For Want of a President: On the British Parliament and the Executive

Ciaran Marshall

Ciaran Marshall

Marshall is an economics undergraduate at the London School of Economics

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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Thank God the US has a Constitution that defines checks and balances, so this sort of thing could never happen here.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    I think that a big issue facing parliamentary democracies is that modern media is leading to a situation where the Prime Minister becomes a President like figure. People base their vote on who they wanted to be Prime Minister rather than which party they wanted in power not really caring on who the party or winning coalition selecting to be Prime Minister. Now people know who is going to be Prime Minister depending on party victory in advance. This is making a real hash of parliamentary systems because they aren’t supposed to operate this way.Report

    • Avatar CJColucci in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      That raises a question I have long had. What do British voters believe themselves to be doing when they walk into the voting booth? Except in the party leader’s district, the voters don’t vote for the person who will become PM, they vote for an MP. When they vote for the MP, do they see this as a proxy vote for the PM they prefer? Do they see it as an endorsement of the wonderfulness of the particular PM? Do they see it as a vote for the program of the party they favor, regardless of the personal qualities, or lack thereof, of their party’s MP candidate?
      In a Presidential system. You can split your ticket, voting for one party’s legislative program while making a separate decision on which hands you want on the levers of executive power. That does not appear to be an option in parliamentary systems, and the few people I’ve talked with about this don’t seem to miss it.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to CJColucci
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        says:

        I think in a Parliamentary system you need to see your vote as a proxy vote for the PM/government you prefer but there are huge and complicated fights over who gets to select the MP for which riding/district/area. I think there are some countries where you do not even vote for a particular MP. You vote for the party.

        Ticket-splitting is still done but is increasingly rare in the United States.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw
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          says:

          In Israel and other proportional representation countries, you vote for the party rather than a particular politician. Some countries combine party list voting and district based voting. Germany is one. So a certain percentage of the seats is based on party vote and another percentage is district based voting for particular candidates.Report

  3. Avatar J_A
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    says:

    The British constitution is based on a different conception of who the Sovereign is. The Sovereign is not the people, the Sovereign is “The Queen in Parliament”. In this framework, the people are not really part of the sovereign, except insofar as the Queen in Parliament want to involve them.

    The Queen in Parliament means that all the power resides on the Queen, when she is acting with the advice [and consent] of Parliament. Through the centuries, the balance between the two have moved from the queen (small letters intended) to the PARLIAMENT, but the the essential concept has not changed in centuries.

    through a separate tug of war, the Prime Minister has stepped into all of the powers of the Queen. He can do anything, as long as it is within the letter of what Parliament has advised or consented to (via legislation and/or votes of confidence). The Prime Minister is whoever the Queen proposes that a majority of Parliament will not vote against. in practice, the leader of the largest faction in Parliament, and will retain his position for as long as a majority of MPs do not vote against him in a no confidence vote (Parliament itself, through the fixed Parliaments Act, established maximum five years period, but Parliament can change that tomorrow, if the “advise” the Queen to do so.

    The franchise, who is allowed to vote for MPs, and the balance of powers between Lords and Commons, has changed a lot in the last 200 years, but again, The Queen in Parliament could change that tomorrow, legislation restricting the franchise to identical twins under the age of 15 months would be totally ok, if that is their good pleasure.

    One major thing has happened in the last decade or two: first past the post, which essentially forces all political forces to consolidate into two opposite parties, have fused -as Tories or Labour- groups that are very different between them, and have very few common goals, except perhaps opposition to the other group.

    Labour is now a very unstable alliance between actual socialists, SWJ/Bernie Bros -like leftists, and center left urban professionals. Keir Stormer represents the latter group, Corbyn, the middle one, while the former, historically predominant in the party, is petering away.

    The Tories now encompass large capital and finance, center right professionals, retirees and senior citizens, and English nativists (aka litte English). Note that the Tories coalition is unable to win outside of England properly, though unlike Republicans, they are able to attract minority and working class voters.

    In the particular case of Brexit, both parties are being fractured: Labour socialists, and Tory high finance and nativist wings all support Brexit (the high finance wing out of self-interest in the opportunities the post Brexit downturn will bring forth). The other wings oppose it. Because MPs do actually respond to their (limited) universe of voters, their individual support or opposition to Brexit depends on what wing of the party their voters come from. None of the two parties is thus in full control of their MPs.

