Congratulations to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the dynamic duo who toppled the British Labour Party from its thirteen year reign atop the British government last week and seized control of Parliament! In a three way race with Labor Party Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the two combined to win a clear majority of seats, and then reached an agreement to rule through a power sharing arrangement.
Their victory was particularly surprising, considering that they spent the entire political election campaign bashing each other as much as they bashed Gordon Brown! Unlike the United States, Britain maintains a true three party system, with Cameron’s Conservatives and Clegg’s Liberal Democrats doing battle with the Labour Party in each region of the nation. Although the Lib Dems (as they now call themselves on Twitter) generally tend to run a distant third, the Conservatives needed their support to turn their plurality into a governing majority, and thus a team of rivals was born.
Can you imagine a group of liberal Democrats joining with conservative Republicans in the United States to agree on a power sharing arrangement? Or anything else, for that matter? It only happened once in American history, at a time of immense existential crisis.
Save The Union!
The American presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is credited with coining the term Team of Rivals; it was the title of her best-selling nonfiction saga of President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to maintain political unity in the face of Civil War. Lincoln went out of his way to invite political rivals to join his Presidential Cabinet and share the rights and responsibilities of governance.
Lincoln did so because he actually needed to manage two simultaneous disputes that were threatening to tear apart the nation. One was, in a sense, an external battle; it involved the Civil War with the Confederate states of the South that had seceded from the nation and that were battling for independence. But the other was a more subtle internal battle; it involved fractious disputes within the Union states of the North about whether the Civil War should be fought at all, or whether the Confederacy should be permitted to secede and to maintain its tradition of slavery.
In New York City, the mercantilist home of global traders who remained loyal to the British Crown throughout the American Revolution, draft riots erupted when unwilling citizens refused to sign up for military service. Many citizens of Illinois, home of Chicago and other industrial centers, maintained their support for their own Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, who had challenged Lincoln for the Presidency in 1860. And throughout the Civil War, even though the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri remained within the Union, they maintained their slave based economies and often exhibited divided loyalties.
In other words, Lincoln struggled mightily to hold his own team of rivals together through the most devastating war in American history. So why would Cameron and Clegg believe that they can produce better results in Britain?
Evolution vs. Revolution
Perhaps the most striking feature of the British Parliamentary system is the manner in which it has evolved over many centuries of political history. The first English parliament gathered during the Middle Ages, two centuries before Columbus discovered the New World, and has gradually expanded to include representatives of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since that time. Universal suffrage laws have likewise extended the reach of representation to all citizens of voting age.
The American Constitution, though, was essentially a contract between thirteen quasi-independent former colonies that joined forces to overflow the British Empire, only to realize belatedly that they had no history of governing together. So, unlike the four countries of the United Kingdom, they were forced to meet at a single time and place for a Constitutional Convention to negotiate the terms of governance that would last for centuries.
Pretty impressive accomplishment, wasn’t it? But a single agreement, even one as impressive as the American Constitution, couldn’t possibly replicate centuries of constructive political history in a parliamentary setting. And it is precisely that historical knowledge and context that Cameron and Clegg hope will help them succeed where many American Presidents since Lincoln have failed.
Finding a Role Model
Britain’s gambit with Cameron and Clegg is ultimately just as important outside of the British Isles as inside it, considering how many governments around the world are desperately searching for role models to help them bring their own internal rivals together to solve intractable problems. With the future European Union and its Euro currency in question over the economic bailout of Greece, blue American voters arguing with their red counterparts over health care and immigration, and the United Nations itself accused of faulty research on issues such as global warming, many government leaders can sorely use a template to craft their own conflict resolution strategies.
But will the uniqueness of Britain’s parliamentary system prove it to be an unsuitable role model for other nations? And will Cameron and Clegg even be able to jointly manage an effective governing coalition? Skeptics abound throughout the global press, but if they manage to find a way to succeed in their endeavors, they might well end up helping other governments around the world by simply helping themselves.