History doesn’t repeat itself

History does not repeat itself. Reading some and understanding it helps people and parties avoid making the same mistakes.

Some Lib Dems are currently worried that belonging to a Coalition will lead to unpopularity. As the party which has argued long and loudly for coalitions and has told us they can be better than majority party governments, they could not avoid picking up the burden of coalition government in the difficult circumstances of 2010. No-one said government is easy, and governments rarely inherit the legacy they would like from the outgoing team. Few have inherited such a strong economy as Labour in 1997. The debt and recession legacy of 2010 is more common, a bigger version of 1974 and 1979. The Liberals had a period in coalition with Labour in the 1970s doing unpopular things, but survived it with no obvious damage from the fact that they had been in government.

Today I wish to argue that belonging to a coalition is not of itself likely to make a party unpopular. Tomorrow I will look into the resons for the collapse of the old Liberal party as a governing party between 1914 and 1924.

From May 1915 to July 1945 the UK was governed by a coalition for 21 out of the 30 years. In the early period it was largely a Liberal/Conservative coaliton, in the later period a Labour/Conservative coalition. During this period we had a coupon election, where Liberals stood as pro coalition candidates or stood as independent Liberals, with the Conservatives not standing against the coupon Liberals, and later elections where candidates made clear their adherence to a “National” government to tackle the 30s crisis. In wartime there was general acceptance of the need for cross party government, and no elections.

Coming out of those coalitions, both the Conservative and the Labour parties in their turn were able to win convincing majorities to govern in their own right. Being associated with a coalition government was not terminal for them, even where the coalition government had had to do difficult things or was not especially successful. Coalition governments like majority governments need to govern well to woo the public. They are not of themselves bound to lead to the demise of a party in them.

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11 Comments

  1. Alan Jutson
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    The problem the LIb Dems have is that they are now having to live in the real World where their actions have repercussions.

    The reason why they are suffering: Many of their supporters are still in some sort of fantasy land, where you do not have to balance the books, hence their recent migration to the Labour Party, who are still in denial.

  2. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    The Lib-Lab pact in the 1970's wasn't a true coalition in the way of the current one; there were no Liberals in cabinet. After that the SDP was formed and eventually those parties joined and became the Liberal Democrats. This party has appeared to have the single ambition of holding the balance of power in government. They see themselves as permanent members of a coalition if only the voting system were changed to help bring this about. Clearly a majority of the senior LibDems would have preferred the current coalition to be with Labour rather than the Conservatives. However having been given the opportunity to play a major role in government they have no option but to make it work. Failure, particularly if prompted by their own actions, would destroy the credibility of such coalitions and with it their raison d'etre.

  3. Andrew Johnson
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I think you meant to say, "History does not have to repeat itself".
    "History repeats itself. Has to… no one listens!" Steve Turner – Poet.

  4. Josh
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Herbert Spencer once wrote that 'the effect of protecting men from the results of their folly is to fill the world with fools.' This can be applied to the Liberal Democrats.

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted August 5, 2010 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      That's a great quote, it strikes me that it may be equally (and indeed literally) applied to our social policies

  5. English Pensioner
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    One thing that does seem pretty certain is that if the electoral system involves any form of proportional representation, you will get a coalition government, which, in many cases, leads to small parties managing to get a disproportionate say by threatening to leave the coalition.
    There are those who argue that a coalition is not an inevitable result of PR; if anyone believes this would they please name a country which has PR and a majority government.
    .

  6. Chuck Unsworth
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Your assumption is that people will read and learn from History. Experience would tend to show otherwise, sadly.

    It's only those with a modicum of intelligence who understand the lessons of History – hence our current involvement in yet another Afghan War for example, or the known profligacy of Labour Governments.

    Memories are far too short. And the collective memory of the voting public is no more than a week long – if that.

  7. Electro-Kevin
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    But it's not really a 'coaliton' is it !

    It's a group of 'centrist' politicians who get on very well with each other in actuality. Like most of the self-interested political class. This is manifest in the mutally approved expenses fiddling which has gone on. That's why – however people vote – they get the same things. Parliament is a club with a subsidised bar.

    Real Conservatives huff and puff out on the margins.

  8. christina sarginson
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    It is very easy to blame the other out going Government and all parties do this, for the public it is boring and old hat, the issue is any in going Government has only a short time before the public start to blame them, so I would say enjoy it now because it may be short lived only time and history will tell

  9. George Rowley
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Only the future will tell if this harms the Libdems, but their reputation seems to be suffereing from listening and talking to people.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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