Britain’s government of national unity

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IN 1931 THE beleaguered prime minister of a minority British government faced a divided cabinet. The agreed template for British policy seemed to be causing economic damage, yet the prime minister saw no alternative but to carry on, and duly formed a government of national unity with the opposition.

There are spooky parallels with the current crisis. The then-PM was Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour leader of Britain. He was attempting to defend the value of the pound, which had been tied to gold since Winston Churchill, as chancellor of the exchequer, restored the link in 1925. But the Bank of England and other experts insisted on public spending cuts, including to unemployment benefits, to restore investor confidence. Almost half MacDonald’s cabinet disagreed, so he took a handful of Labour MPs and led a coalition, backed largely by the Conservatives, which won a crushing majority in the general election.

This time around, Theresa May is the prime minister and she faces almost certain defeat in Parliament on December 11th in a vote on the European Union withdrawal deal that she negotiated. There has been some muttering that she might get the deal through with Labour backing, or even that a government of national unity could be formed to avoid a catastrophic “no deal” scenario. But the 1931 example is not encouraging. MacDonald and his colleagues were denounced as traitors to the Labour movement and the same fate could befall any Labour MPs who choose to back Mrs May.

Remainers might take hope from the fact that the 1931 government went off the gold standard almost immediately, finding that the economic costs were too great. Could a coalition government drop Brexit on the same grounds? Only with the backing of a massive Commons majority in a new election. And that seems a remote possibility, given that the British public are divided almost 50-50 on the issue.

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