Saturday, 6 November 2010

A view on American politics from a British Conservative - Firstly, it's just plain confusing.

3rd November 2010, and across the Atlantic the opinion polls and the pundits were almost exactly right. The Republicans took more than 60 seats, taking a majority in the House of Representatives and the Democrats kept control of the Senate, though with a dramatically smaller majority.

President Obama and his Democrat administration face dealing with a legislature half controlled by a party bitterly opposed to almost everything they are trying to achieve. With the House of Representatives under Republican control, the Senate largely gridlocked by absurd filibuster rules and the Presidency Democrat there is a serious possibility of near total gridlock in the American federal government system over the next two years. Indeed, ironically, the Republicans retaking the House may help Obama's re-election in 2012, with Republicans once again forced to actually take responsibility for decisions, rather than merely carping from the sidelines.

This is fascinating from a British perspective, both in political and constitutional terms. The first thing to note though is that, to the British or European observer, more used to our politics, it is just plain confusing in so many ways. Just to give the general idea I'll give a few examples.

For the British even the names are confusing. We have a Parliament, and we use this word to describe the European equivalents, something that generally fits them. But it does not fit Congress at all, and so we call it Congress instead, and then try to work out what that means. The Republicans have won a majority in the House of Representatives, which is the lower house of congress, like the House of Commons in parliament, except it is not nearly as important as the House of commons, and, because 'House of Representatives' is too long a name and 'the Representatives' is still quite long, it is often just called 'the House', which is just unhelpful if you don't already know what it is.

The British media do not really know what to do with American congressional elections. They tend to roughly equate US presidential elections with our general elections, as the most important nation-wide election in a rough manner. But this doesn't work because our general elections are really like Congressional elections and Presidential elections rolled into one. But in America they are separate and one can have the situation where the Congress and the Presidency are controlled by opposing parties. To British and generally European minds that is bizarre. Commanding a majority in the main house of the legislature is what makes you a government in the UK. Without it you're nothing, you're in opposition, that graveyard of political impotence. No such thing as 'In Opposition' really exists in America, though if you don't have the Presidency then you are generally considered to be losing. In Britain, and most of Europe, to be in government you also have to be in parliament, otherwise you don't qualify. In America on the other hand, you cannot be both in Congress and the executive branch, it is against the law. Apart from the president nobody in the cabinet is elected, and they are actually not allowed to be.

Now 'the House' (House of what? People ask) is the lower house, and was broadly modelled on the British House of Commons and broadly is the democratically representative chamber (hence the name). But it is, if anything, the least important and prestigious branch of the government structure, compared to the Senate or the Presidency or even being the governor of a state. And the party that dominates it is led in political action and general machinations, not by a prime minister as in Britain and Europe, but by the Speaker of the House, which in Britain is a job which has no party political role and, in fact, is so scrupulously unbiased that the person in the job is not only has to renounce his party loyalty when he takes the job, but isn't even allowed to identify with a party afterwards when he leaves the job, or for the rest of his career. And the Speaker of the House in the US, who will now be a Republican, will now be spear-heading their battle against the President, who is also sort of like our Prime Minister, but has nothing to do with either house of the legislature. Right.

In Britain we only have one set of elections of any importance: General elections, which decide the legislature and the executive, parliament and government. We also have local councils and European elections, but they don't really seem to matter to that many people, partially because they have little control over major policy, and partially, because they have almost no control over money, almost of all which is decided by Parliament and the Government. This is not so in America, where there are Presidential elections and Congressional elections and also important State elections. There is even a great, unique word for the elections for state governors, the mini-presidents of individual states: Gubernational elections. A word that still makes me smile every single time I hear it.

Even the parties involved are odd. America maintains a stranglehold of a two party system that the two main parties in Britain could only dream of. No party has representation at the national level apart from Republicans and Democrats and hasn't for decades. These two parties have been dominant for 150 years, over which time they have almost entirely swapped geographic and demographic bases of support and ideology at least once. Until the 1920's there would have been barely a single black man in all America who would have voted for any party but the Republican party, a party explicitly founded to oppose slavery, which led America into a civil war for that purpose, which was based in the north east and the north industrial districts, and for almost a century never held a single state in the old South. Now, 93% of Blacks vote for the Democratic Party, the party of slavery, the party of the Confederacy, the party of the Klu Klux Klan, the party that held the loyalty of Southern Whites without question. Now the Republicans dominate the South and the democratic party is dominant in the North-East; now the Democratic party is the party of minorities and 'liberal' and 'progressive' society, and largely all thanks to one courageous decision taken by Lyndon Johnson, a politician for once putting principle and morality straight above electoral advantage.

And Americans continue to stick with their two parties. The Republican and Democrat parties continue to uniformly gain more than 95% of the vote in any nationwide or gubernational election, bar the very occasional independent. And despite record levels of discontent with their politicians and the whole political process neither does there seem any serious chance that any other parties will break through. It is a testimony to the sheer breadth of the two parties and the relative homogeneity of America, even in its diversity, that Americans seem quite willing identify with one banner or the other, whether from Oregon or Maine, Chicago or Texas, with none of the fragmentation on ethnic or local grounds we see in political systems elsewhere. Britain has three main nationwide parties, an additional major party that operates in each of wales and Scotland, and about 5 more parties that only operate in Northern Ireland. This is all for various complicated historical reasons. European countries tend to have anywhere between 3-12 main parties, who often get about 5-20% of the vote each, for every possible shade of the ideological spectrum, though they sometimes coalesce into two big ideological coalitions for the purposes of general elections, thus leaving everyone back pretty much where they started.

