Coalition Governments: Hung Out to Dry?

Ian Garrett looks at the experience of coalitions and minority governments in nineteenth and twentieth-century British politics.

No sooner had the dust settled on the inconclusive 2010 election than Disraeli’s famous comment ‘England does not love coalitions’ was being offered as a judgement on the result, and its possible outcomes. It seems taken as read that two party politics, and elections that produce clear winners and therefore clear governments, is the British way. In fact, this is far from the case.

The postwar era, up until 1970, saw the peak of two party politics, which have been in some decline ever since. However, the twentieth century up to 1945 only saw single-party majority governments for about a third of that time, and in much of the Victorian era three or four party contests were the norm. The Peelites in the middle of the century and the Home Rulers, especially after the Second Reform Act of 1867, both challenged the two party duopoly. So did the Liberal Unionists after Gladstone’s failure to pass Home Rule in 1886, and from the turn of the century the embryonic Labour Party. All ensured that for much of this period, overall majorities were unusual rather than the norm. What obscures this a little is that, unlike today perhaps, it was obvious which major party the minor parties would support, and electoral pacts were arranged between them. The Gladstone-MacDonald Pact in 1906 is well known – but in 1886 and afterwards, the sitting Liberal Unionists benefited from lack of Conservative opposition. The development of the Home Rulers led to the Liberals in effect withdrawing from Ireland. Nevertheless, Disraeli was proved right in this at least – minority government was the usual result rather than overt coalition.

Postwar Politics

Even after 1945, not all elections were conclusive. If the current Coalition is the first formal one since 1945, it is not the first period of minority government, or of arrangements between different parties. James Callaghan’s Labour government lost its majority as a result of by-election losses and defections by March 1977, and as a result cut a deal with David Steel’s Liberals. This fell some way short of formal Coalition, but went further than ‘normal’ minority government in that the Liberals pushed for certain key policy initiatives, such as PR for the first European elections. (They didn’t get them.) The pact may have offered Britain some stability in difficult economic times, and certainly benefited Labour in helping stave off defeat in the Commons for a further two years. Yet it is difficult to see what the Liberals gained from it, other than perhaps reminding voters that parties can work together. Not that the electorate seemed convinced – 1979 brought Mrs Thatcher to power. 1974 was not unique in serving up inconclusive election results, however. The elections of 1950, 1964 and 1992 also left governments with a majority that was barely workable – in the first two cases, like February 1974, it was not long before the Prime Minister went to the country, seeking a ‘proper’ majority. Wilson achieved this in 1966. On other occasions, the government lost (1951), or the result remained inconclusive (October 1974). A beleaguered John Major soldiered on from 1992 to 1997, only to suffer a crushing landslide when the electorate did get their chance to give their verdict. Would a coalition have been preferable in at least some of these examples?

The Nineteenth Century

Victorian politics also often experienced inconclusive elections. Ireland was the key dividing point in late Victorian Britain. Parnell’s Home Rulers held the balance of power in 1885, and initially put Salisbury and the Conservatives in. However, when what Salisbury could offer was trumped by the Hawarden Kite and the offer of Home Rule, Parnell switched to Gladstone. Home Rule in turn split Gladstone’s party, 93 Liberal MPs voting against, 78 of whom were returned as Liberal Unionists at the subsequent general election. Their support gave Salisbury a reasonably comfortable majority – but Salisbury did not take any Liberal Unionists into the government, partly fearing a troublesome alliance between Joseph Chamberlain, Liberal Unionist and radical, and Randolph Churchill, Tory Democrat. Only after another Gladstonian attempt on Home Rule in the (minority) government of 1892-95 did Salisbury offer a coalition to Chamberlain, with four Liberal Unionists granted Cabinet posts, although the arithmetic of 1895 (and 1900 also) would have allowed Salisbury to go it alone. Not until 1912, when over 30 MPs were still classed as Liberal Unionists, were they formally merged into the Conservatives.

