We live in interesting times. While the UK was blanketed in Icelandic dust, a political volcano was rumbling on the ground beneath. The innovation of televised leaders’ debates has caused a big upset in the current general election. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg did so well in the first of the three debates that one opinion poll last Sunday put his party first in popularity, a psephological datum never before encountered in the history of polling.
The polls were close even before this discombobulation. Now every member of the commentariat is once again discussing the possibility of a hung parliament. In the terminology of British politics, this is one in which no party has an overall majority. Even before the LibDem upset, that was likely, as the presence of several minority parties meant the ruling Labour Party only had to lose 24 seats to forfeit its absolute majority, while the Conservative Party had to win 116 seats to gain one.
The term hung parliament came into the British political lexicon as a result of Harold Wilson’s failure to win conclusively in the election of February 1974. He led a minority administration until another election was forced the next October. The Times wrote in early August, “The House is up, and the odds are that our ‘hung’ Parliament will not meet again.” The related term hung Senate had been used in Australia during that country’s elections in May 1974. The phrase came into wider popular use in Britain in 1978, when the slim Labour majority at the second 1974 election had been eliminated as the result of by-election losses and the party was kept in power though the support of the then Liberal Party.
Using hang for an indecisive situation has a long history. For example, a firearm whose gunpowder was damp might hang fire, with the powder smouldering until it went off, a potentially dangerous and unpredictable state of affairs. However, the metaphoric sense predates firearms, being known from the fourteenth century. It was linked with the figurative idea of suspense, of a matter that was undecided or in abeyance (we may presume it had nothing to do with hanging a person, as that kind of suspense is notoriously final). But the immediate precursor that the coiners of hung parliament must have had in their minds was hung jury, one that is unable to agree. That was created in the US as long ago as 1848.