Political Systems & Structure of the U.S. vs. Great Britain

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  • 0:01 Westminster vs. Congress
  • 0:43 Parliament & Congress
  • 2:15 President & Prime Minister
  • 3:56 Judiciary
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While both democracies, the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States have many stark differences. This lesson explains some of those differences, as well as some of the unique institutions that have developed as a result.

Westminster vs. Congress

Few countries have quite as long of a history with democracy as the United States and the United Kingdom. Of course, the United States is a republic, while the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, yet both have fully-functioning democracies. That said, there are big differences between the way that the two systems work.

Crucial to the American system is the idea of checks and balances, meaning that no one part of government is more powerful than the others. The United Kingdom has the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, by which no part of government can challenge the Parliament. In fact, even the monarch takes an oath at coronation recognizing that Parliament, not the king or queen, is the source of power in the United Kingdom.

Parliament and Congress Are Not the Same

In the United States, Congress is the legislative, or law-making, branch of government. But wait, isn't the United Kingdom's Parliament also a legislative body? Absolutely. However, there are massive differences. Imagine the U.S. congressional system as a three-legged stool - one leg is the executive branch, one is the legislature, and one is the judiciary.

The United Kingdom looks more like a central pillar. There is Parliament, and well, Parliament. In fact, you'll often hear people describe recent periods of time in British political history as the 'Blair Government' or the 'Thatcher Government.' In the United States, the government never changes. It may be an Obama administration, Republican legislature, or Roberts Supreme Court, but it is always the American government.

However, the Parliament does consist of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Sometimes, you'll hear people describe the House of Lords as the Senate, while the House of Commons is like the House of Representatives. From now on, you get to tell people that they're wrong when they say that!

The House of Commons has every elected politician in the British government - it's as if the House and Senate were combined and then elected the president and Cabinet from their membership. Note that I said British government - obviously smaller local councils are not represented here. The House of Lords is a vestige of earlier British history, in which nobles had significant power. While they can slow down legislation, they can't actually stop it.

The President and the Prime Minister

At the top of the British pillar of Parliament is the Prime Minister. He or she is referred to as the 'Head of Government,' and the Prime Minister is exactly that. They are not the head of state, which means that they are not the leader of the people, that is the monarch. Instead, they rule the government. In fact, rule is actually a very good word for how this arrangement works.

In many ways, the Prime Minister is an elected dictator. If she can maintain the confidence of a majority of the House of Commons, she can rule indefinitely as long as elections are called and won every five years. However, with that power comes a great deal more visibility. The idea of putting the American president in front of Congress once a week to have him argue with his political opponents would be seen as beneath the power of the office. However, this period of weekly defending policies, known as Question Time, is an essential part of the Prime Minister's job.

Meanwhile, the American president has the gravitas to avoid arguing so publicly with his or her opponents, but has much less in the way of power. With the exception of executive orders, which are just guidelines made within a pre-defined area, the president cannot make laws. Instead, that job goes to Congress.

Additionally, the president knows that he or she will be up for reelection four years after first taking office, and eight years is the maximum length of office. Most allies in the legislative branch will be campaigning every two years, which also limits the power of the president. However, as head of state, he demands significant authority as a leader of the people, something that the Prime Minister cannot claim.

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