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The Politics of Nations: Great Britain

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As the dysfunctions of our political system have become a more prevalent theme on this blog, I've gotten a large number of requests for a series exploring the political systems of other countries. How England runs its health-care system is a lot better understood than how England passed the law that created its health-care system, even though the latter is arguably more important for our purposes.

So, today marks the premiere of a new series written by Dylan Matthews that will explore different world legislatures. Each installment will focus on a different nation's system, outlining the basics but paying special attention to procedural roadblocks to passing legislation and the power of the leadership and minority. We start with perhaps the most familiar foreign system: the British parliament. Here's Dylan.

The basics

The British Parliament, like the American Congress, is bicameral, with a directly elected, 646-member House of Commons and a 724-person House of Lords comprising 587 members appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister ("life peers"), 92 members inheriting a seat ("hereditary peers"), and 26 bishops of the Church of England ("Lords Spiritual"). Representation in the Senate might be ridiculous, but it's got nothing on the House of Lords.

As in most parliamentary systems, the government – comprising the prime minister (PM) and his cabinet – is usually culled from the parliament, mostly the House of Commons. The government is not elected; instead, the monarch – now, Queen Elizabeth II – requests that the person most capable of forming a government, in almost all cases the leader of the majority party in the Commons, do so. That leader then becomes prime minister and his advisers, most often also members of the Commons, become his cabinet. With the prime minister serving in the Commons and most often holding a majority there, passing legislation he support is usually a simple matter.

As the government formation process suggests, the House of Lords has been stripped of most of its power. While in theory governments can be formed among members of either house, only the Commons can force the PM's resignation through a vote of no confidence or by denying the government funds. No PM has served from the Lords since 1902; Alec Douglas-Home, who was appointed PM in 1963 as a member of the Lords, promptly renounced his title and ran for a seat in the Commons to make his appointment more legitimate. It is less rare for other cabinet ministers to serve from the Lords. For example, in 2008 Gordon Brown appointed his long-time adviser Peter Mandelson to the Lords to allow him to serve in Brown's cabinet. Still, the vast majority of cabinet ministers comes from the Commons.

This convention of drawing cabinet ministers from the Commons makes for a cabinet composed of politicians, not the policy specialists often seen in U.S. cabinets. The three most important cabinet posts in particular – chancellor of the exchequer (the equivalent of secretary of the Treasury), foreign secretary and home secretary (who handles domestic policy) – are often used as stepping stones for aspiring party leaders. For example, Gordon Brown served as chancellor of the exchequer for Tony Blair for 10 years before ascending to prime minister, and current Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Home Secretary Alan Johnson are widely viewed as contenders to succeed Brown. Imagine if the secretaries of Treasury, state and HHS were all members of the House and aspiring presidential candidates and you'll start to get the idea, and the political implications; if Tim Geithner were angling to succeed Obama, one would imagine that bank policy would get a lot tougher.

Elections

The prime minister has the power to call general elections, and must do so at least every five years. In practice, this means that governments generally consult polls before calling elections, so as to maximize their chances of reelection. Elections are conducted in 646 electoral districts, known as "constituencies," each electing one member to the Commons. Like in the U.S., voting is first-past-the-post, with whichever candidate wins a plurality in the constituency taking the seat.

The big difference is that candidate selection is done nationally, with the national Conservative, Labor and Liberal Democrat parties reviewing applications from aspiring candidates and selecting one for each constituency. Local party committees can solicit applications and advise the central party, but no formal primary process takes place. That means elections generally take on a national character, and individuals are subordinate. If Joe Lieberman served in England, he'd either be left on the next ballot altogether or moved into an unwinnable district.

How a bill becomes an act

In the modern era, bills almost exclusively originate in the House of Commons, and with the leadership specifically. Individual members of the Commons can introduce bills -- called Private Members' Bills -- but unless picked up by the government, they usually fail. "Most PMBs are used simply for trying to generate some media interest in a topic rather than to seriously try and launch new legislation," University of Sheffield political scientist and parliament specialist Matthew Flinders explains.

