Sunday, July 20, 2008

What's different between the U.S. and Britain (other than the "u" in "colour")?

Ready for a break from reading about McCain and Obama? Let's cross the ocean again.
In beginning to set out the differences between the U.S. and U.K. political systems, let’s start with the head honchos. There are two roles for a national leader: head of state and head of government. The American president is both head of state and head of government. By contrast, the British split those roles between two people: the monarch is head of state and the prime minister is head of government.

In terms of day-to-day tasks, the head of state is sometimes called the “ribbon cutter”. When a major building or monument is dedicated, he or she makes a nice speech, and does the ceremonial ribbon-cutting to open it. On the other hand, the head of government sets policy priorities and political strategy, heads his or her political party, and supervises government departments. The head of state has latent powers that can be very important in certain situations but, for the most part, it’s a figurehead position.

As we have seen, the U.K.’s House of Commons is elected, and the House of Lords is not elected. The general rule is that the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons is the prime minister. As of this writing, the Labor Party has a majority and its leader, Gordon Brown, is prime minister.

If no one party has a majority, there are three options: 1) the largest party leads a minority government, 2) two or more parties form a coalition government, or 3) a new general election is held, with the hope that one party will gain a majority.

The monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II) appoints the prime minister. However, she needs to yield to political realities because the House of Commons can, in effect, fire the prime minister at any time by a simple majority vote (vote of no confidence). Any attempt on her part to appoint someone other than the leader of the majority party would therefore be futile.

Minority government has arisen under two scenarios: 1) a general election is held, and no party gets an overall majority of seats, and 2) one party wins a small overall majority, which is later eroded through by-election defeats. The general election of February 28, 1974 resulted in a “hung parliament” (no party with an overall majority). The largest party, Labor, led a minority government until a new general election could be held on October 10, 1974. At that one, Labor won a tiny majority of the seats in the House of Commons. Before too long, Labor had lost that majority, because they lost a string of by-elections (the governing party usually loses at a by-election, because voters are in a mood to register a protest against the government about one thing or another). So, Labor went back to leading a minority government.

More on minority governments, coalitions, etc., next time.

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