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The History and Structure of the Parliamentary System of Government

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  • 0:01 Representative Democracy
  • 0:41 Basics of the…
  • 1:56 Parliaments in Europe
  • 3:02 European Parliament
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the parliamentary system of government and several of the European nations that employ the system, as well as the European Parliament and its constraints.

Representative Democracy

Representative democracy is one of the ideals of many modern societies. Those who have it, cherish it; those who don't, often want it. Nations like the United States, Canada, and Great Britain have had forms of representative democracies for centuries. But even in this array of representative democracies, there exist subtle but important differences in how the elected government is organized. In this lesson, we will discuss the parliamentary system, and we'll also show how the parliamentary system manifests itself in European nations and in the EU.

The Basics of the Parliamentary System

A parliamentary system is a form of government in which the official head of state or entire executive branch has little or no role in actual governing. In a parliamentary system, all decisions of governance are managed by a legislative body. These legislative bodies can take various forms; some are two-chambered parliaments while others are single-chambered. These legislative bodies are usually elected by the people, with a roughly equal number of citizens electing a delegate to represent their opinions and interests in Parliament.

As a result of this reduced status, the de facto head of state in a parliamentary system is often the leader of the legislative body, in many cases, a prime minister. The prime minister usually sets up a cabinet composed of other legislators, often leading members of the prime minister's own party. These cabinet members are the heads of various departments of the government that take care of the day-to-day affairs of the government. This is the de facto executive body of the parliamentary system.

Thus, both the executive decisions and many of the legislative decisions - depending on the peculiar parliamentary procedures of each nation - are largely made by the same group of people. However, in order to prevent tyranny by the majority, most parliamentary democracies have built-in checks on power, such as term limits for prime ministers or regularly scheduled elections.

Parliaments in Europe

Several European governments function on the parliamentary system. For example, the United Kingdom utilizes a parliamentary system as part of its constitutional monarchy. The official head of state - the king or queen of England - has no actual governing power. All governing power resides in the English legislative body, Parliament. The British Parliament is two-chambered, though the House of Lords also has zero real governing power since its members are not elected.

The British House of Commons, on the other hand, possesses all the power to make laws in the UK. In addition, the head of the party with the most sitting members is considered the prime minister, and he appoints a cabinet of party colleagues, which head various government departments. To prevent abuse, parliament has to be reelected a minimum of every five years. Most other European countries also possess a parliamentary system, whether it's part of a constitutional monarchy or not. Germany, for example, has a largely symbolic executive body, but it is not an inherited monarchy.

European Parliament

Parliamentary government in Europe does not end here. Indeed, for the 28 member states of the European Union, the supranational European Parliament also holds some legislative power in the region. The European Parliament began as the Common Assembly for the six member states of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was founded in 1951. When further layers of cooperation were added between these states and the group renamed itself the European Economic Community, the Common Assembly first became the European Parliamentary Assembly in 1958, and then simply the European Parliament in 1962.

The European Parliament itself is made up of 751 members as of the 2014 parliamentary elections. The number of members each country is allowed to elect is decided by population. No country is allowed to have more than 96 members, while no country is allowed to have fewer than six. Parliamentary elections occur every five years since 1979, when they were first directly elected by EU citizens.

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