Britain, German-style

"Obviously it does not follow that because you have a 'hung' parliament like Germany you will end up with German economic success, any more than it follows that you will end up with Italian political instabilit..."

Timothy Garton Ash

In Berlin last week, people kept asking me about the British election and I kept asking them the German for 'hung parliament'. None of them could help me. The German for 'hung parliament' is simply 'parliament', because the system of proportional representation the Federal Republic adopted in 1949 routinely produces parliaments with no overall majority.

At a quick count, the Federal Republic has had less than two years of single-party or tolerated minority government out of the last 60. All the rest of the time, it has had coalition governments. Yet somehow Germany today does not seem to resemble the ghastly chaos with which conservative, popular British newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sun are now trying to scare their readers.

An example quite beyond parody appeared in a recent issue of the Sun. Its bare-breasted page 3 girl, 'Becky, 26, from London,' was reported in a text ('News In Briefs') inset to her photo as follows: 'Becky is concerned by the prospect of electoral reform in a hung parliament. She said: "In legislatures with proportional representation, minority or coalition government is often the norm. I'd hate to live in a country like Italy that has had 61 governments in 65 years - even if I do love Italian food."'

This gem of the Sun reporter's art followed a front page proclaiming 'Well Hung... and Shafted' (also hard to translate into German.) 'Fears of coalition Govt rock Britain', read the headline on the lead story by the paper's political editor, which noted warnings by 'Tories and top businessmen' that 'a coalition would plunge the country into chaos'.

Now obviously it does not follow that because you have a 'hung' parliament like Germany you will end up with German economic success, any more than it follows that you will end up with Italian political instability - or Italian food, for that matter. But Germany does show that you can run an effective economic policy with coalition governments; and Greece shows that you can run a lousy one with a clear single-party majority. It all depends who does it and how. The detail of electoral systems and constitutional arrangements, not to mention your political and administrative culture, matter a lot.

Every variant has its own strengths and weaknesses. Designed as it was to prevent the rise of another Adolf Hitler, the German political system has by now almost too many checks and balances. There was a time, about ten years ago, when I heard some Germans arguing that they needed Britain's 'first past the post' electoral system.

Only thus could Germany get decisive economic reforms, to pull it out of its post-unification trough. But the last decade has proved those siren voices wrong. Germany has made tough economic adjustments, forcing down unit labour costs, and it has done so largely in cooperation with the unions. German-style 'change through consensus' takes longer than the Margaret Thatcher-type, but is less socially divisive and ultimately more durable.

As the bond market sharks circle around Europe, sniffing blood – after Greece, Portugal; after Portugal, maybe a nice leg of British surfer – this is, of course, not the perfect moment to set about reforming the British electoral system. That moment was Tony Blair's election victory in 1997, when it could have accompanied devolution to Scotland and Wales (two other places where the roof does not seem to fall in just because you have a 'hung parliament'). But Labour, bloated by the size of its majority, refused the historic chance.

As a recent study from the British Academy's new Policy Centre shows, the first-past-the-post electoral system worked reasonably well back in 1951, when 97% of the vote went to Conservatives or Labour. In the last general election, in 2005, those two 'old' parties (to use the Cleggism) got only 69% between them. This gradual erosion of two-party politics, making British governments ever less representative of the electorate, has been turned into a mudslide by popular revulsion at the MPs' expenses scandal.

So this may not be the perfect moment, but it is where the British people now are. Unless there is a major shift in the last week of the campaign, and the Conservatives win an overall majority, we shall have what we call a 'hung parliament' and what the Germans simply call a parliament. Then British politicians will need to start behaving more like Germans – but without any clear rules (expect a set of 'conventions' just invented by the Cabinet Office), without any experience of this game, and with the whole thing speeded up to ten times the German speed.

For if 'change through consensus' in Germany takes a long time, so does its coalition-building. Coalition talks go on for weeks. Here in Britain, urgent, painful decisions will need to be taken about public spending and taxation - to keep those bond market sharks at bay.

So what in Germany takes five weeks needs to happen here in about five days. German consensus-building, British speed. This means that, starting on the morning of Friday 7 May, Britain's political leaders will have to start behaving like the grown-ups they really are - and not the schoolboys we see shouting at each other across the despatch boxes at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons.

Whether this is a formal coalition or a tolerated minority government, whether with a Lib-Con or a Lib-Lab deal, there must be agreement on two things: a way forward on electoral reform and a way forward on the public finances. After a half-century of unjust exclusion, the Liberals would be both mad and wrong not to insist on the former; the national interest demands the latter. The lead UK analyst for Moody's credit rating agency recently told the Financial Times that a fiscal plan agreed by a coalition 'could actually be quite positive, because it would imply broad popular support'. But the politicians will have to get there, and get there fast - to a place they have never been before, while committing to public spending cuts for which none of them (not even the Lib Dems, though they have come closest) have yet prepared the British public.

And that is only the beginning. They will then have to make up a whole new way of doing British politics, as they go along, without any rulebook to guide them. It should be quite a ride.

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