A bill introduced has a first reading, where the title is read before the Commons and the bill is printed, and then must wait at least two weekends before receiving a second reading, where MPs debate the bill's content for the first time. A majority vote can end the second reading and move to a committee stage, where amendments are entertained. The committees have a membership based on the margin of the party in majority, and so will generally pass bills on without incident. However, Harvard political scientist James Alt, who works on British politics, notes that amendments will often be included at committee to speed the bill along. "A lot of amendments get made that the government frequently includes, but obstruction is nothing like what happens [in the U.S.]," he explains. So, changes proposed by the minority will be included, but unlike in the U.S., the minority generally cannot bog down the legislative process by introducing countless amendments.

After the bill has been voted out of committee, it is reported to the whole House of Commons, which can suggest amendments. This can happen as soon as the committee vote takes place, with no waiting period. The report stage is short; "complex or lengthy" bills take several days. It is immediately followed by a final, third reading, after which the bill is generally, if supported by the majority, passed.

Party whipping is extremely strict for bills the government announces at the beginning of a session, and debates that cut against party lines are rare. Flinders argues that this is partly due to the parties' composition; with landowners and farmers forming the Conservative Party's base and the urban working class forming that of Labor, political and economic interests tend to line up. "The farm lobby (which mostly targets the EU) will lobby both parties, and voices will be raised, but party policy is party policy," Alt explains. So cross-partisan alliances, like those between senators from farm states on agricultural subsidies in the U.S., are far less tenable. There is also no equivalent to the American practice of using earmarks to grease the legislative skids, mostly due to the risk of public backlash. "The adversarial context and aggressive media make getting away with any kickbacks very difficult," Flinders continues. Minority parties are largely powerless, and are generally only able to extract concessions if the government does not have a majority (a "hung parliament"), and needs to have a minority bloc on its side to prevent a no confidence vote.

There are exceptions, however. Alt notes that some major issues, such as anti-IRA security measures and joining the E.U., have made whipping members difficult; these tend to involve bills introduced after the start of the legislative session, which take members by surprise. In certain circumstances, the government will allow a free vote, with the calculation being that there will be more members of the minority supporting the bill than members of the majority opposing it. "Conscience votes," which largely involve social issues like abortion, gay rights or fox hunting, take place occasionally free of party whipping, with debate strictly limited (that is to say, no filibusters, and no chance of them). Still, for bread and butter legislation, the government is rarely defeated. "I cannot recall delay or significant amendment to a tax or budget bill, for example," Alt says.

The Lords' power to influence this process has actually grown in recent years. The House of Lords Act 1999 reduced the number of hereditary members of the Lords by 655, leaving only 92 hereditary peers. This was intended to blunt the influence of the Lords, but, as research from University College London's Meg Russell has shown, the upper house has been more willing to kill legislation or insist upon amendments since the act took effect. Some of this is due to the Lords' traditional hostility to Labor governments, but Russell argues that Lords' opposition to Tony Blair's government has more intense than it was to that of James Callaghan, the previous Labor PM, and reflects a Lords that is viewed as more legitimate than when it was overrun with hereditary members. "The Lords cannot really introduce legislation but is more of a revising chamber," Flinders says, agreeing with Russell's conclusion. "In this regard it can be a real hurdle for the government."

That said, in extreme cases a bill can become an act over the opposition of the Lords. After the Lords voted overwhelmingly against a ban on fox hunting in 2004, Michael Martin, who as speaker of the Commons held a usually ceremonial post, invoked the Parliament Act 1911 and 1949, which provides for circumstances in which a bill can pass without the Lords' support. This would be like the House passing a bill and sending it to the president even as the Senate opposes the measure. The ban was promptly agreed to by the queen. Even more extreme measures can be used. The Parliament Act was only passed by the Lords after Prime Minister H.H. Asquith threatened to create hundreds of life peers just to vote for it in the Lords. Blair considered a similar strategy for passing the fox hunting ban, before concluding it would represent a -- yes -- "nuclear option."

