The US presidential election process is fascinating people all over the world. The two major parties have selected their candidates for an election which will take place in November 2016. Two weeks ago, the UK changed Prime Ministers, from David Cameron to Theresa May, without holding an election. Mr Cameron simply resigned and Mrs May was selected to fill his position by the other Members of Parliament of her political party. Clearly, the two systems are quite different.
Parliamentary versus Presidential systems
What’s the difference between a parliamentary system of government, which the UK has, and a presidential system, which the US has? Read on to find out.
Despite the fact that Britain’s political system is much older than the American one – indeed, the USA started life as a group of British colonies – the British parliamentary system as it exists today represents a later model of governance than the American one. This is because the British system continued to evolve after the Americans broke off and set up their own government. The American system more closely reflects the power balance between the British King and the Parliament that existed in 1788, when the US Constitution was adopted, than the power balance that exists today, where Queen Elizabeth II does not have a day-to-day decision-making role equivalent to the US President.
Power balance in the parliamentary system
The government system that evolved in the UK involves a balance among three elements that originated in the middle ages: the monarch (king or queen); the nobles (the lords); and the rest of the people (the commoners). If we look at British history we can see how these elements have changed a lot over the centuries.
(1) The Monarch. The Queen is a lovely lady with a beautiful smile who shows up at public events, like the opening of new hospitals. Her ancestors were warlike characters who wore armour and went around chopping off people’s heads with axes or swords. Big change at this level.
(2) The House of Lords. The Lords, or nobles, were a class of people who owned or controlled most of the land, which meant they controlled the economy, and who were related to each other via marriages and alliances. The bishops of the church were included in this group. The church owned and still owns lots of land. The monarch comes from this class of people. The group continues to include people defined by these relationships, but its membership has been expanded to admit Lords who have lifetime status rather than hereditary status. Also, as a group the Lords are no longer all-powerful.
(3) The House of Commons. In the middle ages, commoners were unlikely to receive much education or own much property, compared to the nobles. This has changed a lot, over time. And, as the character of this group of people changed, the power balance has shifted until now Mrs May who is not a noble, and who is elected to the House of Commons, is the most responsible leader in the system on a day-to-day basis. Big change at this level, too.
The presidential system’s power balance
The US doesn’t have nobles and commoners, or a hereditary monarch. Americans are all members of the same class, in theory, although, obviously, wealthy families have advantages. But, the US kept the British three-part government structure as the basis for its government because it strikes a balance between different interests.
Instead of a hereditary monarch, America has an elected President. Instead of a Parliament made up of the House of Lords and House of Commons, it has a Congress made up of the Senate and House of Representatives. While the Lords represent their family interests, they are also from different parts of Britain. The Senators represent regional interests, too. They are from the different US States.
Other systems and considerations
The word “Senate” comes from Ancient Rome, where the government structure included the Senate. The Senate was made up of representatives of the patrician families, equivalent to the British Lords, but also included tribunes, who represented the other people.
People who don’t live in societies with classes like “nobles” and “commoners”, such as villagers in remote areas or indigenous people, have leaders, but the ordinary persons probably have a lot more involvement in decisions. Shall we dig a new well? Shall we start a war with the next village? On a smaller scale of society, it may be difficult for one person to bully the rest into agreeing to do these kinds of things.
Also, it is not necessary to be the President or Prime Minister to get things done the way you like. If you are influential, you can persuade other people to implement your agenda. The owners of media outlets, for example, can use their influence with their audience, who are also voters, to promote policy positions that the media owners think are good. Again, this happens in every village and in every tribe on earth. When we talk about government structures we need to remember that they don’t replace the other things that human beings usually do, like listening to religious leaders, or showing loyalty to one’s own ethnic group, and all the rest. But we have adopted the idea that a good government system will try to counterbalance the negative effects of these kinds of things and will support a situation where people feel included in the decision-making process rather than excluded, where they are citizens rather than the victims of powerful overlords.
This article is a quick overview of some of the features of two government systems. If you would like to learn more about these systems, and also the Roman one, these Wikipedia articles are a good place to begin: Parliamentary system; Presidential system; Roman Senate.
[Photo credits: Constitutional Ratification 1938 US Stamp by Postal Museum; John of England signing Magna Carta from Cassell’s History of England (circa 1902) scan by Tagishsimon; Ancient Roman Senate Bronze Doors by antmoose; all of which are public domain photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used here under Creative Commons licences (the terms of which are linked to the above names of the photos). The author, James Irving, is a commercial lawyer with Irving Law in Perth, Australia. Please visit the Irving Law website for more information.]