Many Americans probably are scratching their heads in wonder at the events unfolding in Great Britain as that nation’s government is remade following recent elections. To be fair, the Brits probably do a lot of head scratching when they watch U.S. elections.
In the British system, the party that wins the most seats in Parliament gets to choose the prime minister. David Grima, a native of Great Britain and former journalist in the Camden and Rockland area, says this difference is significant. It means that the British prime minister always has a majority in the legislative branch, or if not a majority at least — as is now the case — his or her party has the most seats. That difference often means the British government doesn’t experience the sort of partisan gridlock seen in the U.S. over the last decade.
Under Britain’s system, an election for the 600 seats in the House of Commons is held, on average, every five years. Parliament consists of the House of Commons and the House of Lords; House of Lords members are either appointed or have inherited their seats. House of Commons members are elected by residents of the districts they represent. If one of the nation’s three major parties wins the most seats, that party’s leader — elected earlier by party members — becomes the prime minister.
The most recent election produced the first coalition government in 36 years. How the government proceeds from this unusual starting point may be instructive.
A chain reaction began with the 2007 resignation of Tony Blair, prime minister for the Labour Party. His party replaced him with Gordon Brown. In the recent election, none of the three major parties — Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat — won a majority of seats. That triggered the horse-trading process. The Conservatives won the most seats, Labour followed in second and the Liberal Democrats won the fewest. Had Labour struck a deal with Liberal Democrats they may have gained a control of the government. Instead, the Conservatives were able to find common ground with the Liberal Democrats, and so Conservative leader David Cameron is now prime minister.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats choice for prime minister, is now deputy prime minister, a new position, Mr. Grima said — obviously part of the horse trading.
The upside of the parliamentary process is that the government does not grind to a halt over ideology or political strategy. “A lot more gets done,” Mr. Grima said, “because a leader always has a majority.” The downside, or course, is that a lot gets done — not good if your party is in the minority.
The U.S. is not likely to embrace a parliamentary system. But if one element could be borrowed from the British system, it should be the viability of a third party, forcing some of that horse trading, which is better than gridlock.