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The Politics of Compromise


Last week Norwegians re-elected their prime minister, Erna Solberg. But with a reduced share of the votes, the prime minister must share power. Alexander Brett asks if coalitions, so often shunned by British voters, really work

Alexander Brett

On Monday the prime minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, was returned to power. But with her Conservative Party receiving just forty eight seats in a 169-seat chamber, seven seats fewer than her Labour Party rival, Jonas Gahr Støre, she has been forced to share power in order to achieve an overall majority.

Unlike Britain’s unexpected coalition of 2010, however, where it was reported that Gordon Brown was so unprepared entering negotiations that he did his sums on the back of a paper napkin, there will be no hastily arranged backroom deals over the next few weeks in Oslo; without a majority government since 1961, Norwegians were fully prepared for a coalition, and parties forged their alliances long before the vote. As fans of Borgen will know, it is the same situation every election for voters in Denmark (without a majority government since 1909), as well as for those in Germany and the Netherlands.

For voters in Britain, often rooted to the core principles of one party and ashamed to take inspiration from others, coalitions seem an incredibly poor state of affairs; Norwegians essentially cast their vote for a “block” rather than a particular party. But Scandinavia and Germany currently hold some of the most sustainable governments in the world, so could the politics of compromise that a coalition government brings, rather than alienate voters with unsatisfactory alliances, in fact unite them?

While the previous coalition in Britain, that of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015, sticks in our minds most clearly, it is easy to forget with the eternal cult of Churchill that his wartime government was in fact acting through an emergency sharing of power. While of course the circumstances the nation faced then were entirely different to those we face in peacetime, I imagine that there are few who would dispute the fact that his government was the most stable in modern British history, guiding us to ultimate victory against Fascism and laying the foundations of our modern welfare state. And, while it may certainly have alienated many thousands of Left-leaning Liberal Democrat voters, the coalition of 2010 to 2015 was also one of the most stable periods of government in a decade, something we now appreciate further after two years under consistently flagging prime ministers.

Both times though we were lucky. The coalition of 2010, while it may have side-lined Nick Clegg and many other highly intelligent ministers, was Liberal to its core, and hugely attentive to the general public. I imagine, however, there will be few pining for a Conservative-UKIP coalition (should the party ever make a return) under Theresa May, or a hard-Left coalition of Corbyn’s Labour and the Greens. And perhaps this is where the all-encompassing coalitions of Scandinavia fall apart. Polling at 15 per cent of the vote last Monday, just above UKIP’s result in 2015, under proportional representation Norway’s Nationalist Progress Party was awarded twenty seven seats in parliament, compared to the sole seat UKIP managed in 2015. To form a strong executive, Solberg has been forced to include the Nationalists in her government, inevitably angering many of her voters. And with the Populist wave rolling ever faster across the world, there is sadly no way around this state of affairs for many other nations.

“I imagine there will be few pining for a Conservative-UKIP coalition under Theresa May, or a hard-Left coalition of Corbyn’s Labour and the Greens”

What many people remember as a key moment in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is Nick Clegg’s total abandonment of his manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees (and the doctored YouTube clip that followed his apology), instead siding with the Conservatives who have since increased tuition by two-thirds. As a result, the Liberal Democrats were wiped out in 2015, Nick Clegg was forced to resign, and 58 per cent of his voters believed their party had abandoned its core principles. Surely there was no better way to demonstrate that compromise is inherent to coalitions, and often leads to an irrecoverable fall from grace for the weaker parties.

But I believe that compromise doesn’t have to be shunned. Rather, if both parties fail to see eye-to-eye by sticking to their key policies, compromising on ideology often leads to more competent, thought-through and legally binding legislation being passed. Furthermore, should the coalition agree on certain issues, having a larger number of people supporting the issue at stake will naturally add weight to its importance and minimise the risk of it being disregarded. The Liberal Democrat proposal for a referendum on an Alternative Vote system is an obvious example of this; although rejected, it introduced an important debate that would have otherwise been thrown away by David Cameron.

Norway is by now well-used to coalition governments, and its constant political stability gives proof of their success. But, while we may be living under a “coalition” currently, with the Conservatives and the DUP, I think we can all agree the DUP is doing little to slow down Theresa May’s bull-in-a-china-shop attitude, and a viable sharing of power through a well-founded coalition certainly would. The British people voted to leave the European Union, but a compromise on its terms that fits the will of a majority would go far.


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