British Coalition Government has BC Precedent

Posted by Daniel on May 12, 2010 - 3 comments

After fraught negotiations, the British have ended up with a coalition government. The senior partners are the Conservatives, who won the most seats in last week's general election. They are joined by the Liberal-Democrats, who ran third with a poor showing in terms of seats but took 23% of the popular vote. Together the two parties form a majority. The Lib-Dem leader, Nick Clegg, becomes deputy prime minister, while several of his colleagues have also been appointed to the cabinet. This is more than the Lib-Dems just agreeing to support the Conservatives on particular issues; they have formally joined the government for a period of five years.

BC has had one experience with coalition government since the emergence of formal political parties in the province in 1903. It was during World War Two and it worked pretty well.

Let me quote myself from a previous post:
In the provincial election in October, 1941, the Liberal Party led by Premier Duff Pattullo, which had governed since 1933, found itself reduced to a minority of seats in the legislature. The Liberals retained 21 seats, four short of a majority, while the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunners of today’s NDP, formed the official opposition with 14 seats and the Conservatives ran third with 12 seats. The CCF won a higher popular vote than either of the other parties in the election and it was mainly to stem the rising tide of support for the “socialists” that the two mainstream parties began to contemplate a coalition, the first in British Columbia history. Advocates of coalition worried that if the minority government fell, precipitating another election, the CCF would quite likely emerge the winner.

Despite this “socialists at the gates” scenario, Duff Pattullo refused to agree to work with the Conservatives. He predicted that coalition would mean the disintegration of his Liberal Party in BC, and he bull-headedly refused to discuss the issue, hoping it would just go away. “No matter what happens,” he wrote in a letter, “I am going to stand my ground.”

But advocates of coalition within his own party would not be denied. They were convinced that another election would be far more disastrous for the Liberals than coalition. Several important cabinet ministers resigned from the government and early in December the party met in convention in Vancouver and passed a resolution calling for a coalition government involving all three parties or, failing that (CCF leader Harold Winch had already said his party would not participate), a partnership of Liberals and Conservatives. When Pattullo refused to endorse the idea and left the convention hall, the Liberals chose former finance minister John Hart as their new leader. On December 9, Pattullo left office and a coalition Liberal/Conservative government took over.

Because the Liberals were the senior partner in the coalition, John Hart became premier, a position he held until 1947 when he was succeeded by Byron Johnson. Cabinet positions were shared between members of the two parties. While it lasted, the coalition was popular with voters. In the elections of 1945 and 1949, Coalition candidates won the overwhelming majority of seats in the legislature and, in 1949, more than sixty percent of the popular vote. If its purpose was to deny power to the CCF, the Coalition was successful.

Finally, in 1952, animosity between Liberals and Conservatives became so strong that the partnership disintegrated. Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, Duff Pattullo’s prediction that coalition would destroy it turned out to be accurate. Following the breakup in 1952, the Liberals went into a nosedive and did not form another government in BC until 2001. Mind you, coalition was no friendlier to the provincial Conservatives. They, too, were decimated in the 1950s by the rise of Social Credit and have never recovered.

Is there a lesson for the Brits of today in the BC coalition experience? The Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats will hope not.