Reform efforts

Two main reform proposals are being discussed within British political circles: proportional representation and direct election of the Lords. Gordon Brown has proposed a national referendum on implementing the Alternative Vote -- known as Instant Runoff Voting in the U.S. -- which would have constituency voters rank candidates, and redistribute the votes of the candidates with the lowest totals until one candidate has a majority.

The main beneficiary of the bill would be the Liberal Democrats, who perpetually gain a lower percentage of seats in the Commons than their national vote share; for example, in 2005 the Lib Dems won 23.09% of the vote and only won 9.60% of the seats. This is no accident, as if Conservatives gain less than an absolute majority in elections this year, the bill would be a powerful incentive for the Liberal Democrats to support a Labor minority government.

Jack Straw, the current government's justice minister, has proposed making at least 80 percent of seats in the House of Lords directly elected by 2024 at the latest. Modeled after the U.S. Senate, Straw's proposed House of Lords would have staggered elections, with a terms lasting three parliaments (up to 15 years), and members limited to only one. However, Flinders thinks that the proposal is very far from being implemented. "The Lords will not be directly elected for a long time," he predicts. "Nobody wants it and if it happened it would make the Lords even more of a hurdle."

Conclusion

As should be clear, the number of veto points for legislation in the British system are few and far between. There is no such thing as a split government; the prime minister almost definitionally wields a majority in the House of Commons. Party whipping is far stricter, such that "no"-vote threats like those used by Joe Lieberman or Bart Stupak to extract concessions on health care are almost unheard of. Voters within a party are less of an impediment, as they have no influence on candidate selection. Appeals to the base are thus less critical, and strategies like that used by the Club for Growth to enforce ideological discipline do not work. The Lords usually defers to the Commons, and when it does not, a prime minister who is prepared to play hardball can push legislation through nonetheless.

The result is a system where individual members have far less power than members of Congress, but where the party leadership holds far more sway. Lyndon Johnson-esque legislative wizardry is not required to get bills passed; usually, the authority of the prime minister and his cabinet is enough. Obviously, a diminution of the Senate's power equivalent to the level of the House of Lords would require a radical change in the political culture, or even the Constitution, but there are no formal barriers to a House and Senate with this level of party discipline. A system where individual defection results in universal derision would, at the very least, make a party with a Senate super-majority far likelier to pass legislation, and to do so quickly.

Rankings

It is always helpful to put these descriptions in context through some more objective measures of government performance. Here are a few statistical rankings we'll be using throughout the series:

Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index: 7.7 out of 10. Tied for 17th with Japan; just ahead of the U.S. at 19. This polls experts on particular countries on their perception of the level of corruption.

The Economist Democracy Index, 2008: 8.15 out of 10. 21st place; behind the U.S. at 18th. This measures the level of democracy seen in a country's electoral system, functioning of government, patterns of political participation, political culture, and provision of civil liberties. On "functioning of government," the U.K. bests the U.S., 8.57 to 7.14.

NationMaster Tax Incidence Ranking: 37.4% of GDP. 11th place; ahead of the U.S. at 17th (29.6% of GDP). This simply measures the percentage of GDP devoted to tax revenue.

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom: 76.5 out of 100. 11th place; behind the U.S. at 8th (78.0). Conducted by Heritage and the Wall Street Journal, this measures the laxity of trade barriers, tax incidence, regulatory systems, and other government interventions in the economy. A higher score indicates fewer restrictions.

Photo credit: Roblisameehan.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 15, 2010; 2:04 PM ET
Categories:  The Politics of Nations  
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Comments

This is an outstanding post.

