The Westminster system of government

Lord Norton

47566I spoke yesterday to a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association seminar which brought together more than sixty parliamentarians and officials from a large number of Commonwealth countries. 

My task was to open with a paper on the Westminster system of government.   This is actually quite a challenging exercise.  The Westminster Parliament and the Westminster system of government are not synonymous.   The system derives from Westminster but not everything that happens at Westminster is characteristic of the Westminster system.  There are many things that exist at Westminster that are not replicated in other legislatures that are considered Westminster-style parliaments.

The Westminster system of government is one of the four principal systems that now exist (the presidential, continental parliamentary, Westminster parliamentary, and premier-presidential).   What distinguishes the Westminster parliamentary system from the others is that it is a majoritarian system, utilising an electoral system that facilitates (but by no means guarantees) a two-party system and single-party government, with the executive dominating and leading in the legislature.  The emphasis has tended to be on the chamber rather than committee. 

Westminster has also bequeathed some other notable features.  They include the concept of an official Opposition (headed by a Leader of the Opposition, a term first coined in Canada), two sides sitting facing one another (a consequence of Parliament having sat in St Stephen’s chapel), rather than in a semi-circular chamber, and a presiding officer who is a neutral figure – a servant of the House rather than the leader or servant of a political party.

I also spoke about the significance of Parliament as the grand arena for debate as well as some of the benefits and limitations of the system, which I may cover in a later post.  I also drew attention to the significant variations between legislatures in Westminster systems.  They can be rather marked, to the extent that it is not clear whether certain ‘Westminster’ systems really still deserve to be so described.  For example, to what extent can New Zealand, now with its Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system of election, be described as a Westminster system?   The boundaries can sometimes be blurred.

20 comments for “The Westminster system of government

  1. Len
    03/03/2009 at 7:05 pm

    I love this sort of post – especially from an expert on the system. I would love to read your views on the benefits and drawbacks of the Westminster system (insofar as it exists), but I do have one question: what defines a continental parliamentary system from a premier-presidential system? I would assume that one is the system the French use, and the other the one the Germans use, but I really couldn’t say which!

    Thanks in advance, Lord Norton.

  2. lordnorton
    03/03/2009 at 7:55 pm

    Len: The continental and the Westminster parliamentary systems have the common characteristic that the executive is selected through elections to the legislature. In the presidential system, the executive and legislature are elected separately. In a hybrid premier-presidential model, there is a government elected through parliamentary elections, but there is also an elected president with certain (and real) powers. France is the leading case of the premier-presidential model (though it is now also utilised by some of the new democracies of central and eastern Europe), Germany is a typical example of the continental parliamentary model.

    In a premier-presidential model such as France you can end up with ‘co-habitation’, with an elected President of one party having to work with a Prime Minister and Cabinet of another party.

  3. Troika21
    03/03/2009 at 9:31 pm

    This is a timely post Lord Norton.

    I understand appallingly little of government infrastructure and how laws are passed, and this is a deficit I would like to improve.

    However, most of the books on amazon and in bookshops are trying to badger me into one stance or another.

    So, I was wondering if you could direct me to some good lay (and, perhaps, not so lay) books on the subject of UK Government.

    I have a feeling that this is an area for the assigned or the obesssed, given the dirth of good reading.

    Thank you in advance.

  4. Adrian Kidney
    03/03/2009 at 9:43 pm

    Lord Norton,

    Could you give an explanation as to why parliamentary states (whether republican or monarchical) require heads of state? What purpose does a president/monarch in a parliamentary system serve?

    I am struggling to explain to myself how every system seems to have a head of state.

  5. 04/03/2009 at 3:52 am

    Yes, I love posts like this, but the subject is vast. “Majoritarian” is a term also used in voting systems to denote a system in which the victorious candidate(s) is/are guaranteed to have a majority of the votes, a notorious failing of first past the post.

    I’m increasingly weary of adversarial systems – more to the point, so, I’m sure, is the electorate. My feelings have been nuch strengthened by reading my way through the Commons committee stages of the Policing and Crime Bill, and watching several diligent attempts to improve it (not a difficult task, even for a water buffalo with multiple sclerosis) come to grief on the rocks of Government majority.

