Canada 2020

David Cameron and the end of ideology

June 1, 2010

by Phil DeMont

As David Cameron settles in as the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minster, he heads up a British parliament in which no single party has a majority of seats and the administration stays in office basically at the behest of the opposition.

Such tenuous governorship is non-existent in a republic and reasonably rare under the parliamentary form of government. But, there is a decided division among voters as to whether forcing an administration to listen somewhat to opposition politicians is a good or bad turn of events.

Supporters argue democratic dictatorships are stymied by forced appeals to other parties while opponents say such consultations doom decisive policymaking.

Canada has endured minority parliaments since 2004 and has groups arguing both sides of the minority coin.

And, now, commentators wonder whether Britain has caught Canada’s disease and is sliding into a prolonged period in which a majority will become an endangered species.

The immediate reason for the U. K.’s electoral indecision is simple enough – a government of which many people had grown weary, a main opposition which offers some attractive assets and a third party which has gained enough attention to draw off dissent voters.

In England, the reappearance of the Liberal Democratic Party has siphoned off sufficient support from the Conservatives to keep the Tories from forming a majority and from Labour to prevent that party from saying in power.

But commentators are wary of a British political ship unable to steer a straight policy course.

The way out of the stalemate, analysts opine, is for one of the three leaders – Cameron, a new Labour leader or the LP’s Nick Clegg – to develop enough charisma to win over fickle voters and gain a majority.

That puts the current dilemma of the United Kingdom – and by implication Canada – on the level of a returning guest on ‘American Idol’.

Essentially, if the politician can smile nicely in the next round, he will get the votes of Simon and the other judges and win the competition.

Now, the charisma argument of minority politics might be satisfying to people who ascribe voting troubles to incompetent politicians who cannot figure out proper policies and cannot communicate their ideas in an engaging fashion.

While possibly true, the argument is too superficial to explain the current parliamentary impasse.

In past decades majority governments were often the result of a political system in which parties had obvious and important differences.

In 1983, for example, Labour’s Michael Foote, with his party’s new socialist manifesto, offered a stark alternative to Margaret Thatcher’s tax cuts and assertive foreign policy. The result was an overwhelming victory for the ‘Iron Lady’.

In 1988, Canadian Conservative Brian Mulroney presented voters with a pro-free trade, U.S.-friendly platform by contrast to Liberal John Turner, with his border-erasing campaign ads in opposition to a trade agreement with the United States.

In that vote, Mulroney won the last majority for the Progressive Conservative Party in its history.

In effect, past decades saw political parties staking out different ends of the ideological spectrum, whether in levels of opposition to the Soviet Union or interest in cutting taxes.

Indeed, the middle-to-later part of the 20th Century was an era in which voters could assess alternatives because parties held varied positions on key issues.

Since that time, however, the Berlin Wall signalled the end to the communist bloc and the appearance of Democrats in the United States and Liberals in Canada willing to cut spending to balance budgets meant that left and right parties now were crowding into the centre of the political spectrum.

Even with 2008-09 recession, governments that once prided themselves on their fiscal rectitude ran record deficits in a bid to re-float sagging economies.

And, in the realm of foreign policy, many governments railed against state-sponsored terrorism and few administrations were interested in using other governments as regional proxies for Great Power struggles as was the case during the Cold War.

In the end, that pushing into the middle was the reason for the appearance of minority governments in some parliamentary democracies.

Parties cannot really present stark differences to each other because those differentiating points do not exist.

On the national finances, how to run the health care system and how to run foreign policy, many parties in many countries operate from a general consensus with radical alternatives receiving little credibility among voters.

Thus, politicians battle each other over small policy differences, usually insufficient to shake voters loose from other party, or how well they can communicate their brand of the same policy.

As a result, political campaigns do, in fact, come down to whether one leader’s smile can convince a voter that the person is trust-worthy or believable.

That means, until a politician emerges as a better storyteller than his brethren or a party finds a different – but credible – policy answer to the day’s burning questions, minority governments will remain a fixture in the landscape of parliamentary democracies for years to come.

Philip DeMont, a veteran print and television journalist based in Toronto, is a co-author (with Eugene Lang) of Turning Point: Moving Beyond Neoconservative.

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