I'd advise the British against given any electoral legitimacy to the House of Lords, as we've learned from painful experience in America with the existence of the Senate.

By far, my two favorite concepts in the British parliamentary system is a prime minister versus a president, and a head of state that exists above the sturm und drang of the political process. Britain is a stronger, more unified country for having a head of state who isnt also the leader of one political party. Our system leads to irrational paranoia and far more bitterness at the loss of an election than is healthy.

Further, I think the parliamentary system is more democratic and I'd guess tends to produce less acrimony if not more hostility, in as much as what happens on Election Day really is whats going to be reflected in the nation's laws when the majority party takes control. This is far healthier than the US system of spending two years to elect someone president, only to have the existence of the Senate trump the will of the people.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 15, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

I like your work, but I take it for what it is.

You're a 25-year-old punk with connections and the house of worship most favored by your bosses.

You've never covered a house fire, a three-car accident, a school board meeting, a murder, or a 16-year-old kid (something you were less than a decade ago) drowning in a river after he/she went swimming too early in the year on a hot day.

You're a little boy and someone, whether Lally Weymouth's Brat or that Silver Spoon at Newsweek, threw you the keys to the BMW and told you that he/she was off to the islands for the weekend.

You have a limited perspective; even worse, you have little experience and no appreciation for people. For you, everything is two-dimensional. Nothing more than just words on a page and a school yard spat with your pseudo-buddy Ross at The Times.

As the Little Boys play, America burns.

So good luck to you, Ezra. Keep giggling. And ditch that idea about "adult" drinks. At the bar, it makes you look like a fool.

Posted by: MarkinJC | February 15, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Additionally, although the MP's are the cabinet secretaries (including the Chancellor of the Exchequer), each ministry has a "permanent secretary," who is the top civil servant in charge of the department's day-to-day operations.

Posted by: ericp331 | February 15, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Almost forgot.

Ditch that stupid day's worth of beard when you appear on television. Saw you on Maddow or Obi-Wan Keitholbie (belch) last week with that stupid beard.

You did not look like Hugh Laurie!

You looked like a little boy who was just about to step into the kitchen after his parents were away for the weekend, all proud and thinking he was looking mature, only to get a tongue-lashing from his mama for looking like a fool.

Son, shave!

That beard is not going to land you the babes. That beard is not going to make you look older.

That beard only makes people laugh at you.

Ezra, you know some of your stuff. You just lack seasoning. You don't go all Richard Wolffe or Arianna Huffington on air. And thank the deity of your choosing you don't sound all Sick Willie Kristol or Charlie The Kraut.

But ditch the damn beard and shave!

Posted by: MarkinJC | February 15, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

MarkinJC,

What? What was the point to all that? Whatever Ezra's lack of experience may or may not be, you come across as both immature and more than a little disturbed. And hardly in a position to lecturing anybody on their maturity.

That was just weird, dude.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 15, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

@MarkinJC:

And Ezra did exactly what to deserve that diatribe?

Broadsides like that make you look much more the fool than your intended target.

Let's try to be civil, shall we?

Posted by: J-NC | February 15, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

A couple of other points bear mentioning about the British system: First, the political parties get free TV time and are way less dependent on corporate money than in the U.S. Second, the parties issue "manifestos" that are the basis of their election campaigns; although these aren't always 100% transparent statements of what the party will do if it wins, they come much closer to that than the meaningless party "platforms" adopted by American presidential nominating conventions (and often ignored by the presidential candidates themselves). Third, upon winning, the governing party translates its manifesto into a "Queen's speech" -- actually delivered by the Queen, although the work of the Prime Minister and Cabinet -- that sets forth a legislative agenda for the new session of Parliament. And fourth, they then actually pursue that agenda, which they're able to do because of the lack of veto points that this article describes.

