Why I am disilllusioned with the Westminster system of government

As the end of the year approaches, it is worth considering which of our earlier views we have reevaluated. I have a nomination: I am these days less enamored of the British parliamentary or “Westminster” system of government, which no longer seems well-functioning.  The British version of the idea in particular.

Some traits of the British Westminster system are the fusion of the executive and legislative branches of government, first past the post democratic elections, the relative weakness of judicial vetos, and the relative absence of federalist structures. All of those features centralize power in the national state.

The Westminster system long has had American fans, most recently political commentator Matt Yglesias. These individuals praise the parliamentary system for giving government a chance to get things done, subject to a periodic, up-down democratic check.

What I am observing is that, contrary to common reputation, the UK political system is turning out to be more gridlocked than the American system. One problem is that governments can very easily lose their majorities and fall, as witnessed by the quick succession of three British prime ministers, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and now Rishi Sunak. To provide a simple example, it has been difficult for any of those governments to legalize fracking (Johnson did not, Truss made gestures in that direction, Sunak has claimed he will not). If nothing else, fracking would disrupt the rural and suburban environments of Tory voters, and endanger the stability of a Conservative government. The end result is that Britain is less energy-independent, more budget constrained and as a result more constrained in what it can do politically.

The contrast with America is striking. Fracking spread through deregulation at the state level, and it was then tolerated by President Obama at the federal level. Obama’s implicit decision was not popular with the strongly environmental faction in the Democratic Party, but there was no risk that his government would fall immediately. The United States government ended up with a stronger economy and also more foreign policy autonomy.

More generally, federalism gives the American system of government more sources of innovation. Recently the YIMBY movement has made significant strides in California, and a YIMBY-sympathetic regime has prevailed in Texas from the beginning. The United Kingdom, in contrast, is so far stalled in its efforts to deregulate building and construction.

The British system also is failing to keep the nation together. The “all or nothing” feature of parliamentary rule tends to alienate political outsiders, which in this case includes a significant portion of Scotland. Recent governments usually have been Tory, but the Scottish populace as a whole stands to the left of the winning coalitions and has little voice in them. Over time, Scotland has demanded and won near-complete devolution, and there is continuing talk of a second independence referendum. It is possible that twenty or thirty years from now both Scotland and Northern Ireland will have left the United Kingdom. Failure to hold the nation together, or even to create a significant risk in that direction, has to count as a fundamental defect of a political system.

Note that New Zealand once had a version of the Westminster system, but through a 1993 referendum voters replaced it with a form of proportional representation. Again, the former Westminster methods did not command enough loyalty from a sufficiently broad swathe of the electorate to prove stable.

The British system of government also tends to diminish its own autonomy over time, mostly for fiscal reasons. Many of the constraints on the current British government are fiscal rather than procedural, as we saw during the ill-fated Truss experiments with increasing the budget deficit. The more autonomy is given to governments earlier in the historical sequence, the more likely they are to spend money and promise voters benefits. That makes it hard, over time, to spend additional money at the margin, and so British governmental autonomy was high earlier in the twentieth century and now is much lower. It is unfortunate, but no surprise, that the Sunak government finds it necessary to be proposing tax increases.

There is one major respect in which the British government did overcome political gridlock, and that is seeing through the process of Brexit. Yet the result has been inferior economic performance and in turn yet greater constraints on the government. The initial exercise of autonomy turns out to have been illusory.

Furthermore, the unitary nature of sovereignty in the UK made it harder to jump off the Brexit track once the process was underway. The strongest pro-Brexit factions are numerous enough to depose a Tory government, and so the UK has ended up with a harder Brexit than would have been ideal. That single faction has had the power to derail other potential solutions, a classic sign of governmental gridlock.

Political constitutions do not keep the same properties over time, and their virtues may decay. The British system of government has become an unfortunate illustration of that point.


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