Thoughts on the British Election

Geological forces are slowly pushing the British Isles towards North America, but it often seems that transatlantic ties have already fused the UK and US.  A closer look, though, reveals glaring differences, some of which came into relief during last week’s still-unresolved general election in Great Britain.

For starters, the civilized brevity of national campaigns in England compared to the interminable presidential electioneering in the US is striking.  The month-long period of active campaigning is Goldilocks optimal: not too short or too long, but rather just right.  It is hardly clear that our “permanent campaign” that effectively never ceases between US presidential elections serves us well.   

Also commendable is the eloquence and poise of candidates for high office in the UK.  This may well be a function of a Parliamentary system that requires leaders who percolate to the top of their party ranks be dexterous speakers able to hold their own in the spirited repartee of the House of Commons.  Confirmation of the claim is borne out during Prime Minster’s Questions, where MPs pepper the leader of the governing party with queries, often guffawing and harrumphing if answers are not to their liking—a remarkable spectacle in a society thought of as unfailingly proper.

Britons’ famous reserve is also at odds with the rapaciousness of the country’s mainstream media.  Politicians are given no quarter by the press, unlike the US where they are typically treated with frustrating deference.  An example of the candor came on election night when notoriously blunt veteran BBC correspondent Jeremy Paxman interviewed a victorious Labour MP embroiled in scandal.  Was the win a surprise, he asked with jaw-dropping directness, in light of “your embarrassment?”  His second and third question also referenced the unsavory episode.

Paxman, known for his tart tongue, is something of an institution in the UK.  In one famous exchange with Michael Howard, the former conservative leader, he repeated a question 12 times, setting back Howard’s career for his evasiveness.  It is unthinkable that the mainstream press in the US, which maintains a polite reserve, would engage in this sort of sustained barrage. 

The discrepancy of decorum might be ascribed to the presence of a ceremonial Head of State in the UK, the monarch.  Britons, so it goes, are free to view their public officials with equanimity because they are not exclusively national figureheads, a role reserved for the Queen.  This division of labor thus opens up the political class to a heightened level of scrutiny.    

This is not the case in a presidential system where the highest elected official is both the Head of State and Head of Government.  The conflation inevitably elevates the president to near regal status that makes it difficult to subject him (or her, someday) to a level of direct scrutiny without appearing to also disparage the country.  To a lesser degree, this is also true for other lawmakers holding national office.

Britain’s democracy is not without its flaws.  Much has been made of the shortcomings of the so-called first-past-the-post electoral system, which rewards candidates who garner the most votes in any constituency even if that tally falls short of a majority of all returns.  The system penalizes parties like the Liberal Democrats, which have a strong national presence but often come up short in individual constituencies.  Thus, the party, winners of nearly a quarter of the national vote, came away this past election with just nine percent of the seats in Parliament.  Labour, in contrast, garnered just six percent more votes but now control almost five times the number of seats.

A corollary of the skewed system is that governing “majorities” often consist of parties that win less than two in five votes nationally.  As Johann Hari of The Independent points out, at least 56 percent of Britons voted against Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives during her tenure in power.  Similarly, the Labour juggernaut of the last 13 years typically got around 35 percent of the national vote.

The shortcomings of the winner-takes-all system are compounded by the absolute power of governing majorities.  Such carte blanche authority contrasts with the US, which ingeniously divides power.  Consequently, frustrated members of the minority can do little more than barrack from the backbench, which makes for good entertainment but little more.

Which is superior, the Parliamentary of Presidential system?  Each has its merits.  And each may be more appropriate for different societies.  But the differences are considerable.  Thus, it may be said that the UK and the US are not just two nations divided by a common language, but also a “common” democracy.     

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