The overall result, I believe, is much greater transparency and more effective democracy, in that voters can actually compare different parties and their different programs, vote one into office with real power, see the results, then decide at the next election whether they like those results and want to leave that party in power or remove it and give the other guys' program a try. There is nothing like the muddled situation here, where the president spends much of his time negotiating with members of his own party in Congress (assuming his party even controls Congress), and then still can't pass his program because of supermajority requirements and the like -- with the public (which, as recent polls have shown, doesn't know about things like filibusters) left baffled and angered by what seems like inaction or weakness, but is mostly just the chaos of a badly designed system. (And this is even leaving out the further complicating role of the states, which have their own governments and governing parties that often will work at cross-purposes to the national government.) In Britain, when people vote for change, they get change, more or less along the lines they voted for, and they can then see how they like it and if need be vote for further change. Here, as we've recently seen, they can vote for change (or statis, for that matter) and have no idea what's actually going to happen -- or who exactly to blame if they don't like it.

Finally, in between elections, the Prime Minister and other Ministers HAVE to answer questions about their policies from their counterparts in the opposition parties. This isn't always as illuminating as it should be, but it doesn't hurt -- it's one more way that voters can make an actual side-by-side comparison in deciding which group they want to hold power.

Posted by: JeffersonSmith | February 15, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

@JeffersonSmith:

"and then still can't pass his program because of supermajority requirements and the like"

Actually, apparently he can't pass his program even when his party has a supermajority. Now, that's hard legislation to get done!

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 15, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis, the point is that without party discipline of the kind the article describes in the UK, the president doesn't really HAVE a supermajority except in the rarest instances (like FDR in the mid-30s). Instead he's relying on people who may share his party label, but did not campaign or run with him and never signed onto a common program or manifesto. Indeed, even for the few months he supposedly had a supermajority, Obama was relying for it on one Senator (Franken) who wasn't seated until July, another (Kirk) who was filling a temporary vacancy (and that only because the state government cooperated), and two others who aren't even nominal Democrats: Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist, and Joe Lieberman, an independent idiot. So what actually commanded a supermajority, very briefly, was a coalition of Democrats, independents over whom Democrats have little or no control, and various blowhards like Ben Nelson whose egos and/or special-interest loyalties far outweighed their willignness to see the party's program enacted.

One other thing I forgot to say in praise of the UK: Because of flexible election dates, no-confidence votes and intraparty leadership contests, it's much easier there to replace a national leadership that's clearly failed. If the British system were operating here, George W. Bush would have been booted probably by mid-2006. Conversely, if the American system had been operating in Britain in 1940, Winston Churcill would not have become Prime Minister, *Neville Chamberlain* would have presided over the Battle of Britain, and today the country would be called "Grossbritannien" and you'd need a German visa to visit London.

Posted by: JeffersonSmith | February 15, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Oh oh - do New Zealand!

I cannot think of a better model for electoral reform - only 14 years ago, in 1996, NZ went from a very British style First Past the Post Parliamentary system to a Parliament selected by Mixed Party Proportional representation (after a 1993 referendum).

The overall proportion of seats in Parliament is now allocated by share of the national "Party vote". Any party getting > 5% of the national vote will be seated accordingly. The Prime Minister is based on who has the majority as in the UK system.

The difference is that coalition government has become the norm, with neither Labor (left) or National (right) so far being able to form a government without the support of minority parties.

NZ is also ranked very highly in democracy and freedom indexes you posted (though of course it is a much smaller and less consequential nation than the US)

Posted by: lazza11 | February 15, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

I disagree that the Home Secretary could be compared to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Home Secretary deals with law enforcement, domestic security, and immigration matters. Thus, the role is more analogous to Attorney General or Secretary of Homeland Security.

Also, political parties do often provide their local parties with more control over their Parliamentary candidates that you select. Parties will allow their members interested in becoming candidates to put their names forward. After they are properly vetted, those who considered acceptable by the national party will be put on a list that the constituency parties can choose from. I live in Islington North, a constituency where the local population and the local Labour Party are to the left of most of the Labour Party. As a result of this left-wing tendency, the Islington North Labour Party has an MP who is very much a leftist.

