Opinions & Ideas

Category: Labour Party


The  self declared Conservative and Unionist Party won the  General Election in England by harnessing English Nationalism, and the Scottish Nationalists did the same in Scotland by harnessing Scottish Nationalism. The two nations, by the rhetoric of their respective election campaigns, by have thus set themselves on a collision course. 

The Conservative Party scared English voters with the prospect of a Labour Government taking office with parliamentary support from the Scottish National Party. English voters were persuaded that a Labour Government, dependant on Scottish Nationalists, would somehow steal English money for the benefit of Scotland.  If there was deep pro Union sentiment in England, this appeal would not have worked, but it did work. 

The implication of the successful Conservative ploy, was  that Scottish Nationalist MPs, although freely elected to and sitting in the United Kingdom Parliament, would not be  fit to have influence on the fiscal policies of the government of the UK as a whole, simply because they are Scottish Nationalists. They are thus cast in the role of “second class” MPs.

The Conservative Party was saying that Scottish Nationalists are not welcome as full participants in the Union, at least as far as having a say in the fiscal policy of the Union is concerned. That was a very anti Unionist stance for a self declared” Unionist” party to take.

Meanwhile the Scottish National Party itself won support in Scotland on the false premise that a Scotland separated from England could avoid austerity, whereas the reality is that an independent Scotland would, on present policies, have a larger proportionate fiscal deficit, than the UK( including Scotland) now has. Arguably an independent Scotland would have to have more, not less, austerity.

That is not, of itself, a reason for Scotland to reject independence, but if it opts for independence, it should understand, and be willing to pay, the extra cost. This was not teased out because, unlike almost any other country in Europe, Scotland has no serious, centre right, fiscally conservative , party.

This is not the first time that the Conservative Party has adopted English Nationalism as an electoral tactic.

It did so in the 1911 to 1914 period, when it sought to de legitimate the minority, Asquith led, Liberal Government of that period, on the ground that the Liberals were dependent for their continuance in office on the Irish Party of John Redmond, and were pursuing a policy of Home Rule for Ireland within the UK.

The Conservatives even went so far, at that time, to advocate extra parliamentary methods to defeat the Home Rule policy of their duly elected UK Government.

At that time, the Irish Nationalists, unlike their Scottish brethren today, understood that an independent Irish Exchequer could not afford to introduce some of the fiscal measures then being introduced for the UK, as transpired when an Irish Government in 1924 had to take a shilling off the old age pensions Lloyd George had introduced in 1909. Scottish Nationalists could learn from that.

The difficulty for the Conservatives, in again adopting an overtly English Nationalist stance to win English electoral support, is its effect on Scottish opinion, over the next five years, while Scotland will being governed, as far UK matters are concerned, by a Conservative Party that  fought an election on the basis that  MPs the Scottish electorate have chosen ought not influence UK fiscal policy. 

Meanwhile the Conservatives are committed to a referendum on EU membership which could result in English votes taking both Scotland and England out of the EU, even though Scottish voters might, by majority in the referendum, vote to stay in the EU.

In a Union, where England’s population is so much greater than that of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the use of a simple majority referendum to decide such existential questions as EU membership is unnecessarily crude and divisive.

It reduces subtle and difficult matters to a simple “yes/no” question, and takes no account of the fact that the four components of the UK are not only different in size and population, but also very different in political culture.  Imagine what would happen if there had to have been an EU wide referendum of the bailout packages for Ireland and Portugal!

Nationalistic passions are all too easy to stir up, as a means of winning elections, but once kindled they are not easily or quickly extinguished. 

Now that the election is over, David Cameron needs to break with Westminster’s confrontational traditions, and adopt a consensual approach towards all the opposition parties and enlist their help in finding a way of devolving more powers to Scotland without aggravating the rest of the UK, and of negotiating with the EU on basis that will not further deepen divisions within the UK itself.


In this article I would like, on the basis of my personal experience of working in coalition governments in Ireland, to put forward some ideas that may be useful in other countries.

But first it is necessary, for international readers, to say a word about the party political landscape in Ireland during the period of my political career, 1969 to 2004.

During  this time, there were five major parties in Irish politics, all of whom had some involvement in coalition governments at different times. 

These were, in declining order of size
  • Fianna Fail (a traditional nationalist party, which until 1989 had  refused to take part in coalitions on principle), 
  • Fine Gael (a centrist party in the European Christian Democrat tradition),
  • the Labour Party (social democrat party with trade union links),
  • the Democratic Left (a socialist party since merged with the Labour party) and
  • the Progressive Democrat party( a party that espoused liberal economics which has since been wound up).

