Coalition Governments: The UK vs The Netherlands

The 2017 UK general election results left no single party with enough seats to rule alone, opening the possibility of a coalition government. Unfamiliar territory for the UK, but par for the course for the Dutch!

In case you missed it, the UK’s general election last week did not go as expected. Theresa May was supposed to increase her parliamentary majority and “strengthen her hand” in Brexit negotiations. Instead, the Tories lost 13 seats, and with them their majority. Oops!

The only way to get a majority now is to strike a deal with another party.

Unusual For Brits, Familiar For Dutch

Before 2010, coalition deals were unfamiliar in UK politics. 2010 was the first time they’d been seen since the Second World War. Many other countries though, including the Netherlands, regularly elect coalition governments. The Dutch have not had a single-party government since WWII.

Coalition negotiations can be long and grueling. Dutch PM Rutte still has not formed a new government 90 days after the Dutch general election. But this is nothing impressive. Belgium had no new government for 589 days from 2010-2011 because no one could reach a coalition deal. Still, they got there in the end.

In the UK’s case, Theresa May will probably form a loose deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Why a loose deal and no formal coalition? Mostly because the DUP holds homophobic and anti-climate-change views that many Tories find unpalatable. (But not so unpalatable that they won’t do a deal with them at all.)

So how do you make a coalition work?

Any Coalition Tips From the Dutch?

The best electoral tip from the Dutch would be to travel back in time a few decades and introduce some form of a proportional representation voting system. If a Dutch-style voting system had been introduced by now, the UK would be much more used to coalitions. Its politicians might have had more negotiating experience through forming coalition deals. And who knows, maybe negotiating skills might come in handy during Brexit talks?

“And that’s why I don’t want that weird blonde guy in my coalition!”

Unfortunately, the last time proportional representation was floated in the UK, it was voted down in a referendum (another example of the UK using a referendum to shoot itself in the foot…seems to be a habit these days). Oh well…

If this election had taken place in normal circumstances, the main advice that the Dutch could have offered would basically be to chill out. There is no new Dutch government right now, but we all know they’ll get there in the end.

But this election took place in the context of Brexit. This is no time for chilling out.

Coalitions of Chaos

Theresa May warned of a “coalition of chaos” taking power if she didn’t win the election. In one of the political ironies of our time, she now finds herself leading one during possibly the most chaotic time in UK politics since WWII.

The Dutch have shown us that coalitions need not be chaotic in and of themselves. But with Brexit talks set to start in only a few days, the Tories and DUP are probably about to show us just how chaotic they really can be. It’s times like these that just make you think: if only Brexit weren’t happening…

Ross McQueen
Originally from Scotland, Ross has been wandering on the European mainland for the past 5 years. He has lived in Berlin and Brussels, with a 2-year stay in Amsterdam in between. He is waging battle with the Dutch language, and is slowly gaining the upper hand.

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