This writing was part of my product in the “American and British Studies” course. Amidst the discussions circulating on social media after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I decided to post this blog and shed light on the political system in the two nations.
A society without laws and regulations is inarguably an insecure and unstable one. It is necessary to make and maintain law and order for society to function. Therefore, when looking at the history and development of a country, many people emphasise researching its government. The stories of powers in the United Kingdom and the United States of America are always fascinating to scholars of all time. The governments of these two giant nations exhibits many resemblances as well as differences. This essay will outline how the two countries function with their governments, what political parties exist, and how the powers are divided among national leaders.
To commence with, the US and the UK governments are distinct in the types of government they follow. The government of the UK is a constitutional monarchy, in which the king or the queen “shares power with a constitutionally organised government” (Britannica, 2019, para. 1). Although traditionally, in a monarchy, the governing power is in the hand of one person, such as a king or a queen, like those in the 19th and 20th century, the monarch (currently King Charles III, upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II) in the UK is only considered as the symbolic head of the government. While the King reigns the country, it is the Prime Minister who governs the country (Constitutional Monarchy, 2014). Across the ocean, modern America has another type of government – democracy, which many people regard as the critical factor making America America. Democracy is, by definition, “a political system in which laws, policies, leaders, and major state undertakings are decided directly or indirectly by the citizens” (Kostiner, 2020, para. 2). In the US, rather than having one single leader, the federal government consists of three branches, namely legislative, executive, and judicial. They are led by the Congress, the president and the supreme courts, respectively. However, in perception, the president is customarily considered the country’s representative on many occasions.
Both the US and the UK host many political parties in each country. There are two major political parties in the US, namely the Democrats and the Republicans. They are mainly different because the Democrats are liberal while the Republicans consider themselves conservative (Republicans & Democrats: comparing & contrasting US political parties, 2020). While the Democrats value progress and equality, the Republicans adhere to traditions and believe in a limited government. Voters for the two parties also prioritises different concerns. Those who vote for the Democrats tend to focus more on community and social responsibility, whereas the others pay more attention to individual rights and a free market. Besides the two major political parties, other parties such as the Reform, Libertarian, Socialist, Natural Law, Constitution, and Green Parties also have the right to promote their candidates in a presidential election (Political Parties | The Presidential Election Process | Elections, 2015). Over the sea, the UK also has two main political parties, the Conservative and the Labour Party. While the former focuses on personal, social and economic freedom, individual ownership of property and shares and law and order, the latter supports social justice, equality of opportunity, economic planning and the state ownership of industries and services. For this reason, the Labour Party is supported by the trade unions, people from the working class and some from the middle class. The Conservative, however, mainly gets their votes from business interests and people of the middle and upper class and a considerable number of skilled workers. Smaller parties can also join in the House of Commons and other political events, including but not limited to the Scottish National Party, the Welsh National Party or the Social Democratic and Labour Party (Oakland, 2002). A quick review of the political parties of the two nations demonstrates the evident diversity in the political beliefs of each. This illustrates the value of freedom and the respect for the personal ideas of each country’s citizens on political issues.
Regarding the powers of leaders, an interesting similarity between the two countries is that they both refer to the doctrine of the separation of powers, although they are different in how clear the doctrine appears. The famous political philosopher Montesquieu (1748) is renowned for his unique idea about this, saying:
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner. (p. 113)
Based on this doctrine, the US government is divided into three branches – legislative, executive, and judicial. This separation of powers is institutionalised in many ways (Mauk & Oakland, 2017). Firstly, one person can only work in one single branch at a time. For instance, the president and other executive officials cannot get a position in the Congress. Secondly, elections for the president, senators and representatives of different branches are organised separately. This may lead to a situation when the Congress houses and the presidency leaders come from different political parties. Most importantly, the three branches are separated with a list of their own powers, highlighting the limits of their action. This can avoid the concentration of powers and allow room for cooperation and tension.
The working process of three branches in the US is also noticeable for its check and balance system, describing how the three branches work with each other. It requires very effective cooperation among the three branches, as shown through various regulations (History.com Editors, 2021). In military matters, while the president commands the military forces, the Congress has the right to allocate funds to the military and vote to declare war. At the same time, the senators have to ratify any peace treaties. Another example is in the nomination of federal officials when the senators must verify the president’s nominations. In the law-making process, three branches also have to work closely. For instance, when the Congress passes a bill, the president has the right to veto the bill, but this veto can also be overridden by the Congress as long as two-thirds of both houses vote. Moreover, decisions of the Supreme Court are checked and amended by the Congress through the passing of amendments.
Although there is no absolute doctrine of the separation of powers in the UK constitution, the government powers are also exercised by legislative, executive and judicial, within their limitations and the system of checks and balances. Accordingly, the Parliament, executive, and courts work within their own parameters. However, there are overlaps in terms of personnel and functions among these three organs of the government. The monarch has a less formal role as a national leader within the government. The monarch, instead, represents “the national identity, unity and pride” (The Role of the Monarchy, 2016, para. 4). It is worth noticing that the Queen did not vote or support any party during the election, keeping a neutral political standpoint. That said, she possessed a pivotal ceremonial and formal role in the government. Specifically, the Queen had the duty to give official approval to Bills passed by the Parliament, with the advice of Ministers. There were also regular formal meetings with Ministers in which the Queen might consult the official. In working with the Parliament, the Queen could summon new parliaments and opened and closed each session of the Parliament. It is also interesting that the Queen often represented the country in diplomatic meetings with other nations.
In summary, the study of the government of the US and the UK is more complex than just knowing the name of their presidents or prime ministers. The two governments are built upon two different sets of principles: one monarchy and the other democracy. Nevertheless, in the function of their government, there are many resemblances, including the wide range of political parties recognised and the separation of powers. While in the US, there exists a check and balance system to ensure the work of three branches, in the UK, the branches showcase more overlaps in their functions. In the UK, the monarch no longer rules the country as in the past but represents the national head. This clarifies the idea that when one person has too much power at his or her hand, the country will face substantial risks sooner or later.
Britannica, T. (2019, July 17). Kings and queens of Britain. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kings-and-Queens-of-Britain-1856932
Constitutional monarchy. (2014). British Monarchist League. http://www.monarchist.org.uk/constitutional-monarchy.html
History.com Editors. (2021, September 9). Checks and balances. HISTORY.
Kostiner, J. (2020, June 9). Monarchy: Definition, examples, & facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/monarchy
Mauk, D., & Oakland, J. (2017). American civilization: An introduction (7th ed.). Routledge.
Montesquieu, C. D. (1748). The spirit of the laws (T. Nugent, Trans.). Lonang Institute.
Oakland, J. (2002). British civilization: An introduction (Fifth ed.). Routledge.
Political parties | The presidential election process | Elections. (2015). The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/elections/presidential-election-process/political-parties/
Republicans & Democrats: Comparing & contrasting US political parties. (2020, October 5). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5cLtd0cxfo
The role of the monarchy. (2016, December 9). The Royal Family. https://www.royal.uk/role-monarchy