Is Britain becoming another European consensus democracy?

As Britain’s first peace-time coalition government in 70 years begins its work today (12 May) questions are being raised about the changing nature of British politics. Is the May 2010 Westminster election a realigning election that will change the shape of British government and the nature of Britain’s democracy forever?

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Dr Francoise Boucek
Dr Francoise Boucek

In his 1984 seminal volume Democracies[i] (updated in 1999) political scientist Arend Lijphart examined the main institutional rules and practices of modern democracies – such as the organisation and operation of executives, legislatures, party systems, electoral systems and the relationships between central and lower-level governments – measured on scales from majoritarian to consensus democracy. 

The resulting two-dimensional conceptual map of democracy contrasted the Westminster model of democracy at one end of the spectrum to the consensus model of democracy at the other end. This analysis led Lijphart to question the conventional wisdom that majoritarian democracies like those in the UK and US were superior to consensus systems like those in Switzerland and Israel. 

Consensus democracies turned out to be just as good as majoritarian democracies in stimulating economic growth, controlling inflation, unemployment and limiting budget deficits. But a second important conclusion was that consensus democracies outperformed majoritarian systems on measures of political equality, women’s representation, citizen participation in elections, and proximity between government policies and voter preferences.

It will take many years to ascertain whether Britain is becoming a ‘kinder and gentler’ continental-type consensus democracy. However, there are clear signs already that power-sharing arrangements in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government under David Cameron indicate a less adversarial and more moderate style of politics. 

Furthermore, the strong endorsement by Bank of England Governor Mervyn King of the government’s deficit plan will reassure markets that coalition government does not necessarily mean instability and gridlock. However, electoral reform will be the real test of whether changes in party politics and democratic politics in Britain are enduring.

Dr Françoise Boucek

Party politics expert, Department of Politics, Queen Mary, University of London

[i] Lijphart A. (1984) Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Democracies (New Haven & London: Yale University Press)

Lijphart A. (1994) Electoral Systems and Party Systems - A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945-1990  (New York: Oxford University Press).