Having established that the monarchy – despite being very powerful on paper – is only really a ceremonial and symbolic component in our political system, it’s now time to look at who really calls the shots. However, before we get stuck into the details, it might be worth having a quick look at the different forms that political power takes as these concepts are central to understanding how the various institutions that make up our political system work. If that sounds like an invitation to a philosophical slumber party then you have my sympathies, but don’t worry – I’ll make it as painless as possible and then we’ll move on to the far more exciting question of who’s actually in charge around here. Until then, onwards – to abstract and not entirely watertight theoretical concepts…
Divvying Things Up…
The standard way to carve up the differing aspects of political power is to cut into three slices: The executive, the legislature and the judiciary. These are the three separate elements that exist in the vast majority of modern political systems and knowing how they relate to each other is the first step in figuring out who gets to throw their weight about and in what manner. Let’s start with the sexiest first…
50 Shades of Executive…
Just like an executive in the corporate world, executive power in politics is very much concerned with telling people what to do, being the head honcho and ‘the vision thing‘. On a practical level this means that the executive is responsible for the day-to-day running of the state, representing it on the international stage and enforcing the laws of the land. In order to do this the executive branch often has a specific set of powers that it alone can use – powers such as the ability to declare war, manage the national budget and the setting of policy. In short, the executive is the boss (or ‘government’) in any given system and just like bosses in the real world, it has a tendency to get carried away with itself. As a result, most political systems have a second source of political power known as the legislature.
The role of the legislature in most systems is to actually make the law and to keep an eye on the executive branch so it doesn’t go wild with power. This is achieved by having some sort of assembly (or assemblies) that proposes, debates and votes on laws – crucial powers as an executive can’t survive with its limited powers alone. Sometimes it’ll need laws to achieve its aims and for that to happen, it needs to convince the legislature that these laws are a good idea. In many systems it is also the case that any budget or spending decisions need to be approved by the legislature so they’ve got plenty of fiscal short and curlies to tug on in the case of errant government, not to mention other restraining influences such as committees, vetoes and votes of no confidence. Having said that, the legislature is also somewhat reliant on the executive to make sure that the laws it passes are actually enforced so it’s a two-way street.
…And justice for all…
The final slice in our trisected cake is the judiciary and their job is to interpret the law – a very boring sounding remit with very unboring real world consequences. Essentially, the judiciary is supposed to be the impartial player who ensures that the laws passed by the legislature and the powers exercised by the executive are applied in the manner that they were intended to – much like the referee at a football match ensures that both sides stick to the rules. In short, they’re supposed to be the adult in the room.
So far, so abstract. Is there a point to all this?
Yes, there most certainly is! The point is that if you want to figure out how a certain governmental system works, you need to know how these pieces fit together or – to be more precise – the degree of overlap between them. For example, America runs on a presidential system of government and they have what is known as a ‘separation of powers’ – a state of affairs where all three branches are entirely independent of the others. This stems from the deeply engrained American fear that if left unchecked, one branch of government will always seek to dominate the others and could potentially open the door to tyranny – an eminently sensible point of view for a country that started life as a colonial whipping boy.
To counter this threat, the American system is designed so that both the legislature and the executive have ways of reining the other in while the judiciary ensures that everything is above-board. For example, the President can veto any law passed by Congress (although this veto can then be counter-vetoed if Congress can get a 2/3rds majority in both houses) or can drag his/her feet when it comes to enforcing the laws passed by Congress – thus giving the legislature an incentive to keep the President sweet. However, Congress is far from powerless and they have all manner of levers to yank – such as the threat of not passing the Federal Budget, refusing to propose/pass legislation the President requires or the nuclear option of impeachment – to make sure the executive is kept in check.
On paper, this is a very elegant system in which risk is mitigated by ensuring that no single branch has the power to ride roughshod over the other but – as is usually the case when I start a sentence with the dreaded words ‘on paper’ – it has practical downsides, the main one being that if Congress and the President don’t get on you can end up in a situation where the government is gridlocked and next to nothing actually gets done. This can lead to a situation where the President is nominally in charge but due to Congress’ refusal to play ball they are practically powerless to do anything of real consequence.1
And we figure into this where exactly? Wait, let me guess – in a ‘weird and fuzzy’ manner, perchance?
