As the debate over the “complete overhaul” of British democracy has unfolded this week, I’ve been surprised (ok maybe not all that surprised) at how quickly the conversation has turned to starry-eyed wistful gazing across the pond toward Washington. Despite there being plenty of examples of democracies that function better than Britain’s just across the English Channel, it seems that virtually every article about the possibility of a “quiet revolution” in the UK following the expenses crisis now contains an inevitable comparison to the US system. An increasing number of (mostly Tory) MPs are also making the comparison. Considering the fact that it took an enterprising American journalist to finally expose the expenses system for what it is, perhaps its not surprising that the British are looking across the pond for guidance at this humiliating time. But is it a productive exercise?
Putting aside the fact that I’m not sure how helpful it is to be comparing a parliamentary system to a congressional system, I’ve also noted a lot of inaccuracies being stated about the supposedly awe-inspiring success of American democracy. Granted, I’ll be the first to admit that American government is much more efficient, logical, stream-lined and accountable than UK government. But considering the dysfunctional state British democracy has found itself in, I’m not sure that’s saying much! Still, I thought it would be helpful to look at the arguments comparing the two governments. To be honest I think it might be more productive to do a side-by-side comparison with some continental parliamentary democracies like Germany’s or the Netherlands’, but I’m not exactly an expert on those – plus you’ve got to give your readers what they want!
Argument: A written constitution as in the US would prevent power concentration
My Response: Yes and no
Much of the trouble with British government is that it is the only democracy in the world that is completely uncodified. It is also the mother of modern democracy, and because it was formed slowly over centuries and inventing as it went along, it operates on a set of assumptions and traditions rather than on a constitution. Therefore the Queen is the head of state and technically can still wield some significant power, but it is ‘understood’ that she won’t use it.
The effect of this over the long term has been that the lack of a constitution has allowed governments to make up the rules as they go along. Since World War I, prime ministers have taken more and more power away from the broader parliament and concentrated it in the hands of the government. The result has been the emergence of a sort of “presidential prime minister” who has most of the same powers of a unitary executive yet is not directly elected, instead being nominated by his party. This has left backbench MPs with pretty much nothing to do, functioning just as a rubber stamp for the government. I can tell you it makes British politics pretty boring to watch, because there isn’t any conflict on an executable level. There is one government - composed of the prime minister and his cabinet - which makes all the decisions. The rival parties merely form “shadow cabinets” with no actual power, so all they can do is say what they would do if they were in power. The monarch no longer executes any authority, leaving the prime minister as the sole, unchecked authority. The UK doesn’t even have a Supreme Court to check the government’s power!
Many in Britain have pointed out that in the US, the constitution has acted as a bulwark against those who would wish to monopolize power, maintaining a system of checks-and-balances with three theoretically co-equal branches of government - the executive (president), the legislative (congress) and the judicial (the Supreme Court). While it is true that this has been the sacred formula of US government, it is also true that the presidency has grown unprecedentedly powerful since World War II, turning into the so-called “imperial presidency”. More and more power has been taken away from congress and instead given to presidential agencies, and more and more is done these days by executive order. And when you have an acquiescent congress of the same party as the president - as existed during the Bush Administration - congress becomes in practice little more than a rubber stamp itself. Still, the rubber-stamp congress of the past eight years was more of an anomaly, whereas the rubber-stamp nature of the British parliament seems to be built into the system.
Argument: There are too many people in the British parliament
My Response: Well duh!
Here’s an embarrassing comparison for you - there are 535 members of the US congress representing 307 million people, and there are 1,384 members of the UK parliament representing 62 million people. Seems a little screwy no? In fact, British citizens are the most over-represented people in the world. And it gets worse. The majority of those parliamentarians (738) serve in the House of Lords, a historically unelected, hereditary institution for the landed aristocracy. The UK’s method of dealing with this strange relic over the past century, rather than majorly reforming the House of Lords or getting rid of it, has been instead to just strip it of almost all its powers and giving them to the House of Commons. Today the House of Lords is basically useless (other than a select few “Law Lords”, the UK equivalent of the Supreme Court), and its seats are handed out to anybody who have donated money or composed some catchy tunes.
Most of the members of the House of Lords don’t even bother to show up to the chamber. Many have called for the House of Lords to be replaced with a US-style popularly-elected regional senate. I would point out, however, that US Senators weren’t popularly elected until the mid-20th century. Before that, they were chosen by their individual state’s legislatures. At the time it was thought that this kept them out of the dog-and-pony show that is political campaigning and made the upper chamber a more deliberative, intelligent body. Personally, I think the US senate would function better if members were elected by state legislatures once again.
Argument: British MPs should be as independent as their American counterparts.
My Response: Maybe
It might surprise some Americans to learn that British MPs marvel at the way American congressmen and women are allowed to be so independent of their party. It may not seem like it sometimes, but the US congressional system actually allows independent lawmakers to vote their conscience in a way that would be impossible in the UK. The whips in the British parliament are extremely powerful, and it’s basically impossible to vote against your party. In fact on the rare occasion that party members vote against their leader in a parliamentary democracy it often causes the downfall of the government. Many here in the UK have been arguing over the past week that the independence of US congressmen makes them more directly accountable to their constituents. While this may be true, rogue lawmakers can often make passing legislation extremely difficult, and a lack of party unity can slow progress in the US congress to a glacial pace. I would strongly disagree with the some in the British media who have claimed this week that the US congress works much quicker than the British Parliament. On the contrary, my observation has been the many independent egos needing to be wooed in the US means legislation can be much harder to pass than in the UK where an all-powerful government can railroad things through with a simple rubber stamp from MPs. While this may seem anti-democratic, it does mean that the UK government can act (and respond to crises) much quicker than in the UK.
Argument: MP candidates should be selected by a popular primary as in the US, rather than by the party.
My Response: This leads to celebrity politics and mob rule
Another increasing demand this week is that MP candidates should be selected in party primaries like in the US, rather than being put forward by the party to which they belong. After this exciting (and egregiously long) US presidential season of two years, I can see why Brits might be a little jealous that they don’t get the excitement of these primaries deciding party candidates by public votes. But I would posit that these primaries do not result in the selection of the best, most able candidates but rather the most recognized, attractive, personable and pandering. The whole idea of public primaries was another thing that didn’t emerge until the mid-20th century in the US. Before then candidates were selected by local party officials just like in the UK. Slowly various state parties started offering the public the chance to cote for the nominee, and after public pressure soon every state had followed suit. In my view this has lead to an increase in personality-driven politics, the selection of candidates based on their ability to charm people or their name recognition rather than on their actual skills and merits.
Some here in the UK have argued that forcing sitting MPs to undergo a challenge to their seat in a local primary would make them more accountable to voters and dislodge the complacent or ineffective. But this has not been the case in the US. With the exception of the 2006 and 2008 elections, which were in extraordinary circumstances, usually 98% of sitting congressmen are re-elected in each US election.
Argument: The prime minister should be popularly elected and serve a fixed term.
My Response: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Gordon Brown has now been prime minister for nearly two years, and yet he was never directly elected by the British people as a whole. That’s because no prime minister in any parliamentary system is ever popularly elected to that position, he or she is chosen by the MPs of whichever party obtained a majority in the election. Because Tony Blair led Labour to a re-election in the 2006 elections (and then stepped down in the summer of ’07 handing the reigns to Gordon Brown), Labour does not have to call another election until June of 2010. Many have argued that allowing leaders to pick and choose when they’re going to call an election gives them an unfair advantage (because they can call it whenever would be most politically advantageous) and allows leaders to serve without a mandate from the public.
I’ve been increasingly hearing this rather silly argument from people, but what they’re proposing is giving the UK a president. But that’s a different system of government! The fact is the prime minister does operate with a mandate from the public whether he was the face of the party during the last election or not, because the people elected the party and he is the representative of that party.
When people propose this idea, I don’t fully understand what it is they’re suggesting. The UK is a parliamentary democracy, like every other country in Europe with the exception of France. This is the way parliamentary democracies work. And in my opinion, a system in which elected MPs select the leader of a country rather than the public is better able to place the most skilled, able people into the leadership rather than the most attractive, personable or convincing. One only needs to look at the last eight years in the US to see how the public can often make very bad decisions when selecting a leader, preferring someone they could “have a beer with” (the famous quote from exit polling of people who voted for Bush in 2000) over someone who seemed smarter than them. Increased direct democracy – as Tory MP Douglas Carswell is advocating for - does not always lead to a better-functioning democracy. In fact it usually ends up being much worse. Just look at the paralysis of government in Switzerland, or California’s inability to pass desperately needed budget cuts by public referendum this week.
In the end, it would be hard to argue that the British government doesn’t need reform badly. And the reform should really come in the drastic category and not through the little tweaks that some MPs are suggesting. There’s differing theories on which of the party leaders would be best-equipped to do this (Brown is universally acknowledged to have basically no chance of winning the next election, so why not drive home drastic reforms in the next year as long as he’s got nothing to lose?). But in any event, Britain would be best advised to look to other parliamentary democracies for ideas rather than to the US. Parliamentary democracy can and does work. At the moment, it just doesn’t work in Britain.