    Because in the case of Brexit the Prime Minister is not sure he can trust his MPs, he is acting more and more outside the supervision of Parliament. This supervision is not legally mandated. Parliament can always vote for a no confidence if they dislike being shut off from the process. The Prime Minister is, for all purposes, the “Queen” in The Queen in Parliament. He is sovereign for as long as Parliament allows him to.

    One last note, as we discussed here at the time, the Referendum does not have a place in the British Constitution. There is no provision to ask the people anything. The Referendum is, and always was, advisory as a constitutional matterReport

  4. Avatar J_A
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    says:

    One further note about the British Constitution, and the Queen in Parliament

    Most other constitutional monarchies recognize the sovereignty of the people, and not that of the monarch, or of their parliament. As an example, Article 1 of the Spanish Constitution says:

    Spain is hereby established as a social and democratic State, subject to the rule of law, which advocates freedom, justice, equality and political pluralism as highest values of its legal system.

    National sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people, from whom all State powers emanate.

    The political form of the Spanish State is the Parliamentary Monarchy,

    Their constitutions then go on to establish the limits between the Executive and the Legislative branch. But in Britain, Executive and Legislative are merged into a single entityReport

  5. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    The problem with Brexit is that so very many pieces of the stuff they were Brexiting from were never put up for a vote in the first place. The politicians were in charge of policy for the polity and everybody agreed to a Common Market in the 1970’s. And then you’ve got a Single European Act which just makes sense and then there’s the Schengen Agreement which required carve-outs to pass but, you have to understand, the cold war was at its height and compromises needed to be made. And then the Maastricht Treaty only had referendums from France, Denmark and Ireland. Huh. And then the Treaty of Amsterdam which didn’t have a referendum.

    And, next thing you know, you’re in a place that you didn’t recognize having agreed to go to.

    Hey, my parents agreed to a common market.

    While I am 100% down with the idea that it is the job of government to make some hard decisions (“we’re here to do a job, not keep a job”, as Pelosi famously said), if you make enough decisions without asking “the people” first, you’re going to find yourself in a place where your vision of the future and theirs have diverged.

    This is where “the consent of the governed” gets tricky. If you diverge far enough… then what?

    I think a Constitution would be a Capital idea. Write it down.

    Vote on it.

    Get a majority this time. Preferably a super one.Report

  6. Avatar James K
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    says:

    I’m more familiar with New Zealand’s version of the Westminster system than the UK’s, but I’d like to make another suggestion as to why The PM has gained so much power since Brexit – The Brexit referendum severely disrupted the democratic legitimacy of Parliament.

    A democratic mandate is the central legitimisation myth in modern times – democratic decisions are legitimate decisions, and the more democratic they are the more legitimate they are. I think a large portion of the reason the US President has become so powerful is that they are the only US politician that is elected by the whole country.

    By contrast the Prime Minister, in your country or mine, is not elected by The People, but rather by Parliament. Parliament is legitimate because it is elected by The People, but the Prime Minister is only as legitimate as Parliament says they are, because they have to borrow their legitimacy from Parliament.

    This is the ultimate check on Prime Ministerial overreach – some PMs are stronger than others, and there have always been some who could rule with an iron fist. But they couldn’t take any more power than their colleagues were comfortable with because they were easily replaceable.

    But by putting the Brexit question to referendum there was suddenly an alternative source of legitimacy – Brexit. The Brexit decision was decided by The People and was therefore legitimate regardless of what Parliament thought. Worse, the Brexit decision was incredibly vague, this gave May and Johnson wide latitude to interpret it how they wanted, and if Parliament complained then they could just say they were fulfilling the Will of the People. Add to the fact that UK parties seems to have made it harder to replace their leader between elections and you create a system where a PM can accrue a lot of power, but Parliament has less ability to take it from them if they over-use it.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to James K
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      says:

      Endorsed unreservedly. When the Tories cynically submitted this matter to the Brexit refferendum they unleashed something that was better off leashed and the way they worded the refferendum also made it near impossible to honor the decision in a way that a majority of the winning side would accept. The people, through a direct vote, basically said “We want brexit, but we do not wish for it to hurt us economically; we want to be seperate from the EU but we still want to influence it; we want to be able to easily take cheap vacations in Spain but we don’t want Polish plumbers to be able to easily work cheap jobs in London.” The parliamentary system has basically been jamming and choking on that paradoxical mandate ever since.

      The Tories started this fish-up, though Corbyn (damn him to hell) really turned it into a fiasco, but at least now they have to figure out how to resolve it by themselves (while Labour picks itself out of a ditch, sorts the left wing lunatics out and learns how to campaign, set policy and govern again).Report

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