One of the more esoteric debates in academia for those studying politics is the contrast between the American form of government, with a strong executive and an elected legislature wielding equal power, with the democratic parliamentary system in which the elected legislature is the ultimate power, the head of state subservient to it and the executive chosen by it. In other words, America v. England.
I frequently got into this debate with my father, a true Anglophile, and we never resolved the issue. The compare and contrast form of discussion was, in many way, ironic because of the historical circumstances. England had a strong executive at the time of the American revolution. King George III reigned at that time, had considerable real power compared with today’s Queen Elizabeth II, and was for Americans the perfect example of a leader to be avoided.
And they did at first avoid entirely the idea of an executive. There was a president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation which preceded the Constitution of 1787. But the president, like the Congress itself, lacked real power. Every decision required a consensus, the agreement of all 13 independent sovereign states.
What is ironic is that while England has evolved into a system where the popularly elected legislature is most powerful. America has evolved into a system where a powerful executive, elected not by the people but by an electoral college chosen according to practices set by state legislatures, often dominates the political debate.
Moreover, America has evolved into a two party system, something the framers of the Constitution generally opposed, while England has evolved into a multi-party system where coalitions between parties with different legislative agendas are often needed to dictate policy.
I don’t have an answer for the obvious question, which is better? But I do have an opinion on one aspect of the differences between the systems. One that is apparent to anyone following the British parliament debate over Brexit, the plan to leave the European Union. The difference is, in Britain, there is a very public, acrimonious and, in my opinion, healthy, debate.
Watching the British members of parliament go at it is something I find curiously refreshing. When was the last time we saw a major issue of the day being robustly debated in the American Congress? In both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the party with a majority of the votes controls the floor proceedings. That has meant of late that issues not supported by the leaders of the majority party simply never come up for discussion and often never even come up for a vote.
The President, unlike England’s Prime Minister, never appears in Congress except by invitation generally for the once-a-year State of the Union address. He is constitutionally required to sign legislation, but there are times when his position is not publicly known.
Watching the Parliament debate I was both entertained and informed. Congress could learn something from its ancestor. In 1776, one of my favorite musicals, Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins casts a deciding vote in favor of having the Continental Congress debate Virginia’s motion that the 13 colonies declare their independence from England. Hopkins says he’s never heard of an issue so dangerous it cannot even be discussed.
A lot of the dialogue in the play comes from the historical writings and speeches of the characters. And it is remarkable how prescient many of them were. However, I’ve never been able to locate proof that Hopkins actually cast such a vote or spoke those words. Or if they were the invention of the late Peter Stone, who wrote the book. Still, I agree with the sentiment. And I wish Congress would debate the issues of the day in public and not, if at all, behind closed doors.