To British ears the names are odd as well. There is a Republican and a Democratic party and these are deeply opposed, except every single Republican would also claim to be a democrat, and every single Democrat would claim to be a republican (in the British sense) as well. It makes one more grateful for simple explanatory names like Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties, who are generally respectively staffed and supported by conservatives, liberals and the working classes. It is especially strange that America has no Liberal or Conservative parties, despite the fact that in America a lot more people actually use and identify with these terms than here. In fairness, though, it must be said that European party names are often even worse, being both unnecessarily long and totally indecipherable. France, for example, (always a good example) is currently ruled by the 'Union for a Popular Movement' (whatever the hell that is) in coalition with (among others) 'the National center of Independents and Peasants' (Riiiight) and 'Hunt, Fish, Nature, Traditions', which is just bananas; but I suppose at least has the advantage of sounding quite dynamic, and lets face it is about as cool as any political party name is ever going to get.

To be fair, though, British politics is just as confusing for Americans, and for totally different reasons to the ones I have stated above. I remember talking to an American friend, who was astonished at sheer amount of the British constitution and legal system over which there is no codified, written, legal basis. And in fairness it does seem a bloody odd way of doing things at first glance. America, like most other countries in the modern world has a written constitution, which outlines how their political and legal system should operate. In Britain we have no such thing. There is nowhere one can go to find or to look up the rules on which the British legal and political system is based, no charter on which parliament is run and organised. No such document exists.

It is stranger than that though.  For example, until 13 years ago there was not British law guaranteeing freedom of speech. Another example: The most powerful person in Britain is the Prime Minister, but again there is no written legal basis for that position, it exists entirely by unwritten convention. The Prime Minister's own residence, 10 Downing Street is occupied by the Prime Minister, not on the legal basis of being Prime Minister, but rather by that of being 1st Lord of the Treasury, an entirely ceremonial position, which the prime minister holds so that he may have some official position in the hierarchy, since the position of Prime Minister has no written legal basis. This would seem an incredible way to run a state.

Americans also find it strange to realise that we have a whole house of parliament that is entirely occupied by unelected, appointed persons: The House of Lords.  And, not only this, but also until 1997 we had members of that House who were still there solely on grounds of inheriting an aristocratic title from their ancestors, i.e. being Earl of this, or Duke of that. We also still have Christian Bishops of the Church of England sitting in the House of Lords, able to vote on laws, even though no other religious group has this privilege and most of the population has long ceased to be part of the Church of England.

We have a Prime Minister, who is the most powerful man in the country, but is merely an MP, and is only actually elected by his own constituents. I have never voted for David Cameron, nor Gordon Brown before him, and I will almost certainly never have the chance to vote for any Prime Minister that comes after him. We also still have, not only a Monarchy, but a law banning the heir to the throne from marrying or being a Roman Catholic. That is right, we have no written law outlining the authority of our parliament, but we do have a written law banning our head of state from joining a certain religion or, indeed, marrying anyone who belongs to a certain religion. Moreover one held by millions of British citizens and one billion people worldwide. And what is even more weird is that practically no body in the entire country gets particularly upset about these facts.

Americans are also confused by the fact that we have almost no formal checks and balances. These are things that Americans are very proud of having, and they are all told at school that they are the cornerstone of any well constructed democracy. We have traditionally had almost none, though that has changed slightly, recently. Our Executive are all members of our legislature, indeed they have to be. Our most senior judges are all members of part of the Legislature: the House of Lords. The head of our judiciary is in the executive, and the legislature. Whereas Americans have always had a Bill of Rights and a complex series of powers given to the president, and the congress, and the individual state governments we have a Sovereign parliament. Parliament could, tomorrow (well, really in a few weeks), by a simple majority, vote to reintroduce slavery, or abolish local government, or end free speech, or ban trousers, or frankly anything else they pleased.  And with no more difficulty than passing a law demanding minimum standards for bus stops.

The only check against them doing this is that it would annoy a lot of people and they would be voted out at the next election. The only check against them voting to abolish elections is that we would all rise up and rebel if they did. There is no formal, legal constraint on them doing any of these things, no piece of paper anywhere saying they do not have the right to do it, only convention, meaning everyone knows it should not be done, and the assumed fact that no-one would vote/stand for it. To those few Americans who actually know what the British political system looks like this seems a somewhat lax way to run a country. We are leaving the freedom and stability of our political system down to the assumption everyone knows the rules and will abide by them. Our whole constitution operates on the level of a gentleman's agreement, and our entire political and legal system goes the way it does on little more concrete basis than that it is traditional to do it this way.

So in fairness, a decent amount of confusion goes both ways. It is a good thing to be aware of as well, we get so caught up in our own tensions we forget how indecipherable these things are to people who stand outside them. None of this is to say that there is not a good justification for the British way of doing things, nor more serious issues about the American way. And that's not to even begin on the particular political situation that comes up with the mid-terms, which was my original purpose (whoops, got sidetracked). But that is for another time.


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