Britain Student's Site

A message from James O'Driscoll, author of Britain

I wrote Britain to help people understand British culture; that is, the British way of life. This is something which, in most aspects, changes only slowly. So my book concentrates on the relatively timeless aspects of life in Britain. It does not try to give readers the latest news.

However, there are a few aspects of culture that, just occasionally, can change quite rapidly. Political life is one of these, and the British general election which was held on 6 May this year might turn out to be the start of rapid change in several features of British politics.

Briefly, this is what happened. The Labour party, which had been in government since 1997, lost its majority in the House of Commons. The number of Labour MPs fell from 55% to about 40% of the total. This meant it could no longer govern. However, the main opposition party – the Conservatives – did not win a majority either. They won 47% of the seats, so they couldn't form a government either (at least, not by themselves). Britain had a 'hung parliament'; no single party won a majority of the seats. This situation is, of course, quite normal in almost all other parliaments in Europe. But it hardly ever happens in the House of Commons (see chapter 10 of Britain Student's Book).

So what was to be done? How could a government be formed? In other European countries, the answer is simple. Two or more parties get together and form a coalition government. But British politics is not used to this practice. In the whole of the twentieth century, it had a total of only 21 years of coalition government, all of them in special circumstances. (The last time was during the Second World War.) So instead, there was talk of the Conservatives forming a 'minority government' and making an informal agreement with the third party, the Liberal Democrats. Together, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs make up a majority in the Commons. The Liberal Democrats would promise not to vote against the government for a short period of time, so the government could keep going until another election could be held – probably very soon.

However, to many people's surprise, these two parties have formed a 'proper' coalition government. Both parties have seats in the cabinet (see chapter 8). The leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron, has become Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has become Deputy Prime Minister. This arrangement is surprising not only because a coalition is so unfamiliar (the first for 65 years), or because the Liberal Democrats probably have more in common with Labour than with the Conservatives. It is also surprising because British political tradition dislikes coalition governments. (As you can probably see, that phrase 'hung parliament' is a rather negative one.) And yet these two parties say they intend their government to last for a full five years, when another election must be held.

What might this situation do to British political life in the future? It is quite possible that it will do nothing. That is, it is quite possible that at the next election (in five years – or sooner if the coalition falls apart) one party will win a majority of seats and the old familiar pattern of single-party government will be re-established.

However, there is one important reason why it might not. As part of their 'price' for forming a coalition, the Liberal Democrats have insisted that a referendum on changing the electoral system will be held. The present system is very unfair to smaller parties like them and discriminates in favour of the two largest parties (see chapter 10). This, of course, is a major reason why single-party government has been the norm in Britain for so long. A party which gets only 40% of the votes will almost certainly get more than 50% of the seats in Parliament.

If the British people vote for a change to a more proportional system, so that the number of votes a party gets is better reflected in the number of seats it gets, it will become much more difficult for any party to win a majority of seats. If this happens (and of course it might not), the structure of British politics will change.

In the political chapters of Britain (chapter 6-10), the text often refers to what is 'normal'. (For example, that Britain 'normally' has a two-party system and 'normally' has single-party government). But if the voting system is changed, what has been 'normal' will become abnormal. Smaller parties will win seats in Parliament, and one or two of them might become bigger parties. At the same time, the present 'big two' parties will get smaller, so that the two-party system will disappear and so will the habit of single-party government. These changes may have several ramifications in other aspects of political life, for example, the tradition of 'collective responsibility' in the government (see page 85).

On the other hand, perhaps none of this will happen. We just have to wait and see.

James O'Driscoll
June 2010