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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: May 21, 2010 NO. 21 MAY 27, 2010
An Unexpected Outcome
British Prime Minister David Cameron's historic coalition government faces complexities regarding domestic and foreign policies



For the first time since World War II, the UK now has a coalition government. The election held in the UK on May 6 failed to deliver a majority for any of the three main parties—the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and the ruling Labor Party. After five days of negotiations, sitting Prime Minister Gordon Brown stepped down on May 11. He was replaced by a coalition made of the right-wing Conservatives and the centralist Liberal Democrats. As these two parties had spent much of the election campaign attacking each other, this combination struck many observers, even as it happened, as remarkable.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, however. The split election result was an indication of how much the British people felt angered, alienated and dissatisfied with all the options available to them. No party particularly excited or won their support this time. Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives secured less than half. They had no choice, therefore, but to seek a coalition partner. Labor, after 13 years in power, had grown tired and internally divided. For the Liberal Democrats under their young leader Nick Clegg, however politically dangerous liaison with the Conservatives was, it offered them their first real opportunity for power for more than 60 years.

Domestic issues


A TIE THAT BINDS: Britain's new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron arrives to chair the first cabinet meeting of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in Downing Street in central London on May 13 (XINHUA/AFP) 

The coalition will face the worst economic situation of an incoming government ever. Britain has a budget deficit accounting for more than 12 percent of its gross domestic product, which puts it in the same bracket as Greece, a country which has just had to agree to a drastic bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund. British bonds are longer term than the Greek ones, so the immediate likelihood of the UK needing to seek support is low. But whichever party won power would have to immediately spell out deep government cuts and higher taxes. While this coalition has created some goodwill and excitement, in view of the severe measures that it will have to introduce, it won't be popular for very long.

Some have speculated that cuts of up to 18 percent of government spending might be necessary. That would almost destroy most of Britain's defense budget and a large part of its much-admired National Health Service. Of course, this is impossible. But as a sign of just how difficult the task before the coalition government is, even the hard-edged Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s only kept spending at a zero growth rate. She never made negative cuts. Before the Falklands War in 1982, her popularity sank to record levels. As one British commentator ruefully commented, Prime Minister Cameron already has his war—in Afghanistan. Even victory in that will offer no help to his problems back home.

One big issue in the election campaign was dissatisfaction with the UK's old and somewhat crude electoral system. Unlike most other major Western democracies, Britain has a first-past-the-post system that has remained largely unchanged for 150 years. The only significant electoral innovation was the full enfranchisement of women in 1918. Since then, Britain has been divided into 650 constituencies, with each returning a member of parliament (MP). In each of these, it is the person with the most public votes who wins the seat, even if the opposition parties gain many more when put together than the winner. In theory, one political party could come second in every seat in the UK and not gain a single MP, despite winning an overwhelming popular vote. The Liberal Democrats, with 6 million votes, were just behind the Labor Party with 8 million. But while they only gained 55 seats, the Labor Party had 255.

British politicians have argued that this system at least produces a clear winner. They say that Germany, Israel, Italy and other countries that have a proportional representation system, deliver weaker and less decisive administrations. This election has challenged that. A first-past-the-post system has failed to deliver the one thing it was designed to do—a clear winner. This means that the final reason for having such a system is now gone. People want to feel their vote matters and they are being represented. And with a coalition government already in place, this fear of coalitions being unworkable has partially been dismissed.

What system the UK uses is now under debate. There are probably too many MPs. For every 90,000 people in the UK, there is one representative. In the United States, a senator represents 3 million people. The House of Commons could be reduced by half with no major problem. And at least with fewer MPs, they could be paid more, reducing the likelihood of people claiming spurious expenses to bolster their wages, as happened in the last few years and was exposed, to huge controversy and public anger, in the British media in late 2009 and early 2010.

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