in the garden


Feb 2006 Journal

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Coalitions and other concoctions

That the coalition government now in power in Germany after the recent dead-heat elections consists of the right-wing Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the left-wing Social Democrats (SPD) has given rise to the customary combination of hilarity and incomprehension in most of the British press: what funny fellows these Europeans are!

In fact, the record of coalition governments in post-war Germany, including the cases of government by a 'Grand Coalition' of CDU and SPD, is good. Coalitions of all shades - excluding the far right and the far left - are commonplace in the parliaments of the Länder, the states into which Germany is subdivided, and if anyone believes that these are worse governed than the British regions, then I invite them to visit Düsseldorf, Cologne and Hamburg and compare them with Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool.

The Grand Coalition that governed West Germany in the electoral period 1965-69, under Chancellor Kiesinger (CDU) with Willy Brandt (SPD) as Vice-Chancellor, successfully overcame West Germany's first economic recession. This threat to the young Federal Republic's stability was overcome largely through co-operation between Karl Schiller (SPD), the minister of economics, and Franz-Josef Strauss (CSU), the hard man of the right, as minister of finance. Underpinning the edifice of the coalition was the understanding between the leaders of the two parliamentary parties in the Bundestag, Rainer Barzel (CDU) and Helmut Schmidt (SPD), Brandt's eventual successor as Chancellor.

The post-war West German constitution was designed to promote effective coalition governments, given that electoral systems based on proportional representation routinely produce governments consisting of more than one party. This was the result of the bitter lessons learnt under the Weimar Republic (1918-33), when repeated breakdowns of weak coalition governments contributed decisively to the collapse of the parliamentary system and to Hitler's rise to power.

In January 1919, the democratic parties - the SPD, the Centre (the Catholic party) and the Democrats, the left-liberal party - swept to victory with a large majority over their opponents on the right and left. But only 18 months later, the government suffered a decisive reverse in the elections held in the wake of its mishandling of a failed right-wing military coup, the Kapp Putsch.

By contrast, the right-wing DNVP, the 'Deutschnationalen', whose inflamed nationalism caused them to reject 'Western-imposed' parliamentary democracy as such, and the Independent Social Democrats, shortly to merge with the Communists, improved their shares of the vote substantially. So resounding was the electors' rejection of the 'Weimar parties' that the SPD, the leading pillar of Weimar democracy, retreated into opposition. Even the wave of solidarity created in the democratic camp in June 1922 by the assassination of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, a Jew, by nationalist fanatics did not lead to a lasting consolidation of the pro-Weimar centre.

The apparent stability of the Weimar Republic's years of prosperity, 1924-29, proved deceptive. The elections of 1928, in which the coalition parties far outpolled the Deutschnationalen, the Communists (and the tiny Nazi Party with some 2 per cent of the vote), should have ushered in a period of triumphant democratic consolidation. In fact, the Grand Coalition presided over by Hermann Müller (SPD) was weak, badly split between partners that placed their party interests above the interests of the coalition and the nation. In March 1930, under the shadow of the Wall Street Crash and the looming Depression, the coalition broke apart. For the remaining three desperate years of its existence, the Weimar Republic was governed by presidential decree, not by its parliament.

Advocates of Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system often cite this sorry story as evidence of the superiority of a system that delivers a clear majority of seats in parliament to a single party - even if that party secures under 40 per cent of the vote - thereby securing firm government, not wishy-washy coalition compromises. The history of British politics over the post-war period, however, hardly bears that judgment out. Can anyone say that the Major government delivered 'firm government' between 1992 and 1997? Or the Heath government of 1970-74, which was forced into a notorious U-turn in economic policy when faced with rising unemployment, then was overwhelmed by the miners' strike of 1973-74?

Nor did Labour governments perform any better. Harold Wilson's government of 1964-70 grappled unsuccessfully with Britain's deep-seated economic problems, never recovering from its forced devaluation of the pound in 1967. Wilson's government of 1974-76 suffered the humiliation of calling in the International Monetary Fund, and its successor under James Callaghan proved powerless to deal with the 'Winter of Discontent' brought on by trade union action in 1978-79.

The exception, of course, was Margaret Thatcher, who pushed through her reforms with great energy. But after her third election victory in 1987, even the Iron Lady ran off the tracks. Would a coalition government have allowed the narrowness of focus that led to the introduction of the Poll Tax? Or to Nigel Lawson's budget of 1988, which precipitated the British economy into an unsustainable boom followed by the inevitable bust of the early 1990s, presided over by Norman Lamont in distinctly Weimar-like fashion?
Anthony Grenville

next article:George who?