Entirely correct! In Britain the executive and the legislature are smooshed together in a melange known as a ‘fusion of powers’. It works like this: The executive – while technically the monarch – is in practice composed of the Prime Minister, his or her Cabinet and all the various departmental jobs such as Under-Secretaries and Parliamentary Private Secretaries, positions that are only open to members of the House of Lords or House of Commons (the legislature).2 The main upshot of this is that if a government has a comfortable majority (something that was relatively commonplace until recent years), then the executive has an inbuilt advantage when it comes to dealing with the legislature.
Think about it this way: In America, a member of Congress doesn’t really owe much to the President on account of the separation of powers. For example, the President can’t offer government jobs to members of Congress and on top of that, s/he needs to be mindful of their concerns because they are the only people who can propose laws on his/her behalf or release funds. Granted, there are some carrots and sticks that the President can employ – like tweaking policy to favour a particular Congressperson’s tastes or by threatening to veto legislation – but ultimately members of Congress rely on voters for their job security and not on the executive.
In Britain it’s different as 156 of the House of Commons’ 650 MP’s3 have some sort of governmental job (not to mention 38 members of the House of Lords) and if they want to keep these posts and all the goodies they entail (extra pay, status, power and a foot in the door for bigger/better jobs) they’d best play ball with whatever the executive wants. True, all these MP’s are still beholden to their constituents when it comes to retaining their seat, but this inbuilt executive cuckoo in the legislative nest is still a pretty big deal.
And it’s not just the ‘payrole vote‘ that gives the government a leg up either: The executive also controls the Parliamentary timetable – the mechanism by which time is allocated in the House of Commons and Lords to debating and voting on bills. That means it is very tricky to get anything other than government business on to the floor of the House and gives the legislature very little scope to act independently of the executive. Combine that with effective party whipping plus a voting system that tends to return strong governments (both areas will be covered in later posts) and it’s clear that the executive is in possession of a much better hand than the legislature.
*sigh* – So yet again, ‘Why?’…
…Because we’ve collectively decided that the risk of a government getting high as a kite on the whiff of power is a preferable hazard to living with a system that’s prone to complete paralysis – much in the same way that our unwritten constitution sacrifices entrenched rights in favour of cat-like reflexes.4 Is that a risky-biscuit to chomp on? Undoubtedly, but it’s also a very British compromise in that it puts a premium on practical utility over theoretical rectitude. However, like all of the murky fudges that define the British political system it comes with a cost: As a nation – more than any other democracy on Earth in fact – we need to be constantly vigilant that governments don’t abuse this power to essentially do whatever the hell they want. Not to put too fine a point on it, your vote is the only real obstacle a would-be dictator faces in this country. Use it or lose it people, use it or lose it.
Ok, that’s enough on the political theory behind it all. Next up – Parliament.
1 It can also lead to something called ‘governmental shutdown‘ – a phenomenon where Congress’ refusal to pass the executive’s funding measures means that the government, despite having money to burn, literally can’t afford to pay the people it employs and has to close entire departments until the situation is resolved. This has happened as recently as 2013 and is a recurring theme in American politics.
2Believe it or not, this is actually an improvement on how things were: Prior to 2005, the head of the judiciary was the Lord Chancellor – a governmental post that can only be filled by an MP or member of the Lords. That means that all three branches of government were intimately connected – an eyebrow raising state of affairs that’s since been remedied with the creation of an independent Supreme Court.
3Incredibly, it took an inordinate amount of Google-Fu to come to that number – I had to manually count the number of MP’s from this current list (you need to set the filter to ‘Government Departments’ in order to see all the non-Cabinet posts) and then add in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries that were listed in this 2010 document (which means it may well have changed since then). The final number came in as 109 MP’s in paid positions and 47 as unpaid PPS’s. As to why the number of MP’s in government jobs is such a big secret is anyone’s guess but if you have a more comprehensive figure, please let me know.
4If you’re a masochist who’d like to look at a system that sits about halfway between the American and British models, check out the French way of doing business. It’s known as a ‘semi-presidential‘ system and it splits executive power between the President and the Prime Minister. It’s fairly bonkers – too bonkers to go into in any detail here – but then again, ours is hardly a paragon of rationality.