According to a poll which appeared in The Times this morning, the voters have expressed a clear preference for a hung parliament. This desire apparently arises from popular disgust with Labour’s intransigence and the slipperiness of the Conservatives. Presumably, there is also a widely-held opinion that a purposefully inconclusive result will lead either Mr. Brown or Mr. Cameron to invite that nice Mr. Clegg over to Number 10, and ensure that Vince Cable is installed as Chancellor of the Exchequer. There is even the potential that a few new voices, say, two or three Green MPs, might get a shout in as well.
This is an intriguing idea and has many merits to it: after all, it is likely that the Liberal Democrats and other parties would demand a change in the voting system as their price for joining any government. Furthermore, there might be other reforms in the offing, such as a transition to a more green economy and tougher regulation of banks and other financial institutions. However, there is a problem with this scenario: an inconclusive result does not necessarily imply that this will happen. We can get a glimpse at what the future may hold by taking a look at what has transpired in Canada, as there are some distinct parallels to our present situation.
Canadian politics rarely appear on the radar screens of the British press; however, there are some startling commonalities to consider. In 1993, the Liberal Party of Canada, which is more or less equivalent to Britain’s Labour Party, wiped out a demoralised and scandal-ridden Progressive Conservative Party, which was then led by the lacklustre Kim Campbell. The leader of the Liberals, a charismatic Quebecker named Jean Chretien, became Prime Minister. He held the post for ten years and won three elections, capitalising on continued disarray among the Conservatives. His time in office was not untroubled; for example, he lobbied the Business Development Bank of Canada to give a loan to a crony, a suspicious activity later referred to the “Grand Mere Scandal”. Worse, he was later held responsible for the loose dispersement of hundreds of millions of Canadian dollars to Quebec and Liberal party interests in the so-called “Sponsorship Scandal”.
Tainted by these charges of corruption, in 2003, Chretien yielded his post to his Finance Minister, Paul Martin; relations between the two of them had been strained for years. Martin, who had largely been considered a success as Finance Minister, found that the role of Prime Minister to be far more taxing; he was labelled “Mr. Dithers” by the press. After three years in the role, he and the Liberal Party finally lost power.
Here is where the narrative gets more interesting, and certainly more alarming. The 2006 election yielded a hung parliament, with the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, as the largest party; this was in spite of the fact that early polls had indicated that the Conservatives would win an outright majority. Voters had second thoughts, apparently. After all, Stephen Harper’s initial presentation of himself and his party to the public was far to the right of Canadian opinion; his latter moves to more centrist positions were regarded with suspicion.
Harper and the Conservatives have held onto power since 2006, despite a further election in 2008 which also yielded an inconclusive result. Despite being a minority, if anything, his hold on the government has become more solid though some of this has relied on barefaced cheek. That said, part of his continuance is likely due to the unobtrusiveness of Harper himself, who possesses a bland personality and lacks both charm and charisma. However, he has felt no particular need to form a lasting coalition; his government has continued on the sufferance not of the Liberals, but the other parties which sit in Canada’s parliament, the New Democrats (who are unreconstructed social democrats) and more interestingly, the nationalist Bloc Quebecois. It is the behaviour of the latter which may hold the key to the future; it was their support in February 2006 which allowed the minority Conservative government to be formed in the first place and in the words of the Bloc’s House Leader Michel Gauthier, continue a “good while”.
It is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Scottish Nationalists and / or Plaid Cmyru do a deal with minority British Conservative government; hitherto, both parties have espoused the theme that they are best placed to defend Scotland or Wales from the austerity to come. Like the Bloc Quebecois, they also have no interest in being part of the central government. It is entirely possible that one or both of them could offer their support in exchange for defending their nations’ budgets or for greater devolution of powers from the centre. Such co-operation is not as far fetched as it may sound; for example, in May 2009, David Cameron stressed that he wanted to enhance co-operation with the SNP, in order to make devolved government work better. There have been meetings between the Tories and SNP to this end.
This is not to say there are no significant differences between Britain and Canada; unlike Gordon Brown, Paul Martin subjected himself to an election in 2004 and won, albeit he had to continue in a minority government of his own. Furthermore, Canada has been partially insulated from chaos by having a more federal structure than Britain. New Democrat and Liberal administrations in the provinces limit Harper’s room for manoeuvre. But as the public contemplates the consequences of electing a hung parliament, it may be worth considering that a hung parliament does not necessarily mean the kind of government the people intend to have. That nice Mr. Layton of the New Democrats hasn’t been invited into Ottawa’s government; solid, sturdy Mr. Cable may not get to sit in Number 11 Downing Street and balance the nation’s books. A change in the voting system has not occurred as a result of Canada’s hung parliament, and frustratingly, the popular Canadian Green Party still awaits its first elected MP. Rather than a stable government which capitalises on Parliament’s best and brightest, the results on May 6th may mean we are in for a very bumpy ride, with David Cameron firmly in the driver’s seat.