For a full decade now—for a span of years that is gradually coming into focus as a historical epoch in its own right—the major countries of Western Europe have been living under conservative rule. This situation has created new and unanticipated problems in the functioning of democratic institutions. More particularly, it has raised an agonizing dilemma for the chief forces of loyal, constitutional opposition —the Social Democratic and Labor parties.
The turn toward conservatism came first in Italy. By his crushing electoral victory over the Communist-Socialist bloc in April 1948, Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi inaugurated a period of Christian Democratic rule that has persisted ever since. A year and a half later, the new state of Western Germany was launched under similar auspices; here also government by Christian Democrats has proved unshakable. In June 1951, the French electorate for the first time since the war sent a conservative majority to the National Assembly. The following autumn, the British did the same thing. In the British case the reversal proved decisive: the narrow Conservative majority of 1951 was steadily enlarged in succeeding elections. In France the trend to the right appeared to be temporarily checked by fifteen months of Socialist rule in 1956 and 1957. But this government in fact existed on conservative sufferance, and on the crucial issues of colonial policy—Suez and Algeria—it followed a nationalist and imperial course. The coming to power of De Gaulle in 1958 reaffirmed a drift toward conservative solutions that had already been apparent for seven years.
The result of this succession of conservative triumphs has been a “one and a half” party system. On the surface it tends toward the twoparty norm which Anglo-Saxons have traditionally considered ideal. And in all fairness one must grant that it marks a simplification of the multiparty competition which vexed European democracy in the interwar period and was at least partially responsible for the turn to fascist solutions in the 1930s. But the real point about the evolution of the 1950s and 1960s has not been its gradual elimination of minor parties as serious contenders. It has rather been the creation of a two-party system with a crucial difference—a hybrid state of affairs in which one of the parties seems to stand almost no chance of electoral victory.