Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Government from 1850
Although this book was published three years ago, it anticipated that the 2010 general election might produce a coalition government and the book's commentary on past coalition governments should be instructive in one's comprehension of today's Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.
Oaten, as some readers of this quarterly would know, is a former Lib-Dem MP, who did not seek re-election in 2010. Therefore, he should have a personal insight that differs from those of a typical academic or journalistic author. The lack of those backgrounds may explain, in part, the curious labels given to chapters, none of which contain a date from which a reader could gain a chronological overview of the book from the Table of Contents. The initial chapter, "A Stormy Start" is a very brief introduction. Chapter 2, "A Coalition of Egos" examines the party situation in the late 1840s and into the 1850s. The third chapter, "Fighting at Home and Abroad" pertains to the World War I Coalition initiated by Herbert Asquith and ultimately led by David Lloyd George and the postwar coalition. Chapter four, "A King's Coalition" explores the creation and functioning of the 1931 National Government under the star-crossed James Ramsey MacDonald. The fifth chapter "Winning War and Peace" describes the World War II government led by Winston Churchill. Chapter six, "The Uncle and the Nephew Pact" is about the 'Lab-Lib' ('Lib-Lab') understanding that emerged from the first 1974 general election. The next chapter "Traffic Lights and Jamaican Flags", describes Germany's Grand Coalition of the 1960s. Chapter eight "The Coalition That Never Was" looks at the efforts by Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown to reach a formal mechanism of inter-party cooperation in the mid and late 1990s. Chapter ten, "Whiskey and a Handshake" is about coalition politics in the new Scottish parliament. "Entering No Man's Land" speculates about the outcome of the general election in 2010 (recall this book was published in 2007.).
This review will not comment on either the West German case or that of Scotland because each uses a different electoral system than that of the House of Commons. It is the electoral system that underpins coalition governing arrangements around the world.
The middle chapters of the book remind one that beginning with the World War One coalition and ending in 1945 coalition governments arose every 10-12 years in the UK. That form of government was almost the norm.
Although Oaten gives the reader an opportunity to assess the operation of coalitions in Britain, he does not comment on the changing status of the monarch in these matters. Queen Victoria was clearly an influence on coalition matters in the 1850s. Even more so was George V in 1931. Ramsey MacDonald would not have agreed to lead the National Government if his king had not insisted. Oaten ignores the 'footnote' role that George VI played in the decision to make Churchill first minister in 1940. Then the king favoured Lord Halifax. Oaten finds that so insignificant, he does not note it.
For devoted observers of British politics, "Entering No Man's Land' merits special attention. There Oaten speculates about the prospect of a hung parliament in 2010, evaluating factors that offer clues to that potential outcome: public opinion polls, boundary changes (which involve various subcategories), and key issues, such as Iraq. This speculation, at least in part, was stimulated by a comment from a person well known to those that follow British elections: "David Butler told me the circumstances for no party winning an overall majority look more likely now than for years." (p.272) Butler is also mentioned several times in Oaten's summation, but the Index fails to list Butler.
As one would expect, the final chapter sums up what preceded it, but Oaten also offers several suggestions as to the implications of those earlier chapters. It, along with the chapter that precedes it, especially warrants reading.
There are errors in the text, some minor, some not minor: On p.12 Oaten includes Churchill as one of those that became Prime Minister without a political party, but Churchill was back in Tory ranks even in the Cabinet when he became first minister. There are also theoretical matters raised that are left unanswered. For example, are coalitions primarily about parties or about leaders?
Despite its flaws, Coalition warrants the attention of both serious scholars of British party politics as well as that of merely political junkies.