The U.S. President vs. Britain's Prime Minister: Role Similarities & Differences

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  • 0:01 Two Elected Leaders
  • 0:30 How They Run for Office
  • 3:31 Relationship with the…
  • 5:48 Relationship with the Courts
  • 6:26 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.

The United States president and United Kingdom prime minister are arguably the two most powerful elected leaders in the world. While the two are often compared, they have very different jobs. Learn the similarities and differences between them in this lesson.

Two Elected Leaders

Few elected officials meet quite the fanfare of the American president and the United Kingdom prime minister. Viewed the world over as leaders of vibrant democracies with powerful diplomatic and defense capabilities, the selection of each leader often dominates foreign press headlines in the weeks and months before an election. And yet, the two leaders have vastly different routes to power, as well as substantially different roles once elected.

How They Run for Office

To best understand the differences at play, we should start by examining how someone wanting to be either president or prime minister runs for office. For the president, he or she often starts with a primary election. A primary election is the state-by-state process during which a political party chooses its candidate. In some states, only party members can vote in a primary, while other primaries permit any registered voter to cast their ballot.

The candidate who wins the most primary elections is formally presented as the party's candidate at a national convention. A national convention is held every four years. It is a large meeting during which a party formally declares its presidential and vice presidential candidates and discusses its overall goals. After the national conventions for each party, candidates from all parties compete in a general election. Like a primary election, a general election takes place in each state. The winner in each state gets a certain number of electoral votes, and the candidate who wins the most electoral votes wins the general election and becomes the United States president.

This all sounds strangely foreign to the British politician. For starters, whereas there are only two major parties in the United States, the U.K. has four parties that have emerged as political powers: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Nationalist Party. To gain a candidacy in the U.K., a person must prove themselves to the party first. After all, it is the party that selects the candidates, often with a great deal more secrecy than American primaries.

Once the candidates are chosen, one will emerge as the party leader. This is the person that the party is effectively saying will be Prime Minister if the party wins enough seats in the House of Commons. The party members vote on who will be their leader in a private selection before the general election. This selection of party leader is important, as it is traditionally the leader of the party that gains the most votes that will be named the prime minister.

As a result, whereas the American presidential candidate can focus solely on his or her own election, the British prime minister candidate must instead focus on every election that the party believes it has a chance to win. If the party wins a majority, then the monarch invites the leader of the winning party to form a government, naming the party leader as the prime minister. If the party wins a plurality but not a majority, then the head of that party is invited to form a coalition government, meaning that two or more parties will split powers. The party leader whose party gained the most votes will be the prime minister, while the party with fewer votes will get to have its leader as the deputy prime minister. That said, most elections in the U.K. have been clear victories for one party.

Relationship with the Legislature

In their paths to election, we see a very real difference between the president and the prime minister. The president is elected as the leader of the country, such as he or she is the head of state. Also, he or she runs the government; the president is also the head of government. The monarch is the head of state for the United Kingdom, so the prime minister is merely the head of government.

However, remember how each person got to their current role, and you'll see that this isn't such a bad thing for the prime minister. The American president has to convince Congress to pass his legislation and hope that the Supreme Court doesn't overturn it. Meanwhile, the prime minister simply tells Parliament to pass something, and since they all decided on it before, the majority party passes it along rather effortlessly. After all, the prime minister is the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament, so, in theory, anything that the prime minister proposes should be easy for the rest of Parliament to accept. Of course, some issues spark debate, but Parliament does have one mechanism in place to publicly make sure things don't get out of hand.

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