I served in four different coalition governments, 1973-1977, 1981-2, 1983-87, and 1994-1997.

In addition to the coalitions in which I served during this period, there also have been a Fianna Fail/Labour coalition(1992/94), and a Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalitions (1989/92 and 1987/2002).

Fine Gael and Labour had also participated together in coalitions in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

I was a junior Minister in  the 1973/77 coalition governments involving Fine Gael and Labour, a full Cabinet Minister in the second and third(1981/2), and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in the fourth one(1994/7).

All the coalitions in which I served involved my party, Fine Gael, as the largest party, and the Irish Labour party the second largest. There was also a third party, Democratic Left, in the 1994-1997 Government. 

I will headline below the lessons I have derived from my experience.


The parties in the 1981-2 Government did not make up a majority in the Dail (parliament), hence the government’s short life.

While it did obtain a majority vote for an emergency budget shortly after taking office in 1981, it could not persuade a majority to vote for its more comprehensive budgetary proposals in 1982. The result was a General Election, which the parties lost. They were succeeded by a minority Fianna Fail Government, which introduced a budget almost identical to the one they had voted against in order to bring down the previous coalition.

The reason having a majority is particularly important to coalition governments is that internal negations between the coalition parties themselves will tend to be difficult enough, without the added complication of negotiating with individual deputies, or parties outside the government, to ensure a majority to pass individual measures one by one

All the other coalitions, apart from the 1981/82 one, had a working majorities for all business on which the parties could agree, but the 1983-87 coalition broke up because the parties could not agree between themselves on policy for the 1987 budget.


The 1994-1997 coalition of three parties, which I led as Taoiseach, was the only three party Government in Irish history, and the only one to be formed in the middle of a parliamentary term, without a General Election.

A realignment of parties to form that new government without a General Election was made possible by bye election victories for parties in opposition earlier in the parliamentary term. It was also necessitated by a breakdown in trust between the Labour Party and Fianna Fail, with whom Labour had formed a coalition after the 1992 General Election. 

My personal opinion is that the dynamic of a three party coalition is easier to manage than that of a two party coalition. This is because, if there is a difference between two of the parties, the third one can often be the catalyst for compromise. The presence of three party  in the coalition can avoids  binary conflicts on a given issue, where one or other of only two  parties has to lose face.


The parties in the 1973-77 and 1994-7 governments remained united and faced the General Elections of 1977 and 1997 respectively, seeking re election on a joint programme. This is a testament to good relations between the coalition parties, In the other cases, the outgoing coalition parties contested the elections separately. To date, however, no coalition government of the same parties has been re elected.
The internal dynamic of each of the four coalitions in which I was involved was different. The personalities involved were different, and personality traits are very important in politics. 
But the circumstances of their election, and the relativity in size of the parties and economic conditions also made a big difference.

A coalition that had already agreed a joint programme before the election from which it emerged, as was the case with the1973/77 coalition, probably has a better chance of staying together for it full term, and seeking subsequent re election on a joint programme, than has a coalition that is not negotiated and formed until after the election from which it emerged.

This is so for the following reason. If parties have fought an election on different and competing programmes, and subsequently have to negotiate a joint programme involving the inevitable sacrifice of points on which they had fought the election, this will make the subsequent life of the government more difficult. Such parties are more likely to be accused of “broken promises”. But agreeing a joint programme before an election, in which coalition parties will still be competing for votes with one another, is not easy either.


The 1973-1977 Fine Gael/ Labour Government was first elected in 1973 on the basis of an agreed platform, which encouraged electoral cooperation between them and maximised their seats. The leaders of the two parties had experienced the frustration of opposition, having served in parliament for a long time, mostly out of power, and this made them personally determined to hold the government together, notwithstanding the substantial differences in interest between their support bases. Labour had a strong influence on the taxation policies of this government, which reflected the number of seats they had.
In the parliaments of the 1981/2 and 1983/7 periods, the Fine Gael party was numerically stronger relative to Labour, than it had been in the 1973/77 period, and this had to be reflected in the content of the government’s economic policy. Economic conditions were difficult because of international circumstances, and framing fiscal policy was thus a hard task .Labour influence was exercised to resist reductions in public spending, which inevitably increased the overall tax burden.


The three party coalition of the 1994/97 period served in more benign economic times. 
Economic growth accelerated rapidly during the term of office of the government, which made the framing of fiscal policy easier than it had been in the 1980’s.

