Britons Now Willing to Suffer a Divided Parliament

Imagine the scene. It’s the morning after this week’s British election, and there’s no conclusive result. Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives can command a majority in Parliament. Ahead stretch days—or possibly weeks—of haggling as the parties struggle to form alliances and assemble a coalition. The markets take fright over the prospect of indefinite wrangling over how best to deal with the country’s yawning budget deficit. As share prices and the British pound plunge, Greek-style turmoil looms.

So much for the standard doomsday scenario. In recent weeks, the frontrunning Conservatives in particular have loudly warned of the dangers of a hung Parliament: responsible voters should ignore the blandishments of the Liberal Democrats, the outsiders whose steeply rising support behind the charismatic Nick Clegg has threatened to end the alternating dominance of the Conservative and Labour parties in Westminster. A vote for the “Lib Dems,” the argument goes, is a vote for chaos.

Certainly, that would tally with Britain’s past experience. The two major parties have dominated national politics since the 1920s and inconclusive results have been few. The last time the country saw a hung Parliament was back in the 1974, a year associated with strikes and economic misery. A Labour government struggled on, achieving little, for a bare eight months before calling a second election.

But Britons are beginning to realize that the moment has come to reconsider the merits of two-party rule. According to Clegg, the two dominant parties have failed to deliver what voters want—from a fairer taxation system to the decentralization of power from Westminster.” Plus, the austerity measures needed to sort out the country’s yawning budget deficit will be much more palatable if they’re delivered by a government with a broader mandate than any single party can offer.

It’s true that the election’s aftermath could be messy. The latest polls suggest that the Conservatives will win 34 percent of the popular vote, Labour 29 percent, and the Liberal Democrats 28 percent. But because of Britain’s voting system—in which seats are awarded simply on the basis of which party wins the largest share of a district’s vote—Labour that would emerge as the largest party in Parliament with 283 M.P.s. The Conservatives, meanwhile, would have 255, and the Liberal Democrats (whose votes tend to be evenly spread across the country consigning them to a useless second place in many seats) would trail behind with 89 seats—a division of seats wildly at odds with the voters’ preferences. Small wonder that Clegg, an advocate of proportional representation, has described the system as “potty.”

Yet, paradoxically, it’s an outcome that might also reflect the true wishes of the electorate. Recent polls that the old suspicion of hung Parliaments—once associated with the dark period of economic misery and industrial unrest of the mid-’70s—has faded from the collective memory. Some recent polls have suggested that at least a quarter of the electorate actually favors a hung Parliament rather than any other result.

At the very least, two or more parties would then be forced to thrash out their differences and reach agreement on a program rather than sniping at each other. Besides, the idea of sharing power no longer seems quite so foreign to the British public. The regional governments in Scotland and Wales, set up in 1998, are run by coalitions.

And there’s very little evidence that the markets—which usually anticipate election results—are really spooked by the prospect of multiparty government. Sure, the London stock market has dipped this week, but the most common explanation is the plight of the European economy, not the election. Indeed, the rating agency Moody’s has openly endorsed Clegg’s thinking: there’s no necessary risk to Britain’s triple AAA rating from a hung Parliament.

Arguably, coalitions only fail when there are too many small squabble-prone parties or groups with extreme agendas—think of Israel’s myriad parties or the implacably opposed regional parties of Belgium, which divide the country’s French- and Flemish-speakers. That’s not the case in Britain, where ideological differences are slight and the major parties are all firmly entrenched on the center ground. (Their manifestos suggest no radically different approaches on, say, welfare or law enforcement, and the greatest divide on economic policy is when—not if—to introduce cuts that will balance the budget.)

In fact, successful examples of coalition government can be found across Europe and elsewhere. The same four parties have ruled Switzerland together since the 1950s. Two parties control the Germany economy, usually seen as a model of good management, but what’s certain is that one-party rule is no guarantee of competent or decisive administration in times of crisis. Only four European nations are currently run by single-party governments—and one of them is Greece.