilitates. After all, if the prime minister addressed the Confederation of British Industry each year, why not do the same for civil society? Mr. Cameron thought about it: “You mean a kind of Confederation of Civil Society? Sounds perfectly practical!”

That meeting led to Mr. Cameron’s agreeing to attend a Citizens UK general election assembly just three days before the nation went to the polls. Once Mr. Cameron accepted, Mr. Clegg and Gordon Brown also agreed. Unlike the three staged televised debates, during which the leaders answered individual questions, the three men responded in 10-minute speeches to five calls in a “people’s manifesto”: 1) for community land trusts, 2) an end to the detention of children in immigration centers, 3) the paying of a “living wage” to all government employees, 4) a cap on usurious interest rates and 5) a pathway to citizenship for long-term undocumented migrants. As a result of that assembly, the new coalition government has agreed to end the detention of children—a clear victory and proof of what can happen when government makes itself directly accountable to a mobilized civil society. All three leaders promised to meet Citizens UK each year and attend two assemblies over the course of a five-year parliamentary term.

It is early in the new government; its plans for the Big Society are far from clear. Does the prime minister genuinely want to be held accountable to a vigorous, politicized civil society? Does he want neighborhood groups to “do politics” or just to build cafes and swimming pools? Early signs are ambiguous, as are his plans for government to fund community organizing.

But so far, Britain’s coalition government has proved impressive in its ability to think big. One surprise has followed another: a coalition government made up of unlikely partners has found a common vision; a radical, reforming agenda heralds far-reaching changes in British democracy and the taming of unruly banks; and, at last, the importance of civil society has been recognized by government in terms Pope Benedict XVI will understand when he visits Britain in September.

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