When coalitions fail to coalesce

When coalitions fail to coalesce

Our history lesson at school teaches us that England is the mother of parliaments. The phrase was coined by John Bright, a radical politician of the 19th century in a speech advocating electoral reform. The British model has evolved over more than eight centuries. Westminster has become the model of democratic rule, and has inspired the formation of parliaments in many parts of the world.

The name parliament has been derived from the Old French parlement, which originally meant speaking, from the verb parler, to speak. Parliament, therefore, is indeed a talking shop.

The year 2010 has special significance in the history of the British parliament. For the first time in 60 years, a coalition government was installed. The general election produced a hung parliament. It was a typical formation: the two major parties, Conservative and Labour, were both short of an overall majority. At third place were the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dem), and their leader Nick Clegg became something of a kingmaker. Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron sought Clegg’s support.

In the event, Cameron became prime minister and Clegg his deputy.

The election campaign gave rise to several new words, and there are entries for many of them in the latest Collins dictionary. When Clegg’s popularity surged, Cleggmania and Cleggstasy were coined to reflect the mood of his supporters. Cameron contributed “broken society", which signifies a general decline in moral values.

The saddest of the new words is bigotgate, which sent Gordon Brown’s election prospects plummeting. Brown went out onto the street to meet “real people" and Gillian Duffy, a pensioner, met him there. She asked him questions about national debt and immigration. For Brown, the meeting was a disaster. As he left in his car, he said that Duffy was “just a sort of bigoted woman". His words were caught on tape as the mike was still live. When he realized what had happened, he apologized to her over the phone, and then went to her house. But she would not relent. This was to be a defining moment in the fortunes of the party.

Talking to media persons later, Duffy said bigot was an offensive word, but it was worse when Brown referred to her as “that woman". She said, “I am not that woman." As I read this report, I remembered another occasion when the phrase was used. On 26 January 1998, then US president Bill Clinton, speaking at a White House press conference, said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." No wonder the phrase sounds impolite.

In the early months of the new government, the coalition was seen as a success story.

But there is friction; there are protests from both sides about the functioning of the coalition. Conservative MPs call it a Brokeback coalition, alluding to the movie Brokeback Mountain about two cowboys who could not live together. Spending cuts, immigration, relations with the European Union and defence are areas of disagreement. Lib Dem’s Vince Cable claimed that it was a good collaboration, a civil partnership rather than a marriage. The Wall Street Journal called it “UK’s increasingly rattled coalition government". In secretly taped recordings, three Lib Dem ministers complained about the coalition backing Conservative policies not acceptable to the junior partner of the coalition. To add to the troubles of the party, Cable was caught on tape saying that he had “declared war" on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. He was stripped of key responsibilities.

With a by-election in northern England scheduled for mid-January, the coalition partners are nervously seeking ways to repair the damage and win the voter’s trust.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language.He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com