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.

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Worth Reading 115: Sixtus the seventh

George Lakoff: ‘Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them … Liberals do everything wrong’ – Interesting perspective from a psychologist, which is in line with some of the comments Drew Westen made in The Political Brain.
Remarks on climate change – A speech by US Secretary of State John Kerry, where he appears to be committing the US to action.
Of wind farms, birds and global warming – Guess what’s mozt hazardous to birds: wind turbines or habitat destruction from climate change?
Recent developments in the United States vividly illustrate inequality’s threat to democracy – from Democratic Audit.
In World’s Best-Run Economy, House Prices Keep Falling — Because That’s What House Prices Are Supposed To Do – I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find this article isn’t about Britain.

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Worth Reading 110: Giving it all we’ve got

Covering a wide range of time, mainly because I went on holiday in the middle of collecting them.

We Are All Princes, Paupers and Part of the Human Family – “anyone who was alive 2,000-3,000 years ago is either the ancestor of everyone who’s now alive, or no one at all.”
Mindscapes: First interview with a dead man – New Scientist interviews someone suffering from Cotard’s Syndrome, in which people believe themselves or parts of their body to be dead.
Why the world faces climate chaos – “In brief, humanity is conducting a huge, uncontrolled and almost certainly irreversible climate experiment with the only home it is likely to have.”
Hanging on to Mutti – Neal Ascherson in the LRB on the current political situation in Germany
Speech by Rory Stewart MP on the Iraq War – “The starting point for any discussion of Iraq has to be an acknowledgment that it was a failure and a scandal. However we look at the costs and benefits of what happened there, it was probably the worst British foreign policy decision since the Boer war or the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839. Never have the British Government made a worse decision.”

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Worth Reading 51: Outside the area

None of these links were placed here by small grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli. That must be true, the Men In Black told me so.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen – Flying Rodent imagines an Orwellian version of the Scottish Premier League.
Facebook Social Readers Are All Collapsing – Oh, please let them go away. Clicking on an interesting-looking link only to discover a screen demanding you sign up to share your reading habits before you’re allowed to read it is bloody annoying.
Walking is political – An extract from Will Self’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.
How Germany’s Pirate Party is hacking politics – Some silly errors in this (seemingly thinking the 15 seats won in Berlin were elected by FPTP, not list seats under AMS) but still interesting, and a good explanation of the Liquid Feedback system, which interests me (and I may blog about in more detail later).
Do normal people go into politics anymore? – Another interesting post from Jason O’Mahony on the difference between the political classes and the rest of the world.

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Quick football question

Which nation’s international football record does England’s most resemble – Sweden or Germany?

(Answer under the cut, so if you don’t want to know the score and are reading this in some manner that doesn’t allow for the cut, look away now)

Read the rest of this entry

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Why rush?

Following that Dutch article I linked to yesterday, I’ve been looking into how coalitions get formed in other countries and found some interesting information about the aftermath of the German elections of 2005.

The election took place on September 18 and returned an inconclusive result, with the CDU and SPD almost equal on seats and neither able to achieve a majority with their preferred coalition party (the FDP for the CDU, the Greens for the SPD). First each of the big parties tried to arrange a coalition with both the small parties and when those failed, they ended up negotiating for a grand coalition of the CDU and SDP. Agreement in principle on that was finally reached on October 10 – 22 days after the election – with detailed negotiations carrying on into November with Angela Merkel not being elected as Chancellor until 22 November – 2 months after the election. Even in 2009, with an election that resulted in a much clearer result, it took a month for the CDU and FDP to agree all the details of their coalition.

Now, do you remember the German economy or society collapsing at either time? Even last year, when there was a global financial crisis, no one panicked that adults were taking the time to talk things through and get them right, rather than forcing Merkel and Gudio Westerwelle to come to an agreement in the shortest possible time. This mad insistence that we must have an agreement and we must have a government and we must have it now is nothing more than that good old fashioned British principle of “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done”.

I still don’t know whether I’ll agree or not with whatever the various negotiations come up with, but I’m mature enough to wait for them to go through calm and reasonable discussions, instead of expecting them to engage in some form of political speed dating with the news media holding guns to their heads while screaming at them to do something.

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