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The Westminster model

Britain’s traditional conception of the Westminster model is based on an emphasis on centralization of governmental power and clear accountability of government. In principle, this means that a ruling government can do what it promises while simultaneously centralizing power—to the point that the system could be argued to be an elective dictatorship. This late 19th century model shifted British politics from a shared balance of power among several political entities to a system of concentrated power, strict party discipline, and party-based decisions for future governments—thus providing a highly predictable and stable two-party electoral system. The 1960s and ‘70s saw a further concentration of power as emphasis on cabinet government shifted to prime ministerial government.

Constitutionally, the Westminster model is based on the idea of parliamentary sovereignty which signifies several crucial implications for government. Any majority government has a virtually unchecked ability to make constitutional change—aside from the House of Lords’ possible one-year delay. Judges in Britain under the Westminster model traditionally accept the notion of parliamentary sovereignty, which limits the role of judges—making Parliament the sole discretionary legislative entity.

Several other structural characteristics define the Westminster model. Elections of MPs to Parliament are in single-member districts under the plurality-rules system, whereby the top candidate wins with or without a majority. Strong parties compete for national support and artificial majorities in Parliament—created for example by “leader bias” for the top party—result. Voters, according to Duverger’s Law, are then pushed to decide between the top two parties for fear of wasting votes—in the case of Britain, the Labour and Conservative parties.

In recent years however, voter proportions in Britain do not reflect a two-party system. Still, the Westminster model’s artificial majorities assure that the two-party system remains. The Labour and Conservative parties have adapted to becoming catch-all parties as mass membership and grassroots influence declines over time. Now seeking the votes of wider populations of voters, the influence of mass media has risen. Differences between the two parties are for the most part relegated to a predictable spectrum of political and ideological differences.

The government under the Westminster model is formed from the legislature, so there is no separation between the legislative and executive branches. The party system dictates the existence of one-party governments built upon artificial majorities in the House of Commons and discourages coalition government. The appointed upper house—the House of Lords—is traditionally weak, leaving out the possibility of significant bicameralism of the legislature. The two-party system also dictates strict party lines among the top parties—the majority party’s MPs are generally “whipped” into supporting party initiatives—and generally pulls the main parties towards the center based on the need to get into and remain in office.

In terms of core executive and policy making structures of the Westminster model, the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons becomes the prime minister and appoints the cabinet. The government of the prime minister, in charge of major policy decisions, is considered to be “collectively responsible” for those policies—meaning that the leaders of policy departments of the government are to be accountable though not necessarily responsible for department failures and must accordingly address and resolve policy and other departmental issues.

Aside from cabinet committees which balance out factional disputes within the majority party, there exist very few checks and balances on the prime minister—who holds sway over foreign policy, economic policy, cabinet appointments, and other key issues. This executive-dominated government in Britain under the Westminster model is headquartered at Whitehall, where crucial decisions are made by government ministers—appointed by the prime minister. Parliament can be dissolved and elections called at any time in theory. Regarding allocation of powers throughout the state apparatus, Britain under the Westminster model is highly centralized with regards to policy on a national level. Local councils, dependent on finance from the center, make for generally weak local governments and a more powerful central government.

The prime minister has become increasingly centralized and powerful in recent years as well, leading to claims that the British model has become one of “presidentialism.” We have seen the development of the prime ministership as an institution—no longer just someone who appoints and oversees—indicated by a more recent emphasis on a grand plan for political change by prime ministers and a considerable increase in administrative positions of political advisors and other institutionalized positions. Policy-making today is often conducted through informal and elite-level discussions rather than through traditional legislative channels. The civil service serves as a well-oiled machine to assist ministers in implementing policy, expediting the executive policy-making process at the benefit of the highly centralized executive government.

Thus, the Westminster model as it has been exemplified in Britain exhibits several notable characteristics. Its underlying political ideology emphasizes a significant concentration of power under government and clear lines of accountability for government action. The first-past-the-post majoritarian electoral system creates incentives for a two-party system rather than for proportional representation. A de facto executive branch is comprised by Parliament, which by the principle of parliamentary sovereignty has a virtually unfettered ability to enact significant constitutional change. The head of state—leader of the majority party and prime minister—holds sway over major policy decisions as the Westminster model’s emphasis on concentration of power has come to be embodied in the notion of prime ministerial government.

Developments in Britain in recent years have prompted speculation that the Westminster model may not continue in Britain indefinitely as its tenets have already been significantly undermined. For example, the revival of the House of Lords as an effective institution, the increased importance of the judiciary—especially through questioning of laws that are potentially non-compliant with the Human Rights Act—and the growing connectedness of Britain and the EU reflect a departure from the traditional Westminster system. With devolution of once highly-centralized power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and somewhat to Europe as well, there is no longer a single dominant Westminster government but a devolved multi-level government in the U.K. Globalization has also caused the breakdown of centralized authority as national governments have been forced to adapt to and embrace globalization and market forces—though the current financial crisis has prompted a re-assessment of that judgment.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Britain has in many ways departed from the Westminster model in recent years, in part reflecting weaknesses of the model itself. It has been argued that majoritarian institutions—as opposed to power-sharing institutions—do not work in multi-cultural societies. As reflected historically in Britain in the case of Ireland’s independence movement and today in the case of Scotland’s independence movement, a majoritarian Westminster model is threatened as ethnic minorities tend to feel subjugated. Thus, even in Britain, with the advent of devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, we see today a departure from the traditional Westminster model and its foundations of vast concentration of power, clear lines of governmental accountability, and the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

There have been numerous attempts by Britain to export the Westminster model to newly independent countries. These attempts—with the exception of a few cases such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India—have ended in failure and the collapse of the Westminster-oriented system shortly after independence. This is especially true pertaining to Britain’s de-colonization efforts in its African colonies. Independence movements in these countries have often been culturally influenced by the British—through study in London and the British constitution among other factors—and thus the natural course in British eyes has been for its former colonies to adopt the Westminster model. However, the system often never operated successfully where it was exported.