Posted by: JulesN19 | February 15, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

This was really great.

But I think your "objective" indicators are a little strange. The first two--Transparency International's corruption measure and the Economist's democratic elements / ability to execute on policy priorities make a lot of sense given the subject matter.

But the second two present a very distorted picture of why governments exist. Why exactly would a nation's tax burden or regulatory regime matter be particularly germane to this discussion? Furthermore, why would only the rate of the _collection_ of taxes matter? Wouldn't it matter how they were spent? What a government actually _bought_ with those taxes?

So if we're going to include the relative tax rate or regulatory regime--which, again, seem tangential to this discussion--doesn't it also make sense to include measures of how well the government uses those taxes or regulations to achieve its policy goals?

How's about:

--Gini measure of economic inequality?
--Poverty rates?
--Educational attainment?
--Employment/Unemployment?
--Safety net supports like pension, unemployment insurance?
--Health status and outcomes?
--Pollution, etc?

You can easily get all kinds of data like this from OECD stats here: http://www.oecd.org/topic/0,3373,en_2649_34637_1_1_1_1_37419,00.html

Personally, I think there's no reason to throw in those last two points. But if you're going to use them, I don't understand why a reader would care about tax rates while not caring what a government actually achieved with those taxes.

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 15, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Odd digressions aside, I'll just remind people, as it says in the introduction, that Dylan Matthews wrote this post, and will be writing this series. Credit goes to him!

Posted by: Ezra Klein | February 15, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

How England runs its health-care system is a lot better understood than how England passed the law that created its health-care system

Is it? By whom?

Posted by: jlk7e | February 15, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

While in theory governments can be formed among members of either house

In practice every government that has yet existed in England has had members of both houses in it.

Posted by: jlk7e | February 15, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

theorajones1 above makes a great observation regarding the select "objective" indicators.

Transparency International (A German corporation founded in 1993 [17 years ago]), the Economist Intelligence Unit (a for-profit corporation), NationMaster (the for-profit AU firm Rapid Intelligence, Pty, Ltd., which reprocesses data collected by others), and the Heritage Foundation don't really focus on comparative politics.

Perhaps there are some academic sources that might have more useful measures??

Posted by: rmgregory | February 15, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

We've been looking for good comparisons. if you have an idea for one, send it along.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | February 15, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

"That was just weird, dude. "

I... agree with Kevin Willis.

Posted by: adamiani | February 15, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Long discussion of British Parliamentary system, and no mention of Prime Minister's Questions? You can even watch in on C-SPAN:

http://www.c-span.org/Series/Prime-Minister-Questions.aspx

Posted by: jamie_2002 | February 15, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

The lack of any checks and balances in the British system, as well as the lack of any judicial review, is of course only regarded as beneficial when one's own party is in power. Had this column been written during the Thatcher years, it would sound quite different.

That same lack of constraint upon the Government in power means that question time is meaningless theater. Obviously, many Americans like to envision the President either being insulted or insulting his critics, depending on which side one is on, but question time has no policy significance.

Nor is it easier to replace a British Government. Simply look at recent history; the Conservatives were in power for 18 years, and Labor now for at least 13. This occurred even though Thatcher became an unpopular figure, and popular opposition to the Iraq War of course failed to dislodge Tony Blair. What tends to happen is that Ministers (including the PM) get reshuffled rather than a new government being elected.

As for New Zealand having coalition government, this is true of the United States as well, as the healthcare reform negotiations made clear.

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 15, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

This was a great technical run-down of the British Parliamentary system. I am surprised that Ezra didn't refer to two BBC comedy series - "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" - which put some flesh on the bones about how the British system works, with its secretaries, permanent secretaries and political advisers all tussling for supremacy. While cynical in the extreme, the two series provide a wonderful grounding in how the British parliamentary system really works.