    The system is far too overcentralised with excessive power in the hands of the Executive with no constitutional instruments to act as a constraint. Its one mitigating factor is the revising chamber.

    Yes the system generally produces single party majorities, with all the disadvantages they entail. I’d much prefer coalitions, for post 1974, and especially post 1997, the country is far less adversarial.

    I have always found the majority of the electorate to be voting negatively in the UK – voting against the party they do not want to hold power, rather than for the party they want to hold power.

    Like Len, I do look forward to your future posts on this subject. Personally, I’m a great believer in the late Lord Jenkins’ view that the Alternative Vote Plus would be far superior.

  6. Croft
    04/03/2009 at 11:41 am

    It’s a good while since I did any political history but I was surprised by your comment re leader of the opposition and Canada being the first use. I’m aware of the term in speech in England – more as abuse – from Ponsonby and/or Grenville nearly 20 years before the coining of the phrase ‘His Majesties (Most Loyal) Opposition’ in 1826. I know C19 politics is occasionally difficult to say who is leader but I thought it was generally agreed. Are you taking it from the statutory recognition in 1937?

    New Zealand reminds of those radios styled to look like they are from the 50s or 60s but it’s all display, the innards are all new. NZ has the visual feel of Westminster but with only one chamber and pretty regular coalition via ‘PR’ it’s a strange thing.

    stephenpaterson: ‘not a difficult task, even for a water buffalo with…’ :-D

  7. ladytizzy
    04/03/2009 at 5:31 pm

    @stephenpaterson: I respect your position though it differs fundamentally from mine.

    Adversariness is necessary to hold those in office to account. Should a gvt continue to railroad bad legislation through then they will lose office. Antagonism, on the other hand, is not a pleasant trait though this can be used legitimately to upset those who attempt to usurp, as witnessed in today’s PMQs.

    We can choose to pass or fail, or get a certificate of attendance. There was an interesting piece in The Guardian yesterday which stated that:

    “Emmeline Pankhurst would certainly not have been more effective if she’d got rid of her anger and thought nice thoughts about the ruling classes”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/03/anger-management

    I understand your point regarding tactical voting, though that is in the hand of the voter. I’ve never quite understood why parties such as the LibDem’s don’t make more of the fact that they receive money for the number of votes, regardless of their finishing position.

  8. 04/03/2009 at 11:01 pm

    @ladytzzy I’ve heard strong arguments that the net effect of the suffragettes was to delay women’s suffrage by polarising the situation, to the intense frustration of the gentlewomen of the long forgotten suffragines with their letters and tea parties.
    I fear that election outcomes are generally determined by the state of the economy rather than the general quality of legislation, though of course the latter does impact over such areas as the Community Charge/Poll Tax and the Minimum Working Wage. I understand we have had 3,600 new criminal offences since 1997, I seriously wonder whether even many members of either House could remember more than, say, 50 (a survey would be interesting), so I think legislation has serious limitations in effect on election outcomes.
    I do remember (only) one occasion when a Prime Minister has gone along (publicly) with a Leader of the Opposition at question time. It was John Major, accepting a suggestion by Tony Blair. I’ve quite forgotten the subject. Personally, I thought that a (rare) sign of great strength by Major, but the poor man was castigated by the media as weak and vacillating.
    I can’t really accept your implied argument that the adversarial system is necessary to hold people to account. The best holding of people to account appears to me to take place in certain committees where, as far as I can see, members strive to “reach across the aisle” and work together.

  9. Croft
    05/03/2009 at 2:40 pm

    stephenpaterson: I think sadly that “reach(ing) across the aisle” only, other than exceptionally, happens in (uk) committees where the matter is not of real political dispute between the parties and/or is in the Lords. The commons committees can be outrageously partisan in the scrutiny (or lack thereof by governing party MPs) and the same is reflected in the reports where you sometimes see a majority/minority report split on clear party lines. I’d much rather the PM were required before a Lords Liaison Committee as well as the commons as the makeup of the latter automatically sets a majority who have a party interest in soft soaping the PM.

    As to the suffragettes, my memory of reading biographies of various politicians of the time is that the more extreme antics of some of suffragettes made it politically impossible, in the face of what was seen as a ‘militant threat’, for some who were sympathetic to support them.