All ‘Conservative’ governments from 1886 to the First World War, then, were either minority or coalition ministries. So too the Liberals, except for the landslide victory of 1906. The two 1910 elections, however, returned what I suppose we must call a more normal verdict. In both, the Liberals and Conservatives were virtually deadlocked – Asquith’s majority depended on the support of Redmond’s Home Rulers and the Labour Party. This held quite strongly up to 1914, although both minor parties extracted their price in the shape of the Third Home Rule Bill and the reversal of the Osborne Judgement. Nevertheless, Asquith’s government is usually regarded as one of the great reforming ministries, with achievements like the introduction of National Insurance and the 1911 Parliament Act. But by the standards of today, would Asquith be regarded as an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister? He took over in 1908 after Campbell-Bannerman’s retirement, without an election, and failed to win an overall majority in either election of 1910. Gordon Brown would perhaps cast a wistful glance at Asquith’s reputation.

In the early nineteenth century, Catholic Emancipation and Wellington’s resistance to reform broke up the Tory party at the end of the 1820s. Grey’s great reforming Ministry is usually regarded as Whig – so most of its supporters were, but it included several Canningites such as Goderich, a Tory Prime Minister previously, and Palmerston, later a ‘Liberal’ PM. Grey’s government even included an Ultra Tory, the Duke of Richmond, as Postmaster General. A coalition then? And hardly an unsuccessful or unimportant one. The action of Robert Peel in repealing the Corn Laws in 1846 led to a period of over 20 years of minority or coalition governments as it shattered the Conservative Party for a generation. Not until Disraeli in 1874 would the Conservatives form a government with a clear majority. The governments which they opposed are usually regarded as Whig, bar the Aberdeen government from 1852 to 1855, which is termed a Whig / Peelite coalition. However, in three of four elections from Corn Law repeal to that of 1859, the Peelites held the balance of power, a situation ended by the convention that at this point the Whigs, radicals and remaining Peelites came together to become the Liberal Party, although it is difficult to see much difference between the ‘coalition’ government under Aberdeen and the ‘Liberal’ one under Palmerston. From this point, the two party system reasserted itself under Gladstone and Disraeli – until the impact of Home Rule, as we have seen.

The Twentieth Century

The two wartime coalitions of the twentieth century are usually considered honourable exceptions to Disraeli’s dictum – exceptional governments for exceptional times. This is of course largely true – but it is striking how much these governments achieved in domestic as well as international affairs, when a single party government perhaps would have found reform more difficult. One striking example is the extension of the franchise, including to women over 30, in 1918. Without the context of the wartime coalition, it is difficult to see this passing so smoothly – coalition meant that the suspicions of partisan party advantage rising from major constitutional reform were muted. The Churchill coalition also had major domestic achievements to its credit. The best selling Beveridge Report, written by a Liberal, became the basis of the postwar Labour Welfare State. The Butler Education Act, steered through by a Conservative, provided the foundation for two decades of postwar consensus about the growth of secondary education. Indeed, Churchill largely left domestic affairs to be the responsibility of his Labour colleagues, whilst he and his fellow Conservatives got on with winning the war – arguably, one of the factors that helped pave the way for Labour’s 1945 landslide.

If the wartime coalitions give a positive perspective on multi-party government, the experience of the 1920s and 1930s is perhaps less positive. The wartime coalition continued beyond 1918 up until the Conservatives withdrew in 1922. This may have helped manage the transition to peace, but the economic circumstances of the immediate postwar years soon checkmated any realistic chance that progressive ministers, such as Christopher Addison at Health, would be able to pursue progressive policies. Essentially, Lloyd George was a Liberal Prime Minister at the head of a predominantly Conservative government, and found it almost impossible to deviate from lines of policy acceptable to the bulk of the Conservative party. Ramsay MacDonald would be in much the same situation a decade later. A message here for Nick Clegg? Moreover, the 1920s were a decade of political realignment, which helped make it difficult to secure an overall Parliamentary majority. The 1923 and 1929 elections produced ‘hung Parliaments’, both with the same result – a minority Labour government, with Liberal support in the Commons. Neither lasted long. Ramsay MacDonald’s first government survived for less than a year before defeat in the Commons forced another election which led to a considerable Conservative majority and his second minority government was blown away by the economic crisis. Notionally, this was followed by a coalition, and MacDonald remained Prime Minister. However, this was essentially a Conservative government – 473 of the government’s supporters were Conservatives, and only 85 not, a proportion that would worsen as one wing of the Liberals withdrew and the National Labour vote collapsed in 1935. Nevertheless, nominally, this remained a coalition right up to the outbreak of war.

