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Coalition governments: ‘always unpopular and seldom lasted long’?


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In recent British history, six coalition governments have involved Liberal and Conservative parties. The only other peace-time coalition endorsed by two united parties was the 1895-1906 coalition of the Liberal Unionist and Conservative parties, when four senior Liberal Unionists were given Cabinet posts in Lord Salisbury's government after the collapse of Lord Rosebery's government and prior to a general election.

As the junior partner in these alliances allegiances, Liberal parties enjoyed most success when supporting minority governments from the opposition benches. During coalition governments, the party was better able to affect change when agreements on particular policies were made before entering office - a lesson heeded by Nick Clegg before the Liberal Democrats joined forces with the Conservatives to form the Coalition Government in 2010.

In 1886, a large faction of Liberal MPs opposed Gladstone's plans to grant Home Rule to Ireland. This was intended to be a parliamentary protest, as Gladstone, aged 76, was expected to retire after his policy was defeated in the Commons. But he refused to go, calling a snap general election and forcing the rebel Liberals to form a new political party, the Liberal Unionists, and sign an agreement with Lord Salisbury's Conservative party to fight over 100 seats with no challenge from the Tories.

After the electoral defeat of Gladstone's government, the Liberal Unionists formed an informal alliance with the Conservatives. This meant that the Liberal Unionists sat on the opposition benches in the Commons and were free to oppose the Government when they disagreed.

But they had enough influence to push through progressive, indisputably Liberal measures - such as the introduction of free education for every child. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Liberal Unionists enjoyed success at the ballot box. They appealed particularly to industrialists and non-conformists in a way the Conservatives, seen as the party of agriculture and the Church of England, could not.

Before the 1895 election, the Liberal Unionists decided to enter into coalition government with their Tory rivals. They were given four Cabinet seats - including one for Joseph Chamberlain, now the party's leader - and the new government was known as the 'Unionist' administration.

It should have been a moment of triumph for the Liberal Unionists and their popular leader. But it became increasingly clear that the Conservatives were in charge, while their Liberal partners had to make one compromise after another to remain on board.

Chamberlain had fought the 1895 election promising a range of social reforms including the introduction of old age pensions, but these pledges were put aside after he was manoeuvred into the Colonial Office by Salisbury, who wanted to subvert such a reform programme for fear of splitting the Tories.

A symbol of how far the party strayed from its roots came with the 1902 Education Act, which appeared to favour Anglican Schools in defiance of the Liberal tradition of support for religious minorities. In an attempt to revive support for his party, Chamberlain began arguing for reform of Britain's trade laws, calling for tariffs on goods imported from outside the British Empire. The aim was both to strengthen the Empire and raise funds to pay for the social improvements he had promised voters.

But it also meant embracing the protectionist policies of his Conservative allies and abandoning the traditional Liberal commitment to free trade. The Liberal Unionists split, finished as a political force, and ultimately merged with the Conservatives.

The negative impact of the 1895-1906 coalition on the Liberal Unionist Party was replicated in the 1931 National Liberal Conservative Coalition, which, like today's coalition, was formed in the face of a debt crisis blown in from the United States.

Then, as now, the Liberals were tarred by association with policies to reduce public spending and increase taxes without securing what the public thought to be appropriate sanctions against the bankers accused of causing the crisis.

As the junior partner in the coalition, the party was left with a stark choice between sacrificing its principles or sacrificing government, which caused splits that made it unelectable for decades.

The fate of the Liberals during past coalitions should be a warning to Nick Clegg as the current coalition enters the last two years of this government, with dire results from by-elections and local council elections. While history shows it can be difficult for junior parties in coalitions to drive the political agenda, failure to do so - or failure to be seen to have an impact - can have disastrous consequences for the party and its future electability.

With UKIP's electoral success forcing Europe, an issue that bitterly divides the Coalition, back into the centre of politics, and increasing Lib Dem criticism of the economic impact of George Osborne's 1930s-style austerity, it will be a challenge for Clegg to manage relationships over the next two years.

Will Clegg, Cable and Alexander be able to drive through those policies dear to the Liberal Democrats, which formed a key part of the coalition agreement, or will they share the fate of the Liberal Unionists and the National Liberals and be divided, reduced and eventually consumed by that most terrifying of predators in the electoral jungle, the modern Conservative Party?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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