  10. ladytizzy
    05/03/2009 at 2:41 pm

    @stephenpaterson: You would expect me disagree with such arguments regarding women’s suffrage and you would be right. Perhaps another post will come up where we could explore this further.

    I rather suspect Lord Norton would be a contender for reeling off more than 50 new criminal offences in under 10 minutes, and I could probably do so, given a few hours! This huge amount of legislation would mean that it has a greater impact on more people, surely?

    An example of just one law, the ban of public smoking, will impact significantly on how people vote at the next election, I believe. That Mandelson interfered with the curb on tobacco displays in shops, based on harm for small businesses rather than any health concerns really does speak volumes in several directions.

    If one agrees with the assumption that there will be a change of gvt at the next general election, one can expect to see at least a molehill of very specific legislation to mitigate the number of seats lost. Not too long to wait and see, although it could be argued this is poised to happen soon with key bail outs.

    I note your inclusion of ‘necessary’ in your last para. When parliamentarians won’t admit their mistakes voluntarily, should we keep asking nicely? I’m reminded of the Monty Python sketch where the Spanish Inquistors are threatening the victim with a comfy cushion.

    However, the fact that we can have a perfectly polite debate rather proves your point, so I concede to you.

  11. 05/03/2009 at 7:05 pm

    Ladytizzy – I rather suspect the smoking ban would be the new offence most remembered, and I’m sure the majority approve of it, but I do not think the numbers who would be persuaded to vote Labour as a result of it would be great. Amongst inconvenienced smokers, on the other hand, the proportion who change their vote may be considerable. A favourite conversation among the smokers freezing outside my local pub here in the constituency of Clwyd West (Con maj over Lab 133) is between those who want to enlist the sevices of a local artist to create the Gordon Brown dartboard and the Harriet Harman urinal, and those who want to produce the Gordon Brown urinal and the Harriet Harman dartboard. Ladies among both sides argue passionately for a unisex loo. Meanwhile, small Plastocine models of Jacqui Smith continue to circulate, together with cigarette lighters and sets of pins.

    Croft – yes, I did carefully limit my expression with “certain” committees. The Policing and Crime Bill scrutiny committee, I’m afraid, illustrated your point very well. Their Lordships have that joy to come…

  12. David Ellis
    05/03/2009 at 10:49 pm

    I would like to know why the UK needs the massive overhead of 1378 rulers (Lords + Commons) when the US gets by with less than half that number and yet has five times the population, a ratio one eleventh the size of ours.

  13. Croft
    06/03/2009 at 10:38 am

    stephenpaterson: I’m absolutely sure you are right in saying people vote to punish government for decisions they hate but rarely vote to reward parties for actions taken of which they approve. The public is not known for being grateful.

    (At least according to the excellent ukpollingreport Clwyd West has an even smaller notional majority of 111!)

  14. Adrian Kidney
    06/03/2009 at 12:33 pm

    David Ellis,

    The United States federal government has less than half that number, but you’re ignoring the presence of thousands more legislators in 50 federal states.

  15. lordnorton
    06/03/2009 at 2:39 pm

    Troika21: There is no absence of good books on UK politics and government. It depends how much you want in-depth, essentially academic, works or good broad introductions. It is a bit difficult for me to offer objective advice, as I am someone who often pens or contributes to such works! Having declared my interest, let me immodestly recommend ‘Politics UK’ by Bill Jones, Dennis Kavanagh, Mick Moran and myself; the 6th edition was published in 2007 by Pearson/Longman. (For overseas readers, perhaps I could mention that I am working on a new edition of my US-published book, ‘The British Polity’.) Hope that helps answer what I thought was an excellent question.

    Croft: On the Leader of the Opposition, I was utilising it in a formal sense (in essence, capital letters, rather than leader of the opposition). David Ellis: Adrian Kidney has offered the response I would have provided. The federal Congress has limited powers because of the powers reserved to the states. Each state has its own legislature (and in 49 of the 50 states two chammbers). The UK is a unitary state, with ultimate power residing at Westminster. There are also reasons of history why the two chambers are so large: neither, incidentally, is anyway near the size that it has been in the past.

