Monday, September 26, 2011

British Parliamentary System and Lessons to Learn

Were We Really Right To Reject Parliamentary Government?

The Houses of Parliament

There are moments when I seriously think the British Parliamentary system is vastly superior to ours. The last 24 hours are among them.

The Speaker of the House of Commons is elected from among the membership, but denounces party affiliation upon taking the post. His, or for eight years, her parliamentary district is unrepresented while he or she holds the office. The only time a Speaker votes is to end a tie, and then his/her vote is non-partisan. Betty Boothroyd was elected speaker in 1992, the first woman ever to hold the post, and she was a pistol. Betty maintained more discipline in the Commons than either of her successors have. Not being part of either party means that the Speaker of the House of Commons never ends up in the position Speaker Boehner found himself in last night.

The Speaker of our House only calls votes when he or she is absolutely certain that the votes are there to support the bill according to his/her party’s line. Last night, 48 Republicans broke with Speaker Boehner and voted against the continuing resolution to fund the government.

The second nice thing about the British parliament would have kicked in on Boehner the first thing this morning. When the ruling party loses a vote, that can trigger a new election. The whole premise of parliamentary government is that the party that holds the majority of seats in the parliament has won the whole enchilada – the legislature and the executive. If that party can’t hold the party together, then they have lost he ability to govern. In a Parliament, Boehner’s loss last night would have set him up for the procedures to end his control of the government. Of course, in a Parliamentary system, Boehner wouldn’t be Speaker, he’d be Prime Minister.

Which leads us to the third thing I really, really like about the British system….their elections. Parliamentary elections are held on a five year cycle, unless the government fails for some reason. When scheduling the election, there is very little leeway. An election must be held withing six weeks of the call for them. A savvy Prime Minister will announce that he/she will be calling for the election at the end of a four-week recess, effectively stretching the campaign season to a whole, whopping ten weeks. No one can campaign outside of that six to ten week period. They don’t campaign from the day after the election to the day before the next one. And they don’t vote directly for the Prime Minister. He or she is chosen in the party convention to be the leader of the party. If the party wins the parliamentary election, he or she automatically becomes Prime Minister.

The elections themselves are beautiful. Each parliamentary district is ideally less than 96,000 people. There are 650 members for a population of 62,262,000. For at least the three decades that I’ve been watching them, the results are in before dawn the next day. If the Parliament chances party, the old Prime Minister presents him/herself to the Queen around 11:30 the day after the election to tender his/her resignation and at high noon the new Prime Minister arrives to be accepted by Her Majesty. The transition is made this simple because the minority party creates what is known as the “shadow government” – a one-on-one match for the actual government, a government in waiting. It is not necessary to have a two-and-a-half month period or longer for naming every secretary of every department because they have already been chosen and have been completely informed of everything that is going on in the government.

As we face the umpteenth Republican candidate debate in this two-year-long election cycle tonight, the idea of a six to ten week election cycle, a single party leader debate (the last election was the first-ever such debate), and an immediate transfer of power sounds so delightful.

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