There are several general problems with attempting to export the Westminster model. First, it is arguable that it is impossible to successfully export a political system at all—that a political system must grow from within the territory it operates and that attempts to develop constitutional systems that are not indigenous are doomed to failure. Second, the British constitutional system leaves many important constitutional understandings unsaid. This has necessitated countries importing the Westminster model to specify much of what the British have left out. However, this still does not resolve the issue of whether or not the constitution will actually be respected by the people, which leads to the third general problem: It seems possible that the Westminster model may rest on cultural understandings that are only understood by the British themselves, resulting in an inability for the Westminster model in most cases to be successfully exported.

A significant defining feature of the Westminster model dictates high concentration of power. A common problem in countries where the Westminster model had been implemented, such as Nigeria and Uganda, was that concentration of power made peaceful transfer of power inherently difficult in newly independent countries. With the Westminster system’s emphasis on concentration of power, a fundamental problem for developing countries was the distribution of wealth and natural resources—which are controlled by the government. There was a constant struggle for control of the government which by proxy controls the country’s wealth. This also ties in to the notion that countries with natural resource wealth are less likely to be democratic, and thus less able to implement successfully the Westminster—or any other liberal democratic—model. The Nigerian government, for example, received billions of dollars from the oil companies, yet access to crucial public goods continued to go unavailable for millions as oil revenues went towards government corruption and military expenditures. The Westminster model’s propensity to create what is arguably an elective dictatorship with its immense concentration of power is inherently dangerous for the transfer of power in newly independent countries.

A significant point to note is that a fundamental feature of post-independence countries is often sharp ethnic, tribal, and linguistic divides as colonial borders were initially drawn as such to further divide ethnic populations against themselves. With the existence of these sharp social divides among tribes and ethnic groups, there is a particular problem with developing the sense of nationality and patriotism necessary to unite a country under a unitary political system. When political parties emerge in newly independent countries, they are heavily based on ethnic and tribal affiliation, leading inevitably to conflicts over power among tribes and ethnic groups.

The Westminster model’s unchecked concentration of power amongst majority and minority groups thus not only makes initial democratic transfer of power difficult but also rouses inherent ethnic, tribal, and other identity-based tensions in multi-cultural societies. Even in Britain, the Westminster model has been shown to fail in this respect in the case of Ireland in which the vast concentration of power amongst one ethnic and linguistic group over others created similar ethnic tensions. From the Northern Irish view, multi-cultural societies must adopt non-majoritarian—power-sharing—models rather than the Westminster model to avoid ethnic conflict. The model appears to be fundamentally unsuited to multi-ethnic societies as it creates clear political winners and losers and shifts political issues overwhelmingly towards ethnicity.

There are certainly, however, counterarguments to the notion that the Westminster model cannot be successfully exported. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India have maintained successful procedural democratic systems under the Westminster model since independence. The case of India is surprising especially because of its sharp ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions. It has been argued that the British left strong bureaucratic and military institutions in India and that the country’s massive size and great diversity of ethnicities and religious groups—as opposed to two antagonistic groups—has made for a stable democratic transition in India even under the supposedly problematic Westminster model.

However, even where the Westminster model has been implemented successfully, there have arisen the aforementioned problems of the model’s immense concentration of power. Canada, for instance, has seen the rise since the 1960s of French Canadian nationalism and the threat of independence for Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois—the French Canadian nationalist party—became gradually less religious and conservative and more commercial and self-confident, and as Quebec has become more prosperous, the Bloc Quebecois has become increasingly nationalistic, rousing support for independence. In fact, several referendums have come up in which a majority for effective independence has nearly been reached—though such a measure has never passed.

Nevertheless, the Canadian example exhibits the dangers the Westminster model poses in a multi-cultural society. As in Britain, Canadian federalism has been characterized by a need to satisfy Quebec with increasing autonomy as well as recognition of Canada as a bi-lingual multi-cultural country. Though the threat of independence in Quebec is receding with rising immigration, the French Canadian nationalists have dominated politics at provincial levels and—similar to entities such as the Scottish National party—represent shortcomings on the part of the Westminster model to quell ethnic divisions in multi-cultural societies where it is implemented and partly explain the model’s failure upon being exported to newly independent countries.

Besides the Westminster model’s frequent tendency to rouse ethnic tensions, its emphasis on concentration of power makes peaceful transfer of power in newly independent countries problematic. It is possible that it is not a failure of the Westminster model itself in Africa but rather a difficulty for African developing countries to import a successful political system. The fact remains nonetheless that for various reasons—failures of the model itself, an incapacity of political systems to be exported, or a lack of understanding of British constitutional traditions—various attempts to export the Westminster model have proven to be problematic.

Politics | British politics


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