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Britain’s coalition nothing new
May 21, 2010

The recent formation of a coalition government in Britain is being heralded as a “milestone” and a “revolution” in British politics. It is also being trumpeted as the example to be followed in the event Canada finds itself facing another “hung” — the British term for a minority government — parliament.

It is a premise that fails to take into account that such coalitions have been formed in the past and have never been unconstitutional in Canada, despite the claim by the Conservatives that the proposed 2008 NDP-Liberal coalition was illegitimate. The problem with the Stéphane Dion-Jack Layton coalition was its optics to Canadian voters, since it relied upon the separatist Bloc Québécois to keep it afloat. In Canadian parliamentary tradition, coalitions have occurred and undoubtedly will happen again.

Canada does not have to follow the British model, as there have been successful examples in our nation, such as the coalition formed in 1936 by Manitoba Premier John Bracken. Similar to the recent example of the Conservatives led by David Cameron in Britain, Bracken won more seats in the legislature than the other parties, but not enough to form a majority. As such, Bracken cast his sights on the Social Credits led by Dr. S.W. Fox to allow him to continue as premier. The Social Credits won just five seats, but with independents also supporting the Liberal-Progressives, Bracken remained in power as Manitoba’s premier. This alliance bears a striking similarity to the Conservatives approaching Nick Clegg’s Liberal-Democrats, which were a distant third in the recent British election, but had enough seats to allow their coalition to form a majority government. 

Actually, 1936 was not Manitoba’s first taste of a coalition, as the Liberals merged with Bracken’s Progressives — first elected in 1922 as the United Farmers of Manitoba — in 1932. But this merger had more to do with the Liberals’ desire to become part of the ruling government than the Progressives’ need to bring the party under its wing, as the Liberals were by then in decline, so when Bracken made the suggestion, the Liberals readily accepted. The newly-formed Liberal-Progressive Party won a sound majority in the 1932 Manitoba election, but were challenged by the Conservatives in 1936.

Similar to Cameron and Clegg, Bracken and Fox inked a working agreement, which was announced by Bracken on August 15, 1936, in Flin Flon. Fox issued his own statement during a Social Credit meeting in Dauphin. He said his party would “assist the government in maintaining stability, and support all sane, sound and progressive legislation, particularly that which moves in the direction of economic and financial reform.”

If the situation sounds eerily familiar to the political arrangement made recently in Britain, it should. In the 1930s, Manitoba, similar to the rest of world, was facing the financial mess brought on by the collapse of the Wall Street stock market in 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. In order to ensure “economic and financial reform” in Britain, Cameron and Clegg choose to join forces to prevent their nation sinking deeper into an economic quagmire. Financially Britain’s debt and deficit are rising to an unsustainable level, as was Manitoba’s in the “Dirty Thirties.”

“Owing to the political situation resulting from the recent election,” said Fox, “the Social Credit members see no good purpose that will be served by causing another election, either now or in the near future, as we have no assurance that the outcome will change the existing situation to any extent, because the issues on July 27 (the day of the 1936 election) were not great as between those parties which had an opportunity to elect a government.”

In his turn, Bracken said: “We realize the very natural desire of the Social Credit group to maintain its identity and independence and we, therefore, appreciate all the more fully, their expressed willingness to maintain stability of government and their assistance in providing sound, progressive legislation ...”

Bracken had earlier approached the Conservatives under Errick Willis to enter the government. “I do not need to tell you that Manitoba faces a chaotic political future,” Bracken warned at a Liberal-Progressive meeting in The Pas on August 13. “We need stable government, and stable government cannot be obtained when no party has a clear majority. We asked Mr. Willis to form a coalition. He refused ... but if the Conservatives don’t care to co-operate we shall find some other party that will.”

The form of political system in the legislature favoured by Bracken was non-partisan politics. He was so enthralled with such a system that he allowed any follower of “Brackenism” — the common  name of the political movement he founded — a “free vote” in the legislature on any legislation. This political philosophy helps to explain Bracken’s continual push to form coalitions in the legislature.

Bracken was so successful at forming coalitions that by the 1940s other parties from such widely-divergent ideologies as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, now today’s NDP) willingly became part of his government. By this time, the competitive party system in Manitoba had virtually ceased to exist, as even Conservatives joined his ranks. The traditional adversarial nature of political parties was only resurrected when Duff Roblin took over the leadership of the Conservatives. 

The forces of Brackenism were led into the 1958 election by Liberal Premier Douglas Campbell, who failed to win a majority. On the other hand, Roblin’s party garnered the most seats, and should have been readily allowed to form a minority government. Yet, Campbell still felt he could get the CCFers on-side and retain his premiership. Unfortunately for him, CCF Leader Lloyd Stinson refused, and the era of coalition governments ended in Manitoba when Roblin subsequently became premier.

If another minority should be the result of the next Canadian federal election, it is not necessary to follow Britain's lead en route to a majority in the House of Commons, but the examples provided by this nation’s own past. What happened in Britain is nothing new in Canada — Canadians just haven’t kept up with their history lessons.