By:Dafna Michaelson Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Goverment
A Coalition Government in the United Kingdom
As the U.S. wraps up another historically combative and negative campaign season, it is hard to imagine what it takes to lead a coalition government like the one currently in power in the U.K. With the U.K. facing a steep recession, one that mirrors the majority of the world, its citizens were not ready to elect any of the major parties to government. As it turns out, British voters demonstrated their discontent with “business as usual” by electing Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Nicholas Clegg, in May, 2010—with the full expectation of a hung parliament.
Using constitutional innovation to create a fully inclusive coalition government to address the countries staggering economic issues, Cameron and Clegg have joined together to lead the U.K. out of the recession. These two, representing historically polar ends of the United Kingdom’s political sphere, joined forces and have begun the process of setting the U.K. back on course.
It is important to note, the last time there was a coalition government of significant proportion in the U.K. was in 1940—to fight the Nazi’s. It too, was a time when the U.K. needed to blur party lines to defend the country.
I visited with Kevin Lynch, British Consul General in Denver, Colorado to ask him what challenges the coalition government faces and what lessons we in the U.S. might take away. Consul Lynch, who joined the Diplomatic Corps in 1978, has served in a variety of overseas posts including Brussels, 1981-1983; Dhaka (Bangladesh), 1984-1986; Dakar (Senegal), 1990-1993; Vilnius (Lithuania), 1994-1997; Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), 1997-2000; Accra (Ghana), 2001-2004; and Ekaterinburg (Russia), May–December 2006. Lynch came to Denver as British Consul in March, 2007, and needless to say, his experience throughout the world has introduced him to the principles of many different governments.
Watching what is going on in the U.K., Lynch is proud of the collaborative leadership in the British government. He says, “Intuitively, if you are collaborating you are doing well. It’s part of this whole teamwork thing. I think we have moved away from the iconic leader who leads by directives; we had negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—different opinions, different views, but for the betterment of the country—to resolve economic problems. They saw the light and said, ‘Let’s figure out a way we can come together and lead the U.K.’ ”
Today, according to Lynch, the focus of the 2010 coalition government is the global recession and getting the U.K. out of it. “It is, in my opinion, working well.” Yet, joining together such differing opinions and platform is not without conflict. Foreseeing this conflict as parties veer outside of their comfort zones, a coalition committee was formed to meet if a conflict happens between the two parties. For Lynch, this feels like an ideal way to keep the U.K. moving forward. Before the election, the parties had fundamental differences in thought as to how to resolve the country’s financial debt. Now, as a coalition government, they are beginning to understand that this coalition government could be the road to success. “Creating jobs is what we are all about at the moment. The government is very focused on the prosperity agenda, which will help us trade and invest our way out of this recession and this massive debt of £155 billion GBP,” says Lynch.
Election reform was another pre-coalition agreement between both political parties. According to Lynch, if election reform indeed occurs, it could lead to a permanent, more collaborative government going forward—should voters so choose.
What really struck Lynch through this process of collaborative leadership has been the empathy required from both sides of the coalition government to make success possible. “There were ideological differences, but collaborative working in difficult times or in good times is getting together to achieve the same objective,” said Lynch, “and the objective for the coalition government is getting us out of this recession. The lesson I would take away is this empathy thing.” That relationship includes one million jobs in the U.S. dependent on U.K. businesses, and one million jobs in the U.K. depend on U.S. businesses. It has been an ‘invisible’ collaboration which has worked. We have been in five campaigns and two world wars standing side by side.”
“I think the pragmatic side of saying we can do this, we are going to do this, we are able to do this—I think empathy is the word. To get to the common objective, we must understand where the opponent is coming from, who is not a natural bedfellow, where they are coming from and what their feelings are. We might have disagreements; we might not understand each other’s culture, but we must be collaborative and tolerant if we are to achieve the best possible objective. We must put aside our differences to get to what is good for one and all.”
Lynch could not end our meeting without sharing his appreciation for the relationship between our countries. “The U.K. and U.S. have this wonderful, special relationship at the government level, science and industry level, and so much more.
Going forward, the U.S. appears that they will stand side by side with the new coalition leadership in the U.K. With a shift in power imminently near in the U.S., perhaps we have much to learn from our British ally, with whom we have so much in common. With a jovial laugh Lynch adds, “...we even share the same language, to a point!”