British election was a lesson in democratic sanity



by Hugh Segal

The Globe and Mail
June 13, 2017

The unavoidable media construct of elections as horse races always, unavoidably, focuses on winners and losers.

So, in the recent British election, the Conservative robust minority and clear plurality of seats, is deemed a loss, because a majority was being sought by Prime Minister Theresa May. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who lost the election while gaining seats, is deemed by many to have won, simply because it was suggested before the election by many (including some in his own parliamentary membership) that a Labour collapse was likely.

All of this ignores what are often the deeply liberating forces unleashed by a truly representative minority election. In fact, minority parliaments far better reflect how voters normally balance their electoral choices than the faux majorities created by our distorted first-past-the-post winner-take-all system.

The last Canadian prime minister with a majority of votes cast, which produced a majority of seats in the House of Commons, was Brian Mulroney. Prime ministers since – Jean Chrétien, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau – have had majorities in the chamber but far fewer than 50 per cent of the votes cast. Mr. Chrétien’s robust seat majority following the Tory collapse in 1997 required a mere 38 per cent of the vote.

Recent British voting history, from David Cameron’s working minority with the Liberal Democrats to the deeply divisive EU “remain or leave” Brexit referendum, which pit generations and different income groups against one another, subdivided further by geographic divisions, speaks to the many different motivations underpinning last week’s vote. The outstanding performance of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, saw serious Tory gains at the expense of the Scottish National Party – deeply diminishing the prospects for another Scottish referendum on independence.

Ms. May’s parliamentary latticework of support will be made up of different parts of the U.K. parliamentary centre-right, with balance between Scottish and other Tories (who want a softer Brexit), Irish Unionists, who, while pro-Brexit, will want to soften any dilution in economic gains from a soft border with the European Union’s Republic of Ireland to the south, plus the usual hard Brexit suspects in her parliamentary membership. In other words, U.K. voters gave no one party a blank cheque and, whether having voted for “remain” or “stay,” they want some water in everyone’s claret.

While the United Kingdom does not have the history with minority governments that Canadians are quite used to, should they care to glance at Canadian history for a nanosecond they would note how successful minority first ministers such as Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Bill Davis, Jean Charest, Roy Romanow and Stephen Harper have been, both in legislative achievement, collaborative tone and public standing – often diluted when the partisan joys and excesses of one party majority government re-emerged.

Ms. May could well find greater legitimacy, rooted in local support and scope, when she and her team reflect more than just one party’s views in the coming Brexit negotiations. Minority governments produce that sort of balance.

That tragic terrorist attacks did not stampede voters all to one party speaks to the magnificent coherence, common sense and “stay calm, carry on” sensibility that defines British democracy.

Horse races often engage punters and touts, among many worthwhile others. Elections, thankfully, depend on a much more broad and representative population for both their salience and legitimacy.

Last week’s election can be diminished if viewed only as a horse race. It might be better understood as a calm democratic affirmation of moderation, balance and economic and political sanity on the part of one of the most tested, deep-rooted and durable democracies in world history.

Hugh Segal is master of Massey College and a former legislative secretary to Ontario premier Bill Davis during the minority period of 1975-81, and to opposition leader Robert Stanfield between 1972-74, during the Trudeau minority government.

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