What America Should Learn From Britain
All the evidence suggests that the Parliamentary Systems found in most of Europe lead to much more stable, well governed countries, argues Matt Bernardini
The UK might seem like a strange place for an American like myself to look to as a model for good governance, given the recent political chaos in the country. Yet, if we take a step back, the parliamentary system in the UK, like that seen in much of Europe, can offer us some valuable lessons.
Every year The Economist Intelligence Unit puts out its rankings of countries based on its democratic qualities. A country’s score is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties.
Norway tops the list with a near perfect score of 9.75 out of 10. The country is also a parliamentary democracy, although it does still have a constitutional monarch with many ceremonial duties.
Second on the list is New Zealand, which also has a Prime Minister. As does Finland and Sweden, the third and fourth countries on the list. In fact, you have to go all the way down to Uruguay at number 13 to find any country with a presidential form of government.
And for all the rhetoric in the States about freedom and democracy, the US comes in at 26th place on the list, with its rating held back by its low ‘functioning of government’ score. As Americans we are often told that our system of government is superior because it encourages compromise. However, in practice such compromise rarely occurs. Unlike most parliamentary systems where you need to form coalitions in order to govern, the US system provides little benefit to compromise. With the Senate, and the Electoral College — where twice this century the loser of the popular vote has won the presidency — the Republican party can prevent anything from getting done even when the majority wants legislation to pass.
The high scores of many European countries on the democracy index are hardly surprising. Researchers at Boston University found a strong relationship between parliamentary systems and good governance.
“Many of the countries with the longest history of parliamentary rule are located in Western Europe,” the researchers stated. “These countries are also some of the best governed in the world.”
If good governance doesn’t convince you, then perhaps economics will. Professor Gulcin Ozkan, an economist at King’s College London, told Byline Supplement that parliamentary systems do better economically.
“Data suggests that the greater power the executive has, the worse the economic outcomes are,” Professor Ozkan said. “Our results indicated that there has been between 12% and 24% difference on income inequality.”
Professor Ozkan also said that parliamentary systems are also associated with greater stability, better anti-corruption policies and more freedom of the press.
Her findings are consistent with a Boston University study, which also concluded that parliamentary systems do better with telecommunications infrastructure, greater trade openness and higher levels of per capita GDP.
“In two out of three cases, Parliamentarism is associated with higher levels of human development,” the study concluded. “All else being equal, longtime parliamentary systems have lower levels of infant mortality, and longer life expectancy,”
Of course, parliamentary systems are far from perfect and are also susceptible to chaos and strongmen. One only has to look to Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has become a de-facto autocrat within a parliamentary system. Incidentally, Orbán has followed a playbook very similar to that of Republicans in the US. He has largely banned LGBTQ material in schools and cracked down on gay rights, in the name of “protecting children”.
Nonetheless, much of Europe continues to offer a superior system of governance, and while a large country like the US is unlikely to suddenly scrap its presidential system overnight, creative systemic reform is needed to make things more democratic.
In 1911, Victor Berger, who became the first socialist to be elected to the House of Representatives, introduced a bill to abolish the Senate. His critiques of the body would fit perfectly today. With its allocation of two Senators for every state, no matter the amount of people, it is wildly undemocratic and often grinds government to a halt.
“Whereas the Senate in particular has become an obstructive and useless body, a menace to the liberties of the people, and an obstacle to social growth,” Berger said.
Fast-forward more than 100 years. Michigan Democrat John Dingle, who served in the House of Representatives for 59 years and was hardly a radical, argued in 2018 that the Senate should be abolished and merged with the House of Representatives.
Yes, abolishing the Senate might seem extreme for a country that has a religious devotion to its nearly 250-year-old constitution. But unless America wants to continue to see its democratic ranking drop, large systemic changes should be taken seriously.
As young Tancredi Falconeri says of the crumbling Sicilian aristocracy in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard , “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.
Should America adopt a Parliamentary system? What are the advantages to the status quo? Join the debate in the comments below.
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