The 1930s have had a bad reputation in popular mythology, the defining images being those created by Mosley’s Blackshirts and the Jarrow Crusade. Even so, the National Government helped keep political stability at a time when it was under the severest of pressure in many other places, and several areas of the country saw economic prosperity grow – the judgement of modern historians ranging from Chris Cook to Martin Pugh is broadly favourable. Nor was it all bad news for Labour – they had established credibility by forming governments, and could explain away any failures by blaming this on the Liberals, or the economic circumstances. The big winners in many respects were the Conservatives, or at least, their leader Stanley Baldwin. Martin Pugh summarises Baldwin’s position as continuing his ‘centrist, liberal, conciliatory brand of politics’ under the National Government coalition, whoever led it, and doing so more effectively than he could have done leading a solely Conservative administration, in the process ‘emasculating his own right wing’. Is David Cameron the modern Baldwin? That remains to be seen, but the comparison seems striking. The other point to watch might be the fate of those who in the 1920s and 1930s were undoubtedly the biggest losers – the Liberals.

In both 1923 and 1929, the Liberals acquiesced in the establishment of minority Labour government. This in part was due to the continued factionalism that hamstrung the party throughout the interwar period. In 1923, Lloyd George hoped that if MacDonald was ‘tactful and conciliatory’, the Liberal Party as a whole would support him – but it is at least plausible that the key motivation was that, for Lloyd George, MacDonald was preferable to Asquith, and for Asquith, anything was preferable to Lloyd George. MacDonald, however, saw the eradication of the Liberals as a political priority, and was not in the least interested in being tactful or conciliatory. Crucially, in neither 1923 nor 1929 did the Liberals secure any concession from Labour as a price for their backing, yet they themselves paid the political price of the squeezing of their support between Labour, who now appeared the more credible progressive party, and the Conservatives, who could target Liberal supporters unhappy at the appeasement of ‘socialism’. Winston Churchill was but the best known example of the latter. After 1923, the Liberals were already the victims of the electoral system. MacDonald did offer the Alternative Vote during his 1929-31 government, but this was largely tactical, knowing the Conservative Lords would kill it off, and already expecting that his government would not last long enough to have another try. Now, in 2010, it would seem that Nick Clegg has obtained an agreement on policy before committing the Liberal Democrats to support David Cameron, including a pledge on moving towards a measure of electoral reform. Will this be enough to avoid him repeating the fate that befell his party in the 1920s, leading to generations of political obscurity? Time will tell.


So, the absence of single-party government with an overall majority is nothing at all new for British citizens. Outside wartime, to be fair, minority government has been more common than outright coalition, but both minority and coalition governments have had as many successes as failures, in domestic matters as well as foreign. Minority and coalition governments have reflected political realignment, and at times have been instrumental in causing them. The rise and fall of the Liberal Party especially can be traced through the experience of such governments – from 1886, there were to be only four years more of majority Liberal government, and the coalitions and minority governments from 1916 to 1931 dealt the Liberals a blow from which they have never recovered. Will this Coalition government reverse that trend – or will it repeat that experience?

Ian Garrett is Head of History at St Francis of Assisi RC Technology College in Aldridge, Walsall. He was the Liberal Democrat candidate for West Bromwich East at the last general election.

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