British democracy


The outcome of the recent British general election should be of interest to Canada because it left Britain in the same position Canada has been in following our last three general elections.

They call it a hung parliament; we call it minority government.

It is interesting to note the British refer to the election of a parliament, while Canadians refer to the election of a government. Canadian political parties continue in their efforts to

outmanoeuvre and out-strategize each other after the election just as they did during the election. After the election our political parties continue to hurl insults and accusations at each

other, while in Britain they engage in serious negotiations to set terms for a coalition government.

When Stephane Dion and Jack Layton proposed a Liberal-NDP coalition as an alternative, the Conservative minority government, the Conservative Party, and political gurus reacted apoplectically.

Canadian political pundits claimed that coalition government is not consistent with the Westminster model, and they were particularly upset because the Liberal-NDP coalition had

negotiated an agreement with the Bloc Quebecois not to topple the coalition for two years.

As important as economic issues are today in Britain, the most difficult public policy issue in Britain’s coalition negotiations concerns a change in the way politics is done, specifically a change in the first-past-the-post voting system. It is a debate with which British Columbians are quite familiar; we have had two referendums on the subject. It will be interesting to see

how the Mother Parliament deals with the question and how the next British parliament will be elected.

Canada’s belief that only a majority parliament elected by the first-past-the-post method can provide good government is not compatible with democratic principles.

How can one political party, be that to the left, right, or centre of the political spectrum, represent the views of the population on all public policy issues, including education, security, health, environment, resources, culture, language, justice, employment, banking, and more?

A further concern is that a voting system that rewards one political ideology with all the power weakens the critically important democratic principle of tolerance and respect for the other.

Democratic philosophy demands that citizens debate their differences and that they search for compromise solutions where differences are found.

Common ground in public policy is possible, but finding it requires tolerance and respect for the other.

Britain’s political parties demonstrated a level of maturity, sophistication, and respect for democratic principles unknown in Canadian politics when they initiated coalition negotiations as soon as the election results were released.

If our political parties and their leaders behaved like the British, we would have seen coalition negotiations between the Conservative Party of Canada and the NDP after the last election. We can only dream about the kind of government we would have to-day if these two parties had negotiated a compromise on their respective policy positions on issues such as health care, resource extraction, taxation and more.

Political compromise is not utopia, and it is not a sign of weakness.

Quite to the contrary, political compromise is a sign of strength and maturity; only mature politicians have the strength necessary for tolerance and respect for the other. Britain’s last election campaign was a rough one as political opponents accused each other of vile and shocking deeds and beliefs.

It was astonishing to witness how quickly the tone changed in the wake of the election and how party leaders reached out to each other in search for common ground.

Would it be unrealistic to hope for a British-style aftermath to Canada’s next general election?

Andre Carrel is a retired municipal administrator and author of Citizen’s Hall: Making Local Democracy Work. He lives in Terrace, BC.