A minority left-of-centre government sustained by – but not in formal coalition with – a regional party?

It’s not just a post May-2015 scenario.  We’ve been here before.

History may have some interesting lessons for those who may find themselves round a negotiating table on May 8th.

To start with, we have to go back a fair way, to the time of Mr Gladstone in fact.  The 1883 election was inconclusive and the 86 MPs of the Irish Parliamentary Party – generally known as the Home Rule Party – found themselves courted by both the Liberals and the Conservatives.  But the deal was struck in Mr Gladstone’s favour as he undertook to introduce a Home Rule Bill.  He did.  It failed.  His government fell.

A similar situation prevailed in 1892.  Again, needing support to secure an administration, Mr Gladstone wooed over the Home Rulers with yet another Bill.  This one passed in the Commons but fell in the Lords.  Gladstone resigned shortly afterwards.

The same situation was replicated yet again in 1910 when the Liberals, short of an overall majority, secured an administration with the support of the Home Rulers.  This time the Liberals promised to neuter the House of Lords, in order to secure the passage of Home Rule.  That caused a constitutional deadlock, necessitating a further election.  Lords’ opposition was finally overcome and a Home Rule Act reached the statute book in 1914, three decades after Gladstone’s first attempt.

There is another, more recent precedent too.

Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government turned to the Ulster Unionists in 1977 for support to sustain itself.  It was support from the other side in the Irish debate, and the numbers were much smaller – just 7 MPs.  But the deal was support for the government in return for creating five additional Northern Ireland constituencies.  Most of Callaghan’s cabinet hated the deal – but it was expedient nevertheless.  Callaghan got a couple more years of office, but even his Unionist allies deserted in the end and helped vote his administration down.

So what are the lessons from history?

They are firstly that territorial politics isn’t like issue politics.  Such collaboration can drive deep fissures into the parties that enter into the arrangement.  Such deals can end up shaking up the constitutional structure of the UK, not in accordance with a principle, but as a result of political accommodation.  And the structure of the United Kingdom can be profoundly altered as a result.

Gladstone split his party in the end, because of his pursuit of Home Rule.  It marked the start of its inexorable decline.  The relative powers of the chambers of our Parliament today are shaped by these deals.  As is the map of the country.

If the May 2015 election gives us a Parliament with Labour as the largest party and the SNP with sufficient MPs to support a Miliband administration, there are likely to be some echoes from the past.

Added to that, both parties are rivals for votes in the same territory.  Both will be calculating the likely longer term electoral implications of dealing with each other in the short term.  Both will have to address the constitutional implications and consequences of their mutual arrangement: how much more power moves to Holyrood? What happens to voting arrangements in Parliament? How can public funds be distributed without fear of an English backlash?  Agreement on a policy agenda – to do with welfare for example – may prove to be a good deal easier than handling the territorial tensions that would invariably flow from any arrangement.  The risk for any administration that becomes embroiled with argument about territoriality is that it loses touch with the priorities of the majority of the electorate – and yet territoriality is the heart of the contracting parties’ concerns.

How long would the common interests – such as the removal of a Conservative administration in Westminster – win out over the underlying conflicts of interests – in particular any potential electoral dividends to be had north of the border?  How long could a non-formalised arrangement last once the inevitable compromises and challenges of government begin to mount? Could endless patching be done to the relationship to sustain it for a full five-year Parliament?

The history of territorial political deals suggests these are very hard to uphold, and that the friction emanating from within such deals impacts across the political and constitutional landscape.

As they gather around the negotiating table, the ‘urgency of now’ will be in vigorous competition with the caution of what tomorrow would bring. However, expect any arrangement based on territorial politics to be more tentative in nature than one based solely on political ideology.

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