It is easy to blame coalition politics for the problems facing the U.K.
In the United Kingdom this is traditionally the period of political party annual conferences. The Liberal Democrats were the first of the major parties to hold theirs. The Labour and Conservative Parties come next, in that order. One of the smaller parties, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), has this year attracted much more interest than usual, for two main reasons.
One, it is strongly opposed to the UK’s membership of the European Union, and current European economic problems are causing many people to be less certain about membership of the EU.
Two, the state of the three main parties is far from healthy because of the major problems facing the UK and a party which has a clear and simple policy, and is not hampered by the fact that it is unlikely to have to implement it in the foreseeable future, has a certain advantage in presenting its beliefs to the public.
The three main parties unquestionably face difficulties in devising and presenting policies. The difficulties derive from the fact that the problems facing the UK are largely beyond the control of any party. A second factor is that the government is currently formed by a coalition of the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems, and on both sides of that marriage it is of course much easier to blame the other partner for anything that goes wrong, rather than produce a manifestly good solution.
To put it simply, the government is in a difficult position because of the problems with which it has to deal, and even if there is no absolutely obvious change of policy that would make things better, it is tempting for party members to suggest “we would be in a stronger position if we were not in coalition”.
It is by no means obvious that such a self-indulgent proclamation is really supported by the facts. Standing on the outside looking in, I am certainly not convinced that such an attitude is realistic. The plain fact is that the problems exist, largely outside the control of any British government, and rearranging the seats round the cabinet table would not make them go away.
To make this point is not to argue that the tensions within the coalition are not genuine and not important. They most certainly are. They are all the more real because the UK has no tradition of government by coalition.
In many other countries, of course, including neighbouring European countries, coalitions are the norm. It can be reasonably argued that they are a source of strength, because they require compromise, and are therefore likely to limit extremism. It is a reasonable argument, but not one that finds much favour with British politicians.
We do better
Cynics may say that that reflects the typically British view that “we do things better here” but one does not have to be a cynic to appreciate that there is simply no tradition of coalitions in the UK. (The government during the Second World War was a coalition, but that was to meet circumstances that made the normal constraints of political life irrelevant.)
I am not in the business of political prophecy. I am certainly not going to predict whether British attitudes to coalitions are likely to change. Nor am I even going to attempt a prediction about the next election, except to say that it does seem likely that the Liberal Democrats will not fare very well.
Opinion polls do not currently offer much encouragement to the Conservatives, but although that is obviously good news for Labour, that good news is tempered by doubts expressed about that party’s leader, Ed Miliband.
In the party conference season there is always, inevitably, a great deal of crystal-ball gazing about the public’s views of the parties and their leaders. The significant thing that makes this year different is that for all parties there are great constraints on their ability to tackle the major problems facing the country. They will certainly not be solved by engaging in great ideological battles. Such battles might alleviate some of the frustrations from which the parties are suffering, but the problems would still be there.
If I am right, the logic is that a real case can be made for government by coalition until these problems have gone, just as during the Second World War.
I repeat, however, that I am not a political prophet, but I confess that as an amateur in political prophecy I would not put much money on such an idea bearing fruit.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK.