Monday, July 21, 2008

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

Carrying on from where we left off in this post, here is a further discussion of minority governments, and some other considerations regarding British politics.

One implication of a minority government is that the governing party needs to curry favor with other parties, so those other parties don’t gang up against it, and vote it out of power. In the 1970s, Labor had an arrangement with the tiny Liberal Party (since merged into the Liberal Democratic Party) under which the Liberals would stay away from any effort to vote out the Labor government, in exchange for certain policy considerations. That “Lib-Lab Pact” eventually broke down, and the Labor government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons on March 28, 1979. A general election was then held on May 3, 1979, which resulted in the Conservative Party winning an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons, and Margaret Thatcher becoming Britain’s first female prime minister.

A later Conservative government, with John Major as prime minister in the 1990s also became a minority government through by-election defeats. In that case, Protestant parties from Northern Ireland propped up the Conservative minority government until the general election of May 1, 1997, which returned Labor to power in a landslide.

This discussion of the timing of general elections points up another contrast between the U.K. and U.S. In the U.S., general elections are held at regular intervals (every four years for presidential elections, for instance). U.K. election intervals are variable. There are two ways to describe the process of setting a date for a general election: 1) the formal explanation, and 2) the real explanation. The formal explanation is that the monarch decides when to hold the general election, but listens to advice on that question from her prime minister. The real explanation is that the prime minister decides the date based on political considerations (mainly how his or her party is doing in the opinion polls), and gets the monarch to rubber-stamp the decision.

The interval between general elections can be no longer than five years. (However, an exception was made during World War II. A general election that otherwise would have been due by 1940 was postponed until after the end of the war in the European theater, and was finally held on July 5, 1945. The U.S., by contrast, has not postponed elections during wars.) The usual strategy is to call an election after four years when the party in power is popular, and to wait five years, if they’re not.

The U.K. has not used the mechanism of coalition government to deal with the lack of a majority party. A coalition government in a parliamentary system, such as Britain’s, is a situation where two or more parties whose total number of seats constitutes a majority, jointly form a government, agreeing on policy positions and sharing Cabinet jobs. However, during World War I and World War II, the U.K. had coalition governments, so that opposition parties would share in the responsibility of governing, and internal political battles would not hinder the war effort.

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