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British Parliamentary System of Government with the United States Federal System of Government
The British Parliamentary system of government is one of the oldest political systems in the world that has evolved over a period of centuries. The British model has influenced the system of governments in many countries of the world including the United States. On the other hand, the U.S. system of government is a Federal system that came into existence when the United States (the former American colonies) rebelled against British rule and declared its independence in the latter part of the eighteenth century, followed by the adoption of its own constitution in 1787. Although having some similarities with the British System of government, the U.S. system of government is unique in several aspects, having its own characteristics. In this paper we shall look at some key features of the two systems of government and compare and contrast the British Parliamentary system of government with the United States Federal System of government.
The British Parliamentary System
The British system of government that has evolved gradually over several centuries and is now known as a parliamentary monarchy with a democratically elected government.
The monarch is the head of state with limited powers and the parliament consists of the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the Monarch. Most of the powers of the government now rest with the Members of the House of Commons who are directly elected though universal suffrage and a 'first past the post' system of elections held every five years. (Weisser and Kishlansky) the chief executive is the Prime Minister, who is a member of the House of Commons and the leader of the majority party in the House. Members of the House of Lords are not elected and consist of members of the heredity 'lords,' those appointed for their contribution to the society, or are the appointed religious leaders. Although the House of Commons is called the 'lower' house it has most of the legislative powers. ("The Role of House of Commons.") the House of Lords is just a debating forum with limited powers confined to introduction of bills (except the "Money" Bills). The House can also delay the passage of other bills for a limited period but cannot block their passage as the House of Commons may invoke the 'Parliament Act.' (Ibid.)
The Executive and Legislative Functions
Her Majesty's 'Government' is the executive branch that consists of ministers of the Cabinet, most of whom are members of the House of Commons; government departments, each being responsible to a minister; local authorities; and public corporations. The House of Commons is involved in both the legislative and executive functions and as such there is no separation of powers between executive and legislature as there is in the United States.
The government works under the constitution, which consists of various historical documents, laws, and formal customs adopted over the years. Most of the British constitution is not a written document unlike that of the United States.
The written part consists of the Magna Carta (signed by King John in 1215 AD); the Petition of Right, passed by Parliament in 1628; and the Bill of Rights of 1689. The 'unwritten' part consists of all the laws passed by Parliament, precedents of decisions made by British courts, and various traditions and customs. The democratically elected House of Commons can alter these laws with a majority vote. The British constitution evolves continually as new laws are passed and judicial decisions are made. All laws passed by Parliament are regarded as constitutional, and changes or amendments to the constitution occur whenever new legislation overrides existing law. Since the seventeenth century (the period of the Glorious Revolution) the powers of the monarch have gradually been wrested by the parliament (more specifically the House of Commons) and although the monarch or the 'Crown' still formally approves all changes in law, it is now a mere formality. From the beginning of the 19th century the powers have gradually shifted from the House of Lords to the House of Commons that is now a democratically elected body. (Kramnick)
The British judicial system consists of principles such as the right to trial by jury; the right to due process of law; freedom from unlawful imprisonment, the trial system of prosecution and defense; and the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. These principles have been adopted by the legal and judicial systems of many countries including the United States. The British legal system relies on common law, which is based on custom and on decisions in previous legal cases, called precedents. (Weisser and Kishlansky-para on "Judiciary")
Although the judiciary is completely independent in Britain it is simply meant to "enforce the law but that it is Parliament that creates that law." ("Judicial Independence.") This characteristic of the British judicial system separates it from that of the United States since Britain does not have a Supreme Court with powers to review legislation to determine its constitutionality -- only the parliament has the powers to review legislation.
The Political Parties
Political parties are an important part of the British system as the elections to the House of Commons is held on party basis after every 5 years and the leader of the majority party (who wins more than 50% of the seats) is elected as the Prime Minister or the leader of the House. At present the two major parties in Britain are the Labor Party and the Conservative Party. The Labor Party is the left of center Party, deriving most of its strength from the labor unions, while the Conservatives favor private enterprise and a mixed economy. The 'first past the post system' of elections work against the smaller political parties and they find it difficult to elect member to the Parliament. ("The British Parliamentary System.")
The United States Federal System of Government
The United States, unlike Britain, is a relatively 'young' country and does not have as old a system of government as in Britain. Since the United States was a British colony before its independence and a large part of its original inhabitants had emigrated from Britain, it naturally incorporated many of the principles of the British philosophy of government and the thoughts of several British philosophers. The U.S. system of government, however, is also different from that of Britain in many ways. To start with the founding fathers of the United States deliberately set forth as their principle that no Sovereign has the divine right to rule the country and that the government exists only to serve the people as it derives its power from the people. This principle was a radical departure from the usual practice at the time.
This is one of the reasons that the United States did not agree to accept the British King as even a figurehead of the new country unlike several other former British colonies.
The Four Basic Principles
The United States has built its government on four fundamental principles: (1) popular sovereignty -- with the people being the ultimate source of the government's authority; (2) representative government; (3) a system of checks and balances; and (4) federalism, a system in which power is shared by different levels of government. (Baker)
The first principle about people's sovereignty was adopted by the founding fathers led by Thomas Jefferson who was influenced by the thoughts of philosophers of the 'age of enlightenment,' in particular the 17th century English philosopher -- John Locke.
The 2nd principle about representative government is ensured by the fact that almost all officials to positions of authority such as the President, members of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and State & local government officials are elected by the people. The only exceptions are the judges who are appointed.
The third important principle of American democracy is an elaborate system of checks and balances. The three branches of government are the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, each having separate functions and powers to restrain and stabilize one another. The legislative branch is represented by the Congress that passes the bills before they can become law. The executive branch is the president who can veto bills passed by Congress, preventing them from becoming law. The Congress has the powers to override the president's veto by a two-thirds vote. The Supreme Court has the powers to abrogate acts of Congress by declaring them contrary to the Constitution, but Congress can change the Constitution through the amendment process. (Ibid.) the most striking difference in this system of government and the British system is the separation of the executive and legislative functions.
The fourth principle is federalism, which is reflected in the division of powers between the states and the national government. This division of power is designed to curb abuses by either governments and to give a measure of autonomy to the states in managing their own affairs. (Ibid.)
The U.S. Constitution
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