Britain’s Shining Jewel

“The British government is too authoritarian,” one classmate complains.  “The Americans are too inefficient,” says another.  “The British can order you not to say ‘grass!’” says a third.  Each system of government has its flaws, and, of course, its successes.  Britian’s long and varied history has given it a taste of many combinations of absolute or limited monarchy, but its gradual movement towards a more democratic system has produced a parliamentary system that has successfully navigated the treacherous waters of empire, world wars, depressions, and modern European politics.  The British unitary state allows for efficiency and flexibility, utilizing an electoral mandate to make change and take control in crises, while protected from tyranny by government tradition.

The unitary, centralized state allows a physically small nation to move quickly on domestic and international issues and to make adjustments to the economy.  This flexibility, as well as the nation’s history of power and current alliances, lets Great Britain pull more than its weight internationally.  The inclusion of Scotland, Wales, and Ulster in a state almost entirely controlled by England props up the standard of living and status of these small states.  The recent trend of devolution of power, creating regional assemblies in Scotland and Wales, allows local issues to receive more attention while letting Parliament focus on issues of greater relevance to England, the economy, or foreign policy.  If Britain continues to be a unified state, it is important that the regional assemblies remain ancillary to Parliament.  Letting the regions be autonomous would be disastrous for their own stability – Ulster, for one, would certainly face the Irish question – and would make the United Kingdom less efficient, flexible, and powerful as a whole.

The Prime Minister’s agenda and ability to react to changing situations are extremely important, as his will becomes act.  The majority party controls the House of Commons (selecting the PM from among the MPs), sets the agenda, and can require members to vote yea or nay.  “Gridlock is a foreign concept at Westminster,” according to the Economist[1].  “A determined government backed by a parliamentary majority can usually get its way.”  National healthcare would already have been passed in the US, as bipartisanship is unnecessary in a majority system with no provision for tyranny of the minority.

Though the majority in Commons does impose its will on the state, this cannot be called tyranny.  Debate in Commons is very spirited, and the shadow cabinet of the opposition party often has strong influence on legislation.  The Prime Minister faces the danger of being voted out by his own party and knows better than to make every bill a three-line whip (that is, telling MPs that they must approve it or face the end of their political careers).  Britain also hosts very strong, open media, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, while state sponsored, has an international reputation for investigative journalism, acting as a check on impunity.  Indeed, 98% of the population accesses BBC services[2], and 63% trust BBC newscasters to tell them the truth, far more than trust civil servants or politicians[3].

Despite the House of Lords’ history as an aristocratic institution, it hardly provides grounds for accusations of tyranny, as its sole power is a one-year suspensive veto.  It is troubling that Tony Blair removed so many hereditary peers, making the vast majority of Lords life peers appointed by the Labour party.  However, rather than being a mouthpiece of Labour, Lords provides grounds for debates with opinions and innovative ideas that could probably never be expressed by Commons MPs who face elections.

One of the key features of the British system is the power of tradition.  As the United Kingdom has no constitution, there are no limits on what Parliament can and cannot do, save tradition and the ‘decent chap’ phenomenon.  For example, the Lords approved a bill to strip themselves of power because an election held shortly before the bill was introduced served as a national referendum on the issue.  The people of Britain are content with a powerful government – even with divisive policies like civilian surveillance – because, coming from a feudal history, they trust their government to protect them.  A long political evolution has given the government legitimacy and leeway.  The mutual responsibility of the governed and the governors has stayed intact throughout.  This noblesse oblige has manifested itself in social programs like the National Health Service and public education, reinforcing the reliance of the people on the state, as well as their trust in the government.

The British Supreme Court (formerly the law lords) helps bind Britain to Europe despite the Eurosceptical nature of British politics.  The British generally look down on the Continentals, but the binding EU laws and treaties to which Britain is party keep it a member of European political dialogue and action.  The Supreme Court serves as an appellate court and has original jurisdiction where acts of Parliament conflict with EU laws and treaties.  Since judges usually have backgrounds in law, not politics, they are fairly independent and impartial and serve as an indirect check on Parliament.

On paper, the British government may tend towards absolutism, as it lacks a constitution and can be controlled by a single party.  However, tradition makes this impossible, as those in government generally respect precedent, policy, and the nebulous force of reasonableness, although they may grumble about government policy.  The government presents the best of both worlds, with the efficiency and flexibility of a unitary, one-party state and the checks on power of British sensibility and traditions.  Not having a constitution makes the system more malleable and able to change with the times – polar opposite from the constitutional traditions that hobble American politics.  Our constitution and its apparent benefits (bicameral legislature, roadblocks to legislation) are what make America so hard to govern.  The apparent shortcomings of the British system are what help it excel.

[1] “Sterling throws a wobbly,” Vol 394 No.8672

[2] According to ComScore printed in the Economist, Vol 394 No.8672

[3] Poll by Ipsos MORI printed in the Economist, Vol 394 No.8672


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