Oxford historian Angus Hawkins argues that peacetime coalitions 'almost always' lead to 'seismic shifts' in politics - one casualty of which could be the Labour party's very existence 


By Guy Collender

Today’s changing political landscape and Labour’s 'existential crisis' are entirely consistent with the upheaval that follows peacetime coalitions, according to Oxford historian Angus Hawkins.

Addressing a busy lecture theatre at Keble, Hawkins substantiated his claim by reviewing a series of historical parallels, including David Lloyd George’s coalition government after the First World War. The end of the coalition in 1922 heralded the arrival of Labour, instead of the Liberals, as the main opposition party.

AngusHawkinsHawkins (pictured left) outlined his three rules about peacetime coalitions: 

1. The prospect of the next election hangs over the minor party in a coalition like the sword of Damocles
2. Exiting the coalition is harder than entering into the agreement for the parties concerned
3. The further from the ministerial offices and the heart of power, the harder it is to maintain the coalition, especially in constituencies

Hawkins focused on the recent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and its aftermath. He dissected this year's British general election, commenting on the retribution shown towards the Liberal Democrats, the rise of the Scottish National Party and Scotland's 'one-party state', and the 'existential crisis' for the Labour party. 

In response to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party, Hawkins predicted that the party is likely to split. He added that a Social Democratic party might emerge, possibly including the Liberal Democrats.


Professor Hawkins, Fellow of Keble and Director of Public and International Programmes at the Department for Continuing Education, explained his compelling theory during Oxford’s Alumni Weekend. Hawkins concluded the lecture, which was entitled Party games: coalitions in British politics, by saying that politics in the United Kingdom might become more like the politics of continental Europe. 

Guy Collender is a Keble alumnus (Modern History, 1998) and Head of Alumni Marketing and Communications


By Mike Udal

If the Labour party does split, I wonder if the natural and long-standing tensions in the Tory party will be unleashed and lead to a matching split on the Right?

By John Ryden (1965)

It is not clear from this short summary whether Professor Hawkins' views apply only to UK coalitions or to coalitions in general. I would be interested to hear his opinion of politics in Austria (where I live) where coalitions have ruled almost continuously since WW2.

By Mark Mawhinney

You don't say!

By Pete

In Britain, Coalition government is an effect, rather than a cause, of political upheaval.

By Philip Goldenberg

The logic applies to all Coalitions, but a proportional electoral sustem gives a less painful result!

By Richard Lawson

It is very easy to predict the demise of the Labour Party but history - 1931 and 1983 - has shown it is very durable institution if not always a very successful one. 25% of the voters have always supported it and the Electoral System is very kind to it: it takes fewer voters to elect a Labour MP on average than a Conservative one. The SNP is similarly over-represented because of the Electoral System.

By RH Findlay

I understood that it takes around 36000 voters to elect a Tory and 40000 voters to elect a Labour MP: please correct me if I am wrong.

Having lived in 4 Commonwealth countries including the UK, I consider that Australia has the best electoral system; compulsory voting, an effective party-preference system, an Upper House for which one also votes, and a Constitutional Monarchy whereby we have a generally conservative Governor-General who is basically incorruptible by party politics and who can if needed sack a government. Unfortuneately some believe that Australia will not "grow up" until it becomes republic. Having witnessed from afar the USA's multi-billion 4-year circus known as the presidential elections, I for one do not see any value in republics. And having watched Australian Prime Ministers in action since 1983, I would want none of them as a President. The UK could also learn from Australia in respect of the electoral cycle; three years is plenty for the Lower House, with staggered elections for the Upper House; that way, there is a better chance of rectifying mistakes.