    On the wider issue of adversary politics, I would not recognise the claims made by stephenpaterson for coalition governments after 1974. Adversary politics were a very marked feature of the 1974-79, as was disarray in Labour’s ranks, and the Lib/Lab Pact was hardly a great success and in part was ended for the reason that post-election coalitions are not a good thing: that is, they are largely unaccountable, especially if the parties fight the next election as independent entities. Many of the claims made for coalitions don’t add up to much. If party A gains 40% of the votes and party B gets 20% and the two parties decide to form a coalition after the election, how much support do they have? Some claim they have the support of 60% of the electorate. Sorry, they have the definitive support of 0% of the electorate, as not one elector voted at the election for A+B. Who voted definitively for a Labour/Plaid Cmyru coalition in Wales? No one.

    As for the Alternative Vote Plus recommended by the Jenkins Commission, and supported by stephenpaterson, I should declare an interest. I penned the Conservative response to the Commission’s report, explaining why we should retain the present electoral system. The Alternative Vote Plus is a bit of a pig’s breakfast: in essense, it recommends a system with the potential to be far more disproportional than the existing system and then, recognising that, recommends some ‘top-up’ members, who would then compete with constituency MPs to speak for a particular area. I could go on, but you get the drift…

    On the wider issues, I think I had better respond to demand and do a post shortly on the merits and demerits of the Westminster system.

  16. Croft
    06/03/2009 at 3:02 pm

    A search in Amazon for Philip Norton produces a whole slew of your books though delightfully also includes: “Short Fuse: The Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry with CD by Philip Norton” :-D

  17. David Ellis
    08/03/2009 at 8:44 am

    Adrian Kidney March 6, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    I wasn’t ignoring the State legislatures. I was concentrating on the central government numbers. It would be possible to equate the State governments to our County Councils – the numbers would be roughly equal. It is true that the States are further subdivided into Counties themselves, but these tend not to have their own governmental bodies, rather having operating boards of much reduced size when compared to our Borough Councils (Harnett County, North Carolina has five Commissioners, Test Valley Borough Council has 24+ Councillors, for example). There are also City Councils, but they too are very slim bodies (Raleigh, NC has a Council of eight, for example). And there are local councils in much the way we have Parish Councils, where the numbers are of the same order.

    The net is that below the level of central government the numbers may in fact still indicate a worse overhead in the UK but can be ignored for the primary point of my post.

    And if inclusion of the devolved assemblies in this country is taken into account, then the ratio worsens still further.

    But this would be a distraction from my essential point, that our primary legislature is way over-resourced. I believe we could trim it down by 80% and not suffer any detriment. I posted my point because I would like to hear arguments to the contrary.

  18. lordnorton
    08/03/2009 at 12:03 pm

    David Ellis: Your response is founded on a false premise. It is not possible to equate state governments in the USA to county councils in this country. The closest equivalent to a state government would be devolved government in Scotland, but even it lacks the full tax-raising powers of a state government. Major powers that are vested in state governments in the USA reside in the UK in national government. And the USA also has some powerful county and city administrations. Apart from the mayor of Greater London, the UK has nothing to compare with the mayors of the major urban areas in the USA. Issues that constituents in the USA would take to a council member or state legislator are taken in the UK to the local MP.

  19. Adrian Kidney
    08/03/2009 at 4:22 pm

    Lord Norton, regarding your comments on AV+ and FPTP: I agree with what you say, but then it still has to be said that FPTP is greatly disproportional and minority and coalition governments are still possible; they’re a factor of parliamentary systems, not of electoral systems. Canada has FPTP and yet currently has a minority Conservative administration.

    Would you say there are examples of constituency/List rivalries in the parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Germany?

    What would you say of simply Alternative Vote, like Australia uses for House of Representatives elections?

  20. lordnorton
    11/03/2009 at 1:39 pm

    Adrian Kidney: minority and coalition governments are indeed possible under FPTP. The point I make is that FPTP facilitates but does not guarantee single-party government. Much depends on the nature of the society itself. We have occasionally had minority or coalition governments in this country, but they have been the exception and not the rule. There are rivalries between constituency and list members in Scotland and Wales: it is this experience that influences some MPs from Scotland and Wales to be opposed to any election of members of the second chamber. The problem with AV is that it can be more disproportionate than FPTP, especially if there is a notable swing against one party. It has been estimated, for example, that had AV been employed in the UK, the Labour Party would have won even more seats in 1997 than they won under FPTP.

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