I was at dinner with a Yale friend and his family the other night when his parents posed an interesting question: “which do you prefer,” they asked, “British or American politics?” It’s a good question, one that compelled me to reflect on the political differences on this side of the pond.
The most striking aspect of British politics is its vibrancy and intellectualism. Debates in the House of Commons are fast-paced, substantive, and witty. Members of Parliament often insert clever jibes or sarcastic remarks into their statements and rebuttals, and politicians are often forced to quickly confront and answer opposition to their arguments. Debates are facilitated by the Speaker of the House, currently John Bercow, who keeps order efficiently and humorously. On Monday, he interjected into the contentious debate on constitutional reform:
Mr Speaker: Order. I genuinely apologise that I have to keep interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister, but I want to hear him. I want to hear the content of his arguments and his mellifluous tones, and I keep being prevented from hearing him by people chuntering away from a sedentary position. Please do not.
As is clear from the above quote, House of Commons debates are often lively, boisterous, and – dare I say it – fun. When I attend debates in the House or watch them on my office television, I consistently find myself engaged, a state I would not ascribe to watching C-SPAN.
Yet there are problems with the parliamentary system that are less prevalent in the U.S. presidential system. In the UK Parliament, the executor and legislator are one and the same. Once legislation is proposed, a simple majority is required to vote that legislation into law. Since Members of Parliament are pressured to vote along party lines, it is easy for Government to secure a majority to back legislation. In effect, the majority party may pass any legislation they wish. Unlike in the United States, where the President checks Congress and politicians frequently vote independently, the Government here is held less to account.
Separation of powers is arguably the most important check against abuse of power. For all of its vibrancy and rigor, the British system must change to reflect this truth. Fortunately, it seems the coalition government agrees. An exciting part of their agenda is the extent of their constitutional reforms, which aim to transfer power from Government to Parliament and from Parliament to the British people. I will cover these reforms in more detail in my next post.