Thursday, February 07, 2008

British government: an American’s guide

After seeing this Venn diagram showing the difference between England, Great Britain, the UK, etc. (hat tip), I thought it’d be nice to offer a guide to the UK political system for Americans.

The British system of government is almost exactly like the US system. There are just a few small differences:

Our President is called the Monarch. Unlike the US, we have had several female presidents, including the current incumbent. We have yet to have a black President, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. The President doesn’t have any real power, though, and rather than being elected to serve a limited term, she inherited the job and reigns for life. Imagine a late-second-term lame-duck US President facing a hostile Congress, while anaesthetised and tied to a chair. It’s a really expensive chair, though.

In theory, our President can dissolve Congress whenever she likes, but in practice she doesn’t get involved: too much talk radio has convinced her that politicians are ‘all the same’. She doesn’t even bother voting.

The Vice-President is called the heir to the throne, and he holds that job for life (his mum’s). We also have a Vice-Vice-President, called Prince William, and a Vice-Vice-Vice-President, which is Prince Harry until William has children. And so on. I myself am about 37 million down the line.

Like the US Congress, the UK Parliament has two houses. Our House of Representatives is called the House of Commons. The Majority Leader is called the Prime Minister. The Majority Leader heads the Federal Government as well as the House majority group, and appoints Cabinet members, all of whom have to be members of Congress. We’re not quite so hot on separation of powers.

The House Minority Leader is called the Leader of the Opposition. His job is to say how bad the Majority Leader is.

The State of the Union Address is a bit different: our President does give a speech to Congress once a year, but really it’s just reading out a press release written by somebody in the Majority Leader’s office. While balancing the most expensive hat in the world on her head. This official display of bling is an attempt to engage da yoof with politics. And it works: many under-40s keenly glance at the highlights on the TV news.

Another fine example of how televisually edifying British politics is comes from the weekly half-hour session when the Majority Leader answers questions from the House. I say ‘answers questions’, but most of the answers aren’t really answers and most of the questions aren’t really questions.

Our Senate is called the House of Lords, and this is where things get interesting. The Senate isn’t elected – except for 92 members, who are descendants of former Senators and are now elected by each other. They serve for life, and if one of them dies, people who missed out on a place last time there was an election get to stand. The rest, who also serve for life, are appointed by the party leaders down in the House, subject to a committee deciding that they’re up to the job. The members of this committee appear as if by magic. There are some bishops and judges in the Senate, as well as some retired government officials, military officers and other ‘respected’ types. And a few others get in as well. Somehow. New Senators get to pick the districts that they represent, and then they don’t actually have to represent them.

The Senate tends to vote against the Government more often than the House, partly because the Government normally has a House majority by definition, partly because the Senators are unpaid (which makes them cranky) and partly because the Senators tend to be older (which makes them cranky). However, if the House and the Senate disagree, the House can always, eventually, win out.

The Senate is also the Supreme Court, more or less, although it generally does the legal stuff through subcommittees. See what I was saying about separation of powers?

Let’s shift away from Washington (which we call Westminster). There are 50 American states. We have four or possibly five, and they’re not called states. England and Scotland are ‘nations’, Wales is a ‘principality’ and Northern Ireland is a ‘province’. Arguably, London should be counted separately from the rest of England. London is a ‘city’.

State governments don’t have so much power over here. The Scottish one has a fair amount; the Welsh and Northern Irish ones less; the London one less still (they all have elected state congresses, although London is the only one to have a Governor: he’s called the Mayor). The non-London bit of England, which you may have seen in slow-paced films, doesn’t have state bodies of its own, and is run by the Federal Government and Congress. So I guess it’s a bit like DC, only with 70% of the country’s population rather than DC’s 0.2%.

We’re also part of the European Union. The EU, which has 26 other members, is basically a cross between NAFTA, the UN, Thanksgiving with the in-laws, a system of committees designed by a committee, a litigious travelling circus, and Belgium. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you’re not a superpower.

Otherwise, though, everything’s the same as in the US. Except that we don’t have an Electoral College: we’re not crazy, you know.


Anonymous said...

The monarch doesn't inherit the title. Parliament has always had the right to pick who it wants for monarch. Right now parliament relies on the 1701 Act of Succession as its tool of selection.

The role of parliament in deciding the monarch has been the case back to Norman times.

When King John was crowned by Archbishop Hubert Walter he was told very clearly that it was not because he had any hereditary right, but because he was the choice of the nobles.

Henry VII was not the heir - he was a conqueror. Elizabeth I and Mary I were bastards (legally having no parents). Edward VI wanted to exlude Mary from the crown, but was told that he had no right to chose the next monarch, only parliament could to that.

The best description of the UK is a "monarchical republic" (which constitutional historians sometimes use).

Anonymous said...

Hilarious. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Why Can't I print all of the brilliant article - "British government: an American's guide"
I can only print One Page. I have internetless friends who need to see it.

Tom Freeman said...

Hi Jim - I have no idea what's up with your printing. Maybe you could try copy-and-pasting in inot Word and going from there?

Glad you liked it!

Charles OJ - this is a guide to the British constitution. Learning and erudition have no place here...

Shades said...

This helped me understand the American system a lot better, cheers!

Anonymous said...

Charles OJ - do you have a reference for what you said here? I'm not saying I don't believe you it's just that this is news to me.

variationblog said...

I'm an American studying in Scotland for a few months. Thanks for making sense of it all.

k said...

absolutely hysterical. thanks for the laughs!

Anonymous said...

This is great. I am a college student looking to study in the UK. Would anyone know where I could find what laws would be different or if there's like a "British culture" class in Los Angeles lol

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on this whilst looking for a document to compare the US and British governments. Hilarious, thank you.

Anonymous said...

you forgot the House of Lords

Anonymous said...

also the british don't have a constitution yet. most of the power is between the prime minister and the parliament. Also, the british people are private people which influences the government to be private as well."an english man's home is his castle". This sense of privacy is reflected in the secrecy that often surrounds the functioning of the government. Successive governments have promised more open administration, and information has become more freely available, but the most significant changes came during the Blair administration which opened up the bureaucracy and made government dept subject to performance reviews based on their services to the public. In constrast to many americans, most Britons take liberal positions on social and moral issues and this has an impact on public policy and expectations of the government.

Anonymous said...

I am an American doing a speech on British government...this helped a lot...Thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm doing an essay on the comparisons between the U.S. and British governments and this made so much more sense than the other sources. You saved me. THANK YOU.

Anonymous said...

Just to add a bit more information, england can not class its self as a republic, or technically speaking a democracy, as even after a general election the queen has the right to pick who ever she sees fit to be her primeminister, also us britons can not call ourselves citizens as we are subjects of the monarch

Starr Lockhart said...

I understand England's government a little more. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

Schmitty02 said...

you make the similarities between the US and UK all too close. Britain's system of government is MUCH different than the United States, and few countries in the world actually operate along American governmental lines. There are many, many big differences between the two governments which makes European politics much more different than American politics. What also should be highlighted is the United States' concept of separation of powers, checks and balances, and fear of the "tyranny of the majority. Britain's multi-cameral system differs from the United States, bicameral. Although it doesn't seem that big of a difference. IT IS. The concept of federalism is also huge in the United States which you fail to highlight.