Friday, 7 May 2010

The Last British Hung Parliament: A Short History of British Politics

by Kathryn Hadley,

In just over an hour David Cameron is due to make a statement and the Liberal Democrats may consider forming a coalition with the Conservative Party.

The last British hung parliament dates back to 1974, although the results of the polls were reversed with Labour winning 301 seats, the Conservatives 297 and the Liberals 14. In The Guardian, Andy Beckett describes the Conservative leader of the time, Edward Heath, as ‘a stubborn prime minister battered by strikes, a sudden recession and Tory rebellions, [who] was determined to cling on’. Heath invited the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, to London to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition, notably in return for a vote in the Commons on electoral reform! The situation 36 years ago appears eerily similar to that today and one cannot help but wonder how Gordon Brown will react. Will he too go down in history as ‘a stubborn prime minister battered by a recession’?
There is an excellent selection of pictures of the 1974 election on the website of Getty Images.

‘The Historic Labour Party’, an illuminating article by R.I. McKibben dated November 1983, is equally reminiscent of the current political uncertainty and crisis of the Labour Party. McKibben argues that the Labour Party’s crisis at the time could only be explained by examining the history of the Party’s structure, in particular its relationship to the trade unions, the social character of the Party's active membership, and its legislative and ideological aspirations.

If Gordon Brown stays in power and forms a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it seems almost certain that electoral reform will be on the cards and he may finally implement the programme of constitutional reform that he promised when he became prime minister in 2007. If Britain adopts a written constitution, it will not be the first in British history, however. In ‘Writing it Down’, Patrick Little charts the history of two previous British constitutions which date back 350 years: The Instrument of Government under Cromwell and the Humble Petition and Advice, which passed into law on June 26th, 1657.

Finally, if you think the current political situation is complex, Diana Spearman’s article ‘The Pre-Reform British Constitution’, which considers the deep complexities of the pre-Victorian political landscape and electoral system in Britain may prove particularly enlightening and reassuring.

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