After five years of coalition government here in the UK, most of us know what a hung parliament is. It’s a parliament in which no one political party has an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons and therefore can’t pass laws without the support of MPs for other political parties.
And with another hung parliament predicted after the 2015 general election, the phrase is constantly being used.
But what are the origins of the term?
The term, apparently, came into common currency in Australia in May 1974 after the Senate elections left no party in overall control. It was used again frequently in the UK in 1978 when by-election defeats meant the Labour Party lost its majority and needed support from the Liberal Party to survive in Government.
Why use the term ‘hung’?
This refers to the legal term ‘hung jury’, used when juries cannot agree on a verdict. First used in the US in the 1840s, it’s a figurative term meaning that a decision is suspended or delayed. The expressions ‘he got hung up in the office’ or ‘hang in the air’ have similar uses and meanings.
Nowadays the term ‘hung parliament’ is used widely, not just in the UK but in Canada, Singapore, Australia and other English-speaking countries with parliamentary political systems.
That clears that up.
No overall control
Hang on though…Why don’t we use the term ‘No overall control’, which seems more precise and is commonly used to describe indecisive outcomes of local authority elections?
Perhaps there’s no real reason for this. Then again, the term ‘No overall control’ is really boring. It sounds too clinical, technical and remote….it’s OK for some non-descript district council or a London borough in Zone 6, but we in the UK subconsciously feel it’s insufficient when describing our national parliament, the mother of democracy.
So, descriptions and phrases like ‘hung parliament’ get picked up and used simply because commentators and the wider public like using them, as they sound more intriguing and evocative.
It adds to the feeling that our democracy – although not perfect – is quaint, quirky and full of character and tradition, and somehow better than pale and colourless imitations elsewhere. This is despite the fact that the term itself is a foreign import.
Although the result of the 2015 general election may well be ‘No overall control’, it seems the term ‘hung parliament’ will hang around for some time yet.
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