While Fine Gael was the bigger party, Labour had more parliamentary strength than it had  had in the parliaments of the 1980’s, and this additional strength was reflected in the fact that Labour, although still the smaller party, held the Finance Ministry, a post that the bigger party had always held in  previous coalitions. This ensured that there was a better sharing of responsibility for fiscal policy between the parties than may have been the case before. This reduced tension. The Democratic Left also played a key role in facilitating compromise as indicated earlier.


The 1994/1997 government also benefitted from having a more structured system for resolving policy differences between parties and ministries than had been the case in earlier coalitions.

Ministers from all three parties each had two advisors who were political appointees. 
One was a “Programme Manager”, whose job it was to work with his/her own Minister and the other Programme Managers, to ensure that the agreed programme of the three parties was implemented across Government. 
The other appointee was a conventional political advisor who looked after his/her Minister’s political interests, relations with his party etc.

In my view, the Programme Manager system was particularly effective in ironing out technical disputes on politically sensitive issues that had absorbed too much time and emotional energy at cabinet meetings of previous coalitions.

As a general rule, as Taoiseach, I did not take an issue to cabinet unless differences had first been ironed out, or simplified, by the Programme Managers, or in discussion between the three party leaders.


The relationship between a bigger and a smaller party in a coalition is a sensitive one because experience in Ireland has been that the smaller party tends to get more of the blame, and the bigger party more of the credit, for what the coalition does in government. Thus the smaller party runs the risk of doing relatively less well in the subsequent election.

Dealing with this problem is a primary responsibility of the leader of the bigger party, the Taoiseach of the day. To this end in the 1994/7, I minimised, to some extent, my own media appearances to allow attention to be taken by other Ministers, including Labour Ministers.

I also arranged for regular separate meetings of Fine Gael Ministers where we discussed issues that might be coming up well ahead of time, with a view to identifying ways to manage any of them that might otherwise cause friction between the parties at the cabinet table. 

Argument at cabinet should be a last resort!


I have just finished reading the autobiography of Jack Straw MP, formerly UK Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, and Lord Chancellor in the Blair /Brown Governments.
The book is entitled “Last Man Standing” in reference to the fact that Jack Straw survived as a Minister through the whole New Labour period in office.
His book is well written and clear, and especially interesting on his, at times painful, family background. 
Although from a relatively impoverished family, he won a scholarship to a boarding school, and subsequently became a barrister.
He then became a political advisor to Barbara Castle, and succeeded her as Labour MP for Blackburn in Lancashire in 1979.
The author’s affection for the Labour Party and for his constituents in Blackburn shines through the whole book. He enjoys constituency work, and , unlike many MPs in safe seats, he returns to his constituency on a regular basis.
Straw is highly critical of the style of governing of both of the Prime Ministers  under whom he served.
Blair bypassed formal Cabinet and Cabinet committee processes.
Straw believes that if these processes were followed, some of the mistakes the Government made would have been avoided because weak arguments would have been properly tested. He also argues that the informal style of governing under Blair delegated far too much freedom to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and that this worked to the disadvantage of Tony Blair himself.             
Gordon Brown attempted to restore Cabinet government, but was secretive, suspicious and indecisive at key moments.
At the end of his book, Jack Straw calls for legislation to guarantee collective Cabinet responsibility. He is also critical of overly frequent Cabinet reshuffles, a problem that is less severe when there is a coalition government.
He is also critical of Tony Blair’s unquestioning support for Israel, which ultimately led to his downfall. As he puts it, Tony Blair was ”always prepared to give Israel the benefit of the doubt , even when there was no doubt” .
Questioned in the House in 2006, Tony Blair could not bring himself to criticise the disproportionate nature of Israel’s attack on Lebanon , in response to Hezbollah attacks on Israel. Notwithstanding the large number of civilian casualties in Lebanon caused by Israeli firepower, Blair blamed Hezbollah for everything. This was so far out of line with opinion in his own party that it was the tipping point that led to his downfall.
The book is not very convincing on the authors own support, as Foreign Secretary, for the invasion of Iraq. While he makes the valid and often ignored point that everybody, including the Russians and Chinese, believed Saddam Hussein did actually have weapons of mass destruction, it is not clear why more time could not have been given to inspections before launching the invasion. It is also unclear why the UK did not insist on involvement in post invasion planning, as a condition for involvement in the invasion and occupation.
Healthy military alliances, like healthy coalition governments, require often laboriously time consuming consultation in private, before big and irrevocable decisions are taken. 

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