Posted by: Linksmann | February 15, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

This post manages to be inaccurate in its first paragraph: the hereditary peers do not inherit their seats. They inherit the right to stand for election to the House of Lords by other hereditary peers.

Selection of candidates for constituencies is generally done by local parties - "parachuting" of candidates by a party's central office is deeply resented, and frequently electorally unsuccessful.

Minority parties (in fact the third, and smaller parties in Parliament) are not powerless until there is a hung parliament - they are more powerful once the government's majority is smaller than the number of unreliable ("rebel") MPs. These rebels are made possible by the fact that they are selected by their local parties, not by the central office, contra this post.

The speaker did not invoke the Parliament Act to pass the Hunting Act. Quite the reverse - the Parliament Act must be invoked to kill a bill if it does pass the Lords after it is sent to them three times. The press inaccurately refer to the normal operation of parliament in those circumstances as "invoking the Parliament Act".

This article also fails to mention the big difference between the UK (and every other democracy state with elections, of any hue) and the USA: political parties have formal memberships, who pay a subscription fee to join, and play an active part in the selection of candidates, at the very least.

Posted by: albamus | February 15, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

* the word "democracy" is only accidentally present in that last sentence.

Posted by: albamus | February 15, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Kev & J,

In my world, that's hardly a diatribe.

Call it a pat on the head with a purpose.

Perhaps you feel Mr. Klein is above such critiques? More's the pity.

You are entitled to your own opinions, of course, but, as the late-Sen. Moynihan's line has been all the rage of late, not to your own facts.

If you wish to contend that Mr. Klein with his beard looked like anything more than an underage kid trying to fool the bartender, then I assert that you've never tended bar, dealt with underage kids, or seen a bad scam up close and personal.

If you wish to assert that Mr. Klein obtained his positions merely on the strength of his own abilities, then I assert that you must believe the same about Luke Russert, Jenna Bush, and John P. Normanson (google it).

Does Mr. Klein have talent? Without question.

Has Mr. Klein benefited from his affiliations, be they social, religious, political, and/or financial? Without question.

Would Mr. Klein have the position were he Mr. Jones, Mr. Smith, Mr. McCarthy, or Mr. Edwards? Tough to say. Look at the composition of Fred Hiatt's shop and draw your own conclusion?

Do others exist with the same talent, but without the same connections as Mr. Klein who could do the job as well, if not better, than Mr. Klein? Of course. And to think otherwise is to live in the land of Denial.

Does Mr. Klein, at age 25, somehow exist apart from the benefits that experience, depth, and give and take with the average people that one finds in a Maryland bureau or Northern Virginia public board meeting? Perhaps, but prodigies are quite rare in the World of the Beltway Pundit. Silver Spoon Spawns remain the measure of definition for this cadre.

Mr. Klein does some nice work. He's not perfect. He's young. Very young. And inexperienced. Better than Sick Willie Kristol, of course, but that's the lowest of measuring sticks.

Ditch the beard, Ezra. You're not trying to buy drinks at 19 anymore. You just look like you are.

Posted by: MarkinJC | February 15, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I think tomtildrum is wrong to say, "That same lack of constraint upon the Government in power means that question time is meaningless theater. ....question time has no policy significance." The significance it has for policy is that it's harder for a leader to simply make stuff up and refuse to defend it in any way, or (likewise) to just shut down inquiry by invoking "executive privilege." Not impossible, maybe, but harder, because he has to respond to questions from someone who has no reason to be obsequious (like the White House press corps), who has a political interest in bringing him down, and who has access to most of the same information he has. That means the leader needs to be pursuing policies that CAN BE defended under those circumstances. To an amazing degree, our presidents and congressional leaders are free of that burden.

