Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Governments Since 1850 by Mark Oaten

27 March 2008

I suppose I ought to make the obligatory joke about a well-hung parliament, but considering that I’m about to take out the knives for this review, perhaps naughty humour isn’t entirely suitable for the situation.

Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Governments Since 1850 by Mark Oaten

Ever since the British political system began to settle into the particular alignment of factions and interests that we now recognise as the forerunners of modern political parties, voters have come to expect that a specific political party will be able to win a majority of seats and form a government. On the rare occasions when no one party has an outright majority — most often known as a ‘hung parliament’ — politicians and political parties have to scramble to find a solution and settle on an agreement that will be acceptable to the denizens of the Westminster village and (to a lesser exent) to the country as a whole. In other countries, this agreement takes the form of coalition governments, often given catchy names based on the identifying colours of the political parties involved — ‘traffic light coalition’ (from the German Ampelkoalition) or ‘purple coalition’ (the social-democrat-and-liberal coalition that governed the Netherlands throughout most of the 1990s). Yet coalitions are a rarity in British political history, found only in times of extreme stress on the existing political system. As Benjamin Disraeli observed, back in the mid-nineteenth century, ‘This too I know, that England does not love coalitions‘. With that statement in mind, Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten has taken it upon himself to examine the history of flawed and failed coalitions in British politics, attempting to determine whether Britain can embrace coalition government as an alternative to the ‘Punch and Judy’ tactics of combative government that have steadily lost favour in the polls.

Here, this review must pause for a moment, and attempt to separate the opinions of the copyeditor from the opinions of the political historian. All questions of content and analysis aside, I have never seen a professionally published book contain so many glaring punctuation, stylistic, and contextual errors. If I had left so many mistakes in a text that had passed through my hands, I would go to my supervisor and ask to be fired on the spot. There are simply no good or even mediocre excuses for some of the errors in this text. On the first page, readers are informed that the Corn Laws were repealed in 1946 (a full century off), and later on in the book a reference is made to the July 2004 London bombings (a year too early). There are sentences that simply do not make sense with the words given, as if someone was working from a taped transcription without bothering to actually check the text for context and word use. My copy of the book is the standard Harriman House hardback edition — not even a first printing or a proof copy, in which these mistakes might be understandable if not forgivable. But even without trying to look deeper into the text, readers first have to fight to actually read it from start to finish without becoming mired down in the words on the page.

That said, the analysis in itself is seems superficial at times. True, the history is there, but it wavers between being too simplistic for those who know the politics of various coalition governments and being too obscure for those who have never studied the subject before. More than a few conclusions are drawn without much of a solid argument to support them. Case in point, and symptomatic of a broader trend: Oaten believes that the established convention of hung parliaments that allows the ruling Prime Minister to attempt to form a government should be scrapped in favour of automatically giving the leader of the largest political party in the House the first crack at government-forming — he claims that existing conventions are not ‘fair’ to the party that wins the most seats. Setting aside the question of fairness in politics, the arithmetic of seats and votes do not always add up to make that the most advantageous choice for maintaining a stable government after an election, and he seldom brings in other opinions to back up his own.

Among the good aspects of Coalition are the brief chapter on the semi-successful coalition in the Scottish Parliament and the number of personal interviews which Oaten conducted and from which he was able to quote to illustrate the thinking of those who participated in two of the most recent attempts at coalition government in Britain: the Lib-Lab pact of the mid-1970s and the Joint Cabinet Committee between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the late 1990s. The quotes included provide some interesting insight into recent political history. Yet even this recently published book has been overtaken by events — the structure of the last chapter hangs very heavily on how Sir Menzies Campbell might react as Liberal Democrat leader in a hung parliament, yet that task will fall to Nick Clegg now (or to whoever is Lib Dem leader at the time of the next election). In general, Oaten seems to conclude that a coalition government would be ever-so lovely but probably not that feasible, and that the Liberal Democrats will decide the balance of power at the next General Election. Disraeli could have told him the first, and the second is not nearly as cut-and-dried as the honourable member for Winchester might like to think.



  1. I don’t really follow international politics terribly much (I’m hard pressed to read up on my own) … but is Oaten known for being particularly inattentive?

  2. Not to the best of my knowledge. He’s more well known for, well, certain other things, but ‘inattentive’ is probably not the word I’d choose.

  3. Yipe. Fair enough. (That’s what I get for focusing my attention on things that aren’t really gonna affect the world much.)

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