Thursday, May 13, 2010

Britain's Strange Coalition

A coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is now a reality in Britain. One of the concessions that now-Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to in entering into government with the usually Left-of-Center Liberal Democrats was that the term of Parliament would be fixed to five years. In other words, Cameron has essentially agreed to give up his historic right to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament and a fresh election. As former Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit writes, a fixed-term Parliament could create a real problem if this coalition should fall apart:

If we have legislated for a fixed term Parliament, what happens then? What if no one can command the confidence of the House of Commons and there cannot be a general election to resolve the issue?

As they say, marry in haste and repent at leisure.

It is one thing to allow for legislation to prevent a sitting Prime Minister from moving for an election merely because it is politically advantageous, but it is quite another to fix the term of Parliament so that it cannot be dissolved at all before a certain date and no election can be called. A fixed term doesn't seem like a big deal to us here in the U.S. because we are used to two critical differences-the first is the separation between the legislature and the executive, and the second is that our elections are frequent enough (every two years) to resolve questions of confidence and who has real governing control.

In a parliamentary system, however, a government that loses the confidence of the legislature becomes dysfunctional and unworkable almost immediately. If this coalition falls apart and Her Majesty's Government fails to keep the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister must have the freedom to go to the monarch and ask for a dissolution and a new election. If he cannot do that under such circumstances, it could paralyze government in Britain for months or even years, forget mention of what it might do to the economy.

It will be interesting to see how this "change" across the water plays out.

Labels: ,


At Thursday, May 13, 2010 3:55:00 AM, Anonymous Alan said...

Fixed parliaments are an increasingly common reform in Westminster systems. They do not work quite as you describe.

in New Zealand, for instance, it is now convention that a defeated prime minister no longer has the right to a dissoution if a different government can be formed. You may care to read the Queensland proposal. The principle is that there can be no dissolution while an alternative government can be formed int he existing House. Prime ministers should be precluded from taking advantage of a transient political situation to call a snap election.

That said, I'm not convinced at all that the proposed UK mechanism is the best way to implement the idea.

At Thursday, May 13, 2010 4:30:00 PM, Blogger Dave Oatney said...

I'm somewhat familiar with the Queensland proposal because Canadian convention allows the Governor General to behave in a similar way, literally to ask the opposition to form the Government without dissolution or an election.

Practically speaking, however, the GG rarely, if ever, does this, preferring that the Government be chosen by the electorate.

It is not unreasonable to limit a PM's ability to ask to dissolve Parliament merely because the polls look good, however.

At Thursday, May 13, 2010 11:36:00 PM, Anonymous Alan said...

That is a standard Westminster convention, although it tends to surprise people when it occurs. Australia actually did this in 1940 under the prospect of a Japanese land invasion. Naturally the largest party in any given legislature tends to claim that their plurality entitles them to be treated as if they had a majority.

Incidentally the Scotland Act and the equivalent laws for Wales and Northern Ireland all require a supermajority to dissolve and a simple majority to remove the government.

At Friday, May 14, 2010 12:25:00 AM, Blogger Dave Oatney said...

I can see the need for such rules in Northern Ireland because of the very unique need there for cross-community consensus when making very major decisions-like dissolving the Assembly (formerly called the Parliament of Northern Ireland) or calling an election.

I'm not sure how I feel about super-majorities to dissolve. It likely works in Scotland and Wales because the Scots Parliament is dominated by parties of the center-Left who usually reach consensus on major issues-so is Wales to a lesser degree. The biggest problem with the idea of a super-majority needed for dissolution might be that in a bona fide minority situation such as what currently exists COULD CONCEIVABLY exist where no party could hold the Confidence of the House, but it might be impossible to marshal 2/3rds to vote for dissolution-but a majority would be willing to dissolve and end the deadlock.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Locations of visitors to this page
Profile Visitor Map - Click to view visits
Create your own visitor map