Coalitus? Sounds painful – maybe an inflammation caused by household fuel? Or is it a fancy name for the food craving of some pregnant women?
And coalascere ? Something Il commissario Montalbano might order as a side dish in his favourite Sicilian restaurant?
No – coalitus is the medieval Latin past participle of coalescere, meaning fusion or a coming together and coalesce and coalition derive from it.
A coalition is an alliance of some sort between two or more parties for combined action in concert in certain defined circumstances, one that is usually intended to be temporary.
Used in a political context, it is often for the purpose of forming a government.
(I am familiar with it in a negotiating context in voting behaviours with individuals and groups, and the mathematical horrors of The Banzhaf Dilemma that I used to frighten senior managers with on negotiating skills courses.)
We have lived with a coalition government in the UK for over four years in the form of the pernicious Tory/LibDem Coalition of 2010, formed in the aftermath of economic, social and foreign policy shambles left by the Blair/Brown governments of 1997 to 2010.
If we go back to 1852, the Peelites and the Whigs formed a coalition headed by Lord Aberdeen. It lasted till 1855. The noble Earl had a rash of Lords and knights in his cabinet, but he also had one William Ewart Gladstone, a fellow Peelite, of whom rather a lot was subsequently heard.
There was another short-lived LibTory coalition right in the middle of the Great War after the Gallipoli disaster: it collapsed and was promptly replaced by another under Lloyd George. It fell apart in 1922 over scandals, notoriously the blatant flogging of peerages for hard cash by Lloyd George.
The coalitions of 1931 to 1940 preferred to call themselves National Governments because by that time the term Coalition Government had a bad name(!)
The Second World War brought a Tory-led coalition under Churchill (1940-1945). It was referred to as the War Ministry, and last until May 1945, when Churchill resigned after the war ended.
It was replaced by the Churchill caretaker ministry until July 1945, when the general election resulted in a Labour landslide and the Attlee Government.
One might therefore say that the record of coalition governments has not been a stellar one, with the exception of the War Ministry Coalition of 1940-1945.
I’ve been alive during three of the six of them, witnessed the end of two of them and hope to witness the end of another on May 7th 2015.
The question is – will we see another coalition government sometime after May 8th 2015 – and should we want one?
SNP Westminster strategy
The SNP’s core strategy for GE2015 is to contest all Westminster Scottish seats and get as many SNP MPs elected as possible.
Its preferred outcome for the UK-wide ballot is Labour as the party with the largest number of seats, but without an overall majority, and the end of Cameron’s Tory/LibDem Coalition Government.
This outcome would leave UK Labour with three choices -
govern as a minority government, with no formal arrangement with any other party, but making ad hoc deals to secure a majority on specific votes with any party or group of MPs it could secure
enter into a confidence and supply arrangement with a party or parties to offer committed support on agreed issues
form a coalition government with one or more parties and form a cabinet that included ministers appointed from those parties
It would however be a mistake to think that this would all instantly be Ed Miliband’s choice to make. As Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary involved in the 2010 untidy and acrimonious negotiations that led to the Cameron/Clegg Coalition, has pointed out on Sky News, things were not as straightforward in 2010, and are unlikely to be straightforward after May 7th 2015.
But if it is Miliband’s choice, and he chooses a deal rather than minority government, and if the logic of that deal centres on a new and impressive bloc of SNP MPs, what deal might he choose – confidence and supply or coalition ?
If I were in his shoes, and I wanted to neuter the SNP influence in Westminster, I would unhesitatingly choose coalition.
Well, for a number of reasons.
1. I would invoke the spirit and the words of Lyndon Johnson when faced with having J.Edgar Hoover in or out of his government – “I’d rather have them inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
2. Having the SNP in government, in cabinet – and with cabinet responsibility -could be presented as de facto acceptance of the finality of the 2014 independence referendum outcome and embracing the Union.
3. If the SNP broke ranks in coalition, and breached joint cabinet responsibility for a policy decision or action, they could be presented as deeply irresponsible and unfit for government.
4. In Miliband’s position, I would rely on the seductive influences of ministerial office, the status and perks, and the illusion of acting on an international stage to blunt the edge of the SNP’s ambitions for Scotland and damage their reputation and electoral standing with their core constituency.
In a nutshell, if I were Ed Miliband I would do to the SNP what Cameron has done to the LibDems – reduce them to an object of contempt and an electoral rump of a party.
In contrast, governing UK as a minority government would be a far more risky enterprise than governing Scotland in a devolved Parliament was for Alex Salmond 2007-2011, and a confidence and supply deal would place him in the mode of supplicant every time a significant vote arose and crucially, at every budget.
The SNP’s current position – as I understand it – is that they hope for a Labour win with no overall majority, and a subsequent confidence and supply deal. If - as many thought – Stewart Hosie was flying a cautious kite for coalition, then it is for the SNP to justify such a course of action.
But can they – and more importantly – will they?
The SNP could argue that it cannot commit to what it would and wouldn’t do until the result of GE2015 is known. That is true up to a point, and the SNP - and Alex Salmond’s - legendary pragmatism card would be played. It takes two to tango, and this tango might include more than two, and shift towards a threesome - or a foursome reel.
However, the SNP has found no problem in specifically excluding any kind of a deal with the Tories or UKIP in stating its forward intentions for GE2015. There is nothing that I can see that stops them precluding a coalition with Labour either, but pursuing a confidence and supply deal.
My guess is that the SNP ministers, MSPs and the Parliamentary candidates have their brief by now on how to play this at the hustings and with the media, and it will be a stonewalling response – “impossible to say at this stage, situation will have to be evaluated after May 7th, wouldn’t want to tie the party’s hands, too much at stake …” etc.
The fate of Craig Murray over a vetting question will not have escaped the candidates, and I would guess they’ll be right on message on this hot potato. Not one will say they’re opposed on principle to a coalition.
Is this the right approach? Only the electorate can answer that. I’m opposed to a coalition, but even the SNP publicly stating they fully intended to pursue one wouldn’t stop me voting SNP on 7th May. But I’d be worried if they did, and I believe there are some former Labour voters who shifted painfully to the SNP, with many reservations and much personal agony, who might react differently.
As I said in a tweet on the day Stewart Hosie appeared to raise the coalition question – I want SNP arses on the green benches post-May 7th, but I don’t want them on the front benches of the Westminster Parliament we campaigned so hard to get out of.