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Timothy Garton Ash, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Timothy Garton Ash, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Timothy Garton Ash

Fair Britannia, splashing around in coalition waters Add to ...

In Berlin last weekend, people kept asking me about the May 6 British election and I kept asking them the German for "hung parliament." None could help me. The German for "hung parliament" is simply "parliament," because the proportional representation system the country adopted in 1949 routinely produces parliaments with no overall majority, the result so feared in Britain. At a quick count, the Federal Republic has had less than two years of single-party or tolerated minority government in the past 60. Yet it somehow fails to resemble the ghastly chaos with which conservative, popular British newspapers like the Daily Mail and The Sun are now trying to scare their readers.

An example quite beyond parody appeared in Tuesday's Sun, where the bare-breasted Page 3 girl ("26, from London") was described as follows: "Becky is concerned by the prospect of electoral reform in a hung parliament. She said: 'In legislatures with proportional representation, minority or coalition government is often the norm. I'd hate to live in a country like Italy that has had 61 governments in 65 years - even if I do love Italian food.' " This gem followed a front page proclaiming: "Well Hung … and Shafted" (also hard to translate into German). The lead story noted warnings by "Tories and top businessmen" that a coalition "would plunge the country into chaos."

Obviously, it does not follow that because you have a "hung" parliament like Germany, you will end up with German economic success, any more than it follows that you will end up with Italian political instability - or Italian food, for that matter. But Germany does show that you can have an effective economic policy with a coalition; and Greece shows that you can have a lousy one with a clear single-party majority. It all depends who does it and how.

Every variant has its own strengths and weaknesses. Designed to prevent the rise of another Hitler, the German system now has almost too many checks and balances. For example, the German part of the Eurozone-IMF bailout for Greece has been held hostage to the May 9 provincial elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, which will affect the balance of power in the upper house. Yet, as Greek government debt is reduced to junk status and the yield on Greek two-year bonds briefly soared to a staggering 38 per cent on Wednesday, it has become clear that the markets are not inclined to wait.

There was a time, about 10 years ago, when I heard some Germans arguing that they needed Britain's "first past the post" electoral system. Only thus could decisive economic reforms pull Germany out of its post-unification trough. But the past decade has proved those siren voices wrong. Germany has made tough economic adjustments, forcing down unit labour costs, and it has done so largely in co-operation with the unions. German-style "change through consensus" takes longer, but is less socially divisive and ultimately more durable.

As the bond market sharks circle around Europe, sniffing blood, this is not the perfect moment to set about reforming the British electoral system. That moment was Tony Blair's election victory in 1997, when it could have accompanied devolution to Scotland and Wales. But Labour refused the historic chance.

As a recent study from the British Academy's new policy centre shows, the first-past-the-post system worked reasonably well back in 1951, when 97 per cent of the vote went to Conservatives or Labour. In the 2005 general election, those two parties got just 69 per cent between them. This gradual erosion of two-party politics has been turned into a mudslide by popular revulsion at the recent MP expenses scandal.

So this may not be the perfect moment, but it is where Britain is now. Unless there is a major shift in the last week of the campaign, it will have a "hung parliament." Then, British politicians will need to start behaving more like Germans - but without clear rules, without experience of the game and 10 times faster.

For if German "change through consensus" takes a long time, so does its coalition-building. Talks go on for weeks. In Britain, urgent, painful decisions will need to be made about public spending and taxation in order to keep the bond-market sharks at bay. If the Eurozone summit set for May 10 fails to save Greece, then the sharks will have plenty of continental European fare to feast on. If that summit pulls Greece out of the water, mauled but still alive, and slings a rope to Portugal, then the sharks might just fancy a little nibble at the legs of fair Britannia, splashing around in unfamiliar waters.

So what takes five weeks in Germany needs to happen in about five days in Britain. German consensus-building, British speed. Starting on the morning of May 7, Britain's political leaders will have to start behaving like grown-ups - not like the schoolboys we see shouting in the House of Commons.

Whether this is a formal coalition or a tolerated minority government, there must be agreement on a way forward on electoral reform and a way forward on public finances. After a half-century of unjust exclusion, the Liberal Democrats would be both mad and wrong not to insist on the former; the national interest demands the latter. The lead British analyst for Moody's credit rating agency recently told the Financial Times that a fiscal plan agreed to by coalition "could actually be quite positive, because it would imply broad popular support." But the politicians will have to get there, and fast - to a place they have never been before, while committing to spending cuts for which none have prepared the British public.

And that is only the beginning. They will then have to make up a whole new way of doing politics, as they go along, without any rulebook to guide them. It should be quite a ride.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University.

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