This is why Obama is now calling out Republicans by meeting with them publicly, even though he's not required to -- because in face-to-face confrontations, it quickly becomes obvious which side has defensible policy proposals and which is just blowing smoke. Question-time-type forums incentivize policies that can be defended in detail and disicentivize the smoke, whereas most forums for U.S. political discussion (Fox News, Sunday political chat shows, etc.) do the reverse.

Also, I believe albamus is right about the power of local constituencies -- I have a friend who's been an MP since '92, and getting selected for the seat in '89 was definitely a matter of impressing the local constituency party. And jamie_2002 makes a good point about the "Yes, Minister" series -- the underlying reality, if not the series itself, should be mentioned in any rundown of the British system: There's a very powerful, permanent civil service operating at a high level (which is what allows a "shadow government" to be ready to take office at any moment). This was the focus of "Yes, Minister's" cynicism, and they were brilliant series, although I do think they overstated the degree to which outcomes in British politics depended on clubby backroom operators as opposed to a real contest of parties and ideologies.

Posted by: JeffersonSmith | February 15, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Although the government in a Westminster-style parliamentary system usually commands a majority in the lower house, either via one party or a coalition, that's not always the case. Canada has had quite a few minority governments, including the Liberal government of Lester Pearson that passed a national medicare act with support from the New Democratic Party. The 2004 federal election resulted in a minority Liberal government. The elections of 2006 and 2008 resulted in minority Conservative governments, the latter one still in existence.

Posted by: mijnheer | February 15, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Wow! This looks like it going to be a pretty interesting series. I was under the misapprehension that the British Parliament was, functionally, a unicameral system; I stand corrected. The bit about the effects if House of Lords Act of '99 was particularly interesting. Do carry on Mr. Matthews.

Posted by: Shmoe1 | February 15, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

MarkinJC,

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/ad-hominem.html

Why don't you read up on some general argumentative techniques before you comment on the article again, mmkay? Otherwise, why don't you have a seat over here at the kids table...your rhetoric might just pass as eloquent discourse there.

Posted by: johnpfranklin | February 15, 2010 10:58 PM | Report abuse

franklin,

Sorry I dared to question your boy.

I understand. One should never doubt Ezra.

Just do what you're told and bow in blind obedience.

Posted by: MarkinJC | February 15, 2010 11:14 PM | Report abuse

One important aspect of the British system wasn't really covered. Because of the differences between Parliament and Congress when it comes to budgets, the UK's Treasury is far, far more powerful (and independent) than the US Treasury when it comes to setting government policy. This is one reason why so many prime ministers are former chancellors. Basically the Treasury controls the purse strings of government, and with a strong chancellor, has unofficial veto power over any domestic legislation. I would argue, in fact, that the chancellor is the single strongest veto point in the English system, which is something of a concern.

Posted by: GingerYellow | February 16, 2010 6:07 AM | Report abuse

One additional point worth mentioning is that as well as selction powers, the central parties have far greater control over election spending as well. From memory, the amount that can be spent of a single election is about £10,000 wheras the limit for a general election (i.e. central spending) is millions.
Therefore MPs never have the independant funding basis to allow them to challenge the centre successfully the way a Bayh can.

Posted by: rajsharma1 | February 16, 2010 6:28 AM | Report abuse

Interesting article. it would also have been useful to have touched on the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The story of devolution as a whole is a fascinating account of how a centralised unitary state came to give away so many powers. It also cuts to the debate about Englishness/Britishness - two very different things.

Posted by: timeforchange3 | February 16, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

MarkinJC: It's interesting that your criticisms make no reference to any single statement in any post. They do not point out any falsehoods, inaccuracies, or logical flaws. They just make accusations of inexperience and not relating to "average people," (with little substance to back up those claims). If one can't point out where someone else is wrong, then what's the problem? Regardless of "experience," if someone is right, then they're right. If the person is wrong, say where.

And never mind the fact that the column in this thread wasn't even written by Klein. Very odd indeed.

Posted by: dasimon | February 17, 2010 1:27 AM | Report abuse

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