Why Britain has a coalition government and Canada does not

12 05 2010

Consider this scenario. A general election gives a centre-right political party the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, albeit less than the majority needed to pass laws. Doing what is customary after an election defeat, the incumbent government, which is a centre-left party, resigns. The leader of the centre-right party forms a coalition with the third-place party. The coalition produces a stable majority and gives the third-place party several seats around the Cabinet table. The coalition agreement is slated to run for five years.

This scenario has recently unfolded in Britain. David Cameron now leads a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. In contrast, coalitions are very rare in Canada.  In the Canadian election of 2006, Stephen Harper ‘s Conservatives got the largest number of seats but less than a majority. Rather than forming a coalition to produce a majority, he opted to govern as a minority, securing the support needed to pass each piece of legislation on an ad hoc basis. The result has been chronic instability and a second general election that largely duplicated the results of the first.

Palace of Westminster

Why didn’t Stephen Harper arrange a coalition instead of governing with a minority? Why didn’t he do a David Cameron? The differences in personality between Harper and Cameron may be factor.  As well, the ideological gulf separating the Canadian Conservatives from their only realistic coalition partner, the hardcore socialist NDP, is far greater than the distance between the British Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. However, the major reason Harper did not negotiate a majority coalition relates to history. Canada has a long history of fairly successful minority governments and almost no history of coalitions. In contrast, Britain had coalition governments for part of the 20th century, albeit none of them were in living memory, the last coalition having come to an end with the Second World War. The wartime coalition led by Churchill left a fairly positive impression with British people—after all, it had dealt with an existential threat to Britain.

Parliament Hill in Winter

The only real coalition in Canadian history, the Union government of the First World War, is tainted in the historical memory by its association with Conscription and linguistic conflict. Minority governments have fared better in Canada than in the UK. The Pearson government in the 1960s had a productive legislative record and Pearson is now regarded as one of the greatest Canadian Prime Ministers. Even Stephen Harper, a Conservative, compares himself to Pearson.


The last minority government in Britain, which existed for a few months in 1974, was a dismal failure, although it must be said that governing Britain in 1974 would be far more challenging than governing Canada in the 1960s, when the economy was booming.

British people have experience with coalitions because the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all coalitions. Indeed, power-sharing was central to the deal that created the Northern Ireland assembly. No province in Canada has a coalition government, although there was a coalition government of sorts in  Ontario between 1985 and 1987.

Another key difference between Westminster and Ottawa is that nationalist parties are a minor force in UK politics (the Welsh and Scottish nationalists have only a handful of seats, as do the parties that want Northern Ireland to leave the UK). In contrast, there is only one nationalist party in the Canadian parliament and it has lots of seats.

For Canadian reactions to the coalition in the UK, see here, here, and here.

Ajzenstat on the BNA Act

11 10 2009

Janet Ajzenstat has replied to a recent post in which I said that Canada’s constitution was partly written and partly unwritten. A written constitution is one in which the political system is blueprinted in one or more written documents. In an unwritten constitution, important offices and practices are defined by custom and tradition, not a written document.  The United States has a written constitution that, among other things, describes the powers and mode of selecting the President and the Congress. Britain has a largely unwritten constitution: the office of Prime Minister evolved gradually and there is no constitutional document defining that office or its occupant’s powers or mode of selection.  “Responsible Government”, the cornerstone principle of Canada’s system of government, is not described or mandated in any of Canada’s constitutional documents. Indeed, the office of Prime Minister went unmentioned in the British North America Act of 1867. Professor Ajzenstat has said that I was wrong to assert that Canada’s constitution is partly unwritten because there are sections of the British North America Act that allude to Responsible Government and which suggest that the drafters of the statute had Responsible Government in mind. The BNA Act certainly referred to the Ministers of Agriculture and Finance, but it made no reference to the office of Prime Minister. It is true that the written part of Canada’s constitution was created with the unwritten conventions in mind, but this does not mean that Canada’s constitution is entirely or even mainly written. Canada’s constitution is a hybrid, combining bits of the British and American constitutions. Perhaps the most important part of Canada’s written constitution is the preamble, which states that the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire [for]… a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” These words entrenched parts of Britain’s unwritten constitution in the Canadian constitution.

It seems to me that it is an indisputable fact that Canada’s constitution is partly unwritten. That’s why the constitutionality of things like last December’s proposed coalition is a matter of passionate debate. (Indeed, the identity of Canada’s head of state is also a constitutional grey area). Whether or not Canada’s half-written, half-unwritten constitution represents an ideal arrangement is, of course, a matter open for discussion.