I had a good time yesterday at the Social Liberal Forum conference, despite the sauna-like nature of some sessions (who knew that 200 people stuck in a room with only a couple of fans would get so hot?) but there was a comment made in one session that I wanted to address.
One of the participants in the session on political pluralism was former Tory MEP Tom Spencer, who talked about how he didn’t think the Liberal Democrats should be part of a ‘progressive majority’ but should be a continental style liberal centrist party that alternated between supporting governments of left and right, ensuring there was liberalism in both. I talked about this in a post during the week but I want to reiterate the point I made then: there aren’t parties like that any more, and even when there were they were in party systems completely unlike Britain’s.
There are three countries where there was a two-and-a-half or three-party system of right, centre and left parties and where the centre party formed coalitions with both the right and left parties: West Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands (though the Dutch example isn’t quite as clear cut). However, all these are distinguished by something else: as well as the liberal party forming governments with parties of left and right, the parties of left and right would form governments with each other. Essentially, what these countries had was a triangular political system, with shared interests around all three sides of the triangle. In Germany, there was an FDP-CDU link on bourgeois issues and some economic liberalism, an FDP-SPD link on social liberal issues but also a CDU-SPD link on the corporatist aspects of the German system. (An important fact to note is that the FDP, like the Dutch VVD liberal party, is regarded as being further to the right economically than the CDU)
This was the system in Germany from the 50s to the 80s, and most notably from 1961 to 1983 when they were the only three parties in the Bundestag. There are two key things to note here: there was a grand CDU-SPD coalition in the 60s before there was an SPD-FDP one, and the last SPD-FDP coalition ended in 1983. Indeed, the SPD has spent almost as much time in government with the CDU as it has with the FDP.
It’s a similar picture in the other two countries. Belgium had three principal parties from the end of the Second World War to the start of the dissolution of the parties from national institutions to Fleming or Walloon-specific ones in 1968. Coalitions between any two of the three were possible during that period, so it wasn’t just a case of the liberal party switching between the two sides.
Finally, the situation in the Netherlands is slightly more complicated because of the presence of two liberal parties – the more right-wing VVD and the more left D66. It was also in a later period than the other two, as the parties of the right didn’t come together into a single party (the CDA) until 1978. However, from 1978 until 2002, there were governments on all three sides of the triangle, involving any two of CDA, VVD and the social democrat PvDA. As in the other two countries, this was a situation that lasted for about 20 years, and ended when new parties entered the system and made it more complex.
You can see an attempt to push a similar message for Britain in the 40s on the cover here (PDF file) but the relative weakness of the Liberals, and the system giving majority governments to Tories and Labour meant it developed differently. However, the 50s and 60s in Britain were known as the era of the Butskelite consensus, with Tories and Labour seen as being relatively close ideologically until the 70s. However, after that the situation changed with the parties moving further apart and the Tories taking the economic liberal ideas that remained with the centre parties in Germany and the Netherlands.
This idea of a liberal party switching between two sides comes from a very limited sample. In other countries, there’s either no liberal party, or multiple ones of right and left that tend to support other parties within their bloc, but don’t switch back and forth. Alternatively, they’re parties like the Centre Party in Finland which have roots as an agrarian party as well as a liberal one, and are one of the principal parties in a multi-party system.
In short, it is possible for a liberal party to alternate between supporting governments of left and right, but it only happens in systems with three or four parties where the liberal party has created a distinct ideology for itself beyond mere centrism, and where the parties of left and right are close together and can form governments with each other, excluding the liberal party. When those conditions don’t apply – especially when there are more parties in the system – it’s rare to find a liberal party remaining in the centre. Instead, they tend to pick a side and work within it, not alternating from one to the other.