Inevitably it means governments that are weak and limited
The British political system has a reputation for producing strong governments. It is often seen as one of its virtues. For a long time, it was true. From December 1918, the first election in which women could vote, until February 1974, a single party had a majority in the House of Commons for all bar 3 years 3 months of that period.
Times have moved on, though many seem not to have noticed. Since February 1974, Britain has had hung Parliaments on five separate occasions. If this Parliament runs to full term, Britain will have had a hung Parliament for 10 years out of 12. Even during the interlude between 2015 and 2017, the Conservatives only had an ethereal majority.
We might well expect another hung Parliament at the next election too: it is rare for parties in government to gain seats at subsequent elections, particularly where that party has been in government for more than one term, while Labour would need a uniform national swing to them of more than 3% (they achieved half of that at the last election). So in a decade’s time the idea of an elected dictatorship that we used to hear so much about could be a distant memory.
We need to get out of the mindset of thinking of such governments being transient phenomena. They might well be the new normal. What does that mean for the nature of Britain’s government?
It doesn’t automatically have to mean weak government: from 2010-15 Britain had a strong and stable coalition. However, the fate of the junior partners in that coalition in 2015 will act as a powerful deterrent against future coalitions for many years to come. Outside times of national crisis, we can expect minority governments propped up with confidence and supply from minor parties whenever we have a hung Parliament.
So governments will be particularly vulnerable to being pushed around by flash mob opposition. This will be a particular problem for Conservative minority governments: because most of the other parties in Parliament dress to the left, Labour minority governments would often be able to rustle up support on an ad hoc basis even from parties outside the normal confidence and supply arrangements. Governments will struggle to keep finances under control: it is always easier to amass a majority in a hung Parliament for spending money than for saving it.
Policy-making will be chronically incoherent. What reaches the statute books will be driven less by what makes for a coherent policy framework and more by what can be steered through Parliament. Ministers will bring forward only legislation that they have some expectation of getting passed. Law-making will slow down. Eye-catching initiatives will be administrative steps taken under reference to existing laws rather than new legislation that might come under inconveniently harsh scrutiny.
Special interests with substantial backing in Parliament will do well. The DUP have already hauled home a swagload of booty for Northern Ireland in return for their limited support. They are trailblazers for untroubled pork-barrelling. The Lib Dems and the SNP might well reflect on what they might have been able to secure for their base if they had not been so resolutely opposed to dealing with the Conservatives. But this applies within the party of government as well as outside it when particular groups have points of principle to press. This will lead to the deepening of factions within parties of government.
A more positive way of summing up the last three paragraphs is to say that Parliament’s importance is increasing again. This should have the effect of increasing the relative importance of individual MPs, which might in turn help them re-evaluate which are the most important aspects of their role.
When crisis points are reached, major decisions with far-reaching consequences will be made in haste and through expediency or necessity. We have already seen examples of this. The West’s failure to intervene in Syria in 2013 can be traced directly to the then government’s failure to secure Parliamentary support for the idea.. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? That will no doubt be debated for many years to come. But it flowed from the Parliamentary arithmetic.
So to sum up, we are living through a period when governments are historically weak and limited, unable to move speedily or to impose coherence on policy, where major decisions will be taken without any central planning. Good job that Britain doesn’t face any major challenges any time soon then.