Friday, June 22, 2012

President or prime minister and a head on a stick

There was controversy over here in the USA recently regarding the Game of Thrones TV show, when it was revealed that a latex head raised on the end of a stick used during a battle scene was in the likeness of the former president, George W Bush.  I found it difficult to understand the outcry, given that the show is just a silly fantasy and there didn’t seem to be anyone actually seriously advocating the beheading of GWB.

I tend to forget, however, that in the US, the president is not just a political leader, but also the head of state – so in that sense, in UK terms, he is more like the prime minister and queen combined(!)  That is why the US president gets far more reverence than any UK PM (at least face to face).

Barak Obama - The current President of the United States
I’ve been trying to get my head around the US political system ever since I got here, which isn’t all that easy as the US system is pretty much unique and generally unlike any other.  I find it difficult to think of any other democracy in the modern age that combines the head of state and political leader role.  More often it’s only done in autocratic dictatorships like North Korea, or Nazi Germany(!).  Modern democracies typically have a ceremonial president, or a monarch to perform symbolic duties – there are exceptions, such as France, where the president has real political power, but nothing quite like the US.

My wife tells me that she thinks that at the time of American Independence, they were so concerned about monarchy, or an alternative power base appearing against the elected president, that they avoided having a separate head of state altogether and combined the roles, which would make sense, I guess, given the historical circumstances.

I guess there are two elements to think about when it comes to whether a country has a president or prime minister: do you have a presidential or parliamentary system? and do you have a separate head of state as well as a political leader?

Presidential or parliamentary?

The US system is designed to be more consensual than a parliamentary system.  The president generally has less political power than a PM and the system relies on a large amount of cross party co-operation.  There are far more checks and balances than in somewhere like the UK, which tend to slow things down, but are meant to stop extreme, or rushed laws etc. being passed.

A parliamentary system, such as the UK’s, has confrontation built into it.  The government is meant to pursue its own agenda and everyone else does what they can to oppose it.  In most circumstances, however, the PM leads the largest amount of elected members of parliament, so he can push through pretty much anything he likes in a vote – all he needs usually is the backing of his own political party.  There are also less checks and balances than in the US system.

The US system has been getting a lot of criticism recently.  The problem is that there is deep political polarization between the main parties and so the old consensual politics has been breaking down, bringing the whole system into disrepute and even crisis at times.  Americans tend to blame their politicians, or the opposing political party to the one that they support, for not working together.  If you are used to a parliamentary system where confrontation and polarization are built into the system, however, like myself, you can sometimes wonder about the sustainability of the US system itself, however, in the modern age. 

The UK Houses of Parliament
Apart from struggling to cope with polarization, another downside of the US system is that it can be very slow moving because of all the checks and balances.  Things like financial crises, for example, can happen very quickly in the modern age and governments need the ability to react quickly.   

Critics argue that the opposite is true for the UK parliamentary system - although the system is capable of moving very quickly, there is more danger of a radical agenda, or ill thought out laws being pushed through.

Americans tend to be very protective and proud of their system.  It was set up at the birth of the US and is very much tied up with the whole sense of national identity.  The UK (or maybe I mean specifically England in this case?) has been through various systems, including absolute monarchy, republican dictatorship and parliamentary (not to mention tribalism and foreign rule) in its long history, although it’s true to say that there has been some form of monarchy for much of that time, certainly since the Norman invasion.

It has to be said that the US was a much smaller country at the time of its setup, however, both in terms of physical size and population.  Plus it was far less diverse.  I get the feeling that relying on a degree of consensus and co-operation between the political factions was much easier back then.  Having said that, the US political system has largely functioned well enough throughout most of its history (the Civil War being the big noticable exception).

(What is also a matter of concern is that the modern political polarization seems to be splitting along similar geographical lines to the old Civil War divide, with the old Confederate States generally going one way politically and the old Northern States going the other – but that’s another story!)

President or monarch?

Queen Elizabeth II
I am pretty much out of step with most of my fellow British countrymen in that I am a republican and not a monarchist.  About 20% of Brits are republican, according to the latest surveys.  About 30% were republican when I was a kid back in the 70s, so I think we can safely say that the popularity of the monarchy has gradually been growing – probably in part due to the personal popularity of Elizabeth II, the current queen (the recent jubilee celebrations being a reminder).  I think a lot of Brits also enjoy having the monarchy as a quirky British thing, plus they see it as a source of continuity.

I can understand some of the monarchist arguments against republicanism in the UK.  What would you replace it with? is the question most often asked.  Who would you end up with as the new, elected, republican elected ceremonial president?  Some ancient and dull politician?  Some frivolous celebrity like a popstar, or TV chef?   

All in all, though, I just find the monarchy system more than a little archaic and I don’t particularly like being reminded of a time when we were ruled by kings and queens, even if nowadays they are essentially toothless.


  1. These are some very interesting observations! I've often wondered what it's like to live under a parliamentary system.

    You're right, we Americans are very protective of our politics, and that's probably because of our long and glorious history of treason and independence ;) Checks and balances are what set America apart, and I tend to think that they are good for keeping radical agendas in check.


    1. Yes, America is very much founded on political philosophy, so it's integral to how the country sees itself and in a very real sense, its raison d'etre.

      It has to be said that the "mechanics" of the US system can seem very rooted in the 18th century. Most of the democracies that were set up in post-war period have tended towards a parliamentary system.

      It does seem kind of apt, however, that the US, with its cultural emphasis on individualism, has a president who is both head of state and the political leader.

  2. I've never thought of it that way. In school we learned the 3 branches of government share equal power (executive, legislative, judicial). However, I think if the majority of the legislative branch is the same political party as the president, the president has more power and influence.

    As for the English government, it is so different from ours that I am hopeless in trying to figure it out although I've lived here for 2 years :)

  3. The US system is essentially built like the British system with an upper and lower house, but with a number of key differences.

    The president has very little intrinsic power, as he often has to lead without a majority. The prime minister always has power in a parliamentary system as he is the leader of majority party (or more likely a coalition in places like Israel, or Italy).

    All the power in the British system is in the House of Commons and whoever has the majority has the power. The House of Lords is (roughly) the equivalent of the Senate, but is essentially just an archaic joke, but the politicians can never reform it, because they never agree on an alternative.