Opinion

The Great Debate

Is America tipping toward a British system of government?

By Nicholas Wapshott
June 1, 2012

Sixty years ago in London, Queen Elizabeth was crowned in succession to her father, the now famously stammering chain-smoker George VI. For most Brits the queen’s Diamond Jubilee is a chance to celebrate her reign with street parties, fireworks, concerts, and pageants along the Thames. They will be toasting the woman who has so far presided over 12 prime ministers, including perhaps the greatest of them all, Winston Churchill.

It is a mark of Elizabeth’s benign demeanor and quiet charm that she will be celebrated not only in the 54 member states of the Commonwealth, the independent nations that were Britain’s former colonies and dominions, but around the world, too. Few countries do pomp as well as the Brits, as the weddings of Prince William to Kate and Prince Charles to Diana attest. But not all Americans, when they watch the Jubilee, will  grasp the true role of the queen.

She is a constitutional monarch, which means she wields no political power. She personifies the state and opens sessions of Parliament by reading out the new legislative program her prime ministers have written, as if she herself had decided what the people need. She keeps her views strictly to herself and does as she is asked by elected officials, whether it is greeting fellow heads of state or dubbing new knights with a sword.

On the face of it, there is nothing much the American Republic can learn from the monarchy. In the Revolutionary War, we decided monarchy was not for us. George III, the king who lost America, was not only clinically mad. He was crazy to have let America go, but that’s another matter. America has steamed on without a monarch ever since and has never looked back.

One of George Washington’s most significant decisions was to decline a third term, saying the last thing America needed was another king. After Franklin Roosevelt came close to becoming an elected monarch by winning four terms, the Constitution was changed so no president should serve more than two. Our republic was founded instead upon democratic principles born of the French Revolution, dividing power between the executive (the president), the lawmakers (Congress), and the judiciary (the Supreme Court), on the principle no single arm of government should become too powerful.

There are, however, drawbacks. In Britain, the monarch is kept quite separate from the prime minister. This allows Brits to harshly criticize their prime minister without being thought unpatriotic. When an American president gets into trouble, he is inclined to wrap himself in the flag so that those who challenge him are accused of being un-American and unpatriotic. Imagine how much easier it would have been to censure Richard Nixon had he not also been our head of state.

In Britain, democratic rights were wrested from the monarch over time by members of parliament who defied the king by refusing to grant him tax revenues. In the English Revolution, a struggle between parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell and under Charles I, Parliament won the Civil War, and the king was beheaded. When Charles’s son Charles II was eventually restored to the throne, his powers were much diminished. In the Glorious Revolution, two Dutch nobles, William and Mary, were offered the throne on condition they became little more than figureheads, like Elizabeth today.

A similar revolution, or perhaps evolution, appears to be taking place in Washington right now. Congress is withholding tax-raising powers to force the president to do its bidding. There is an important issue at stake – whether the executive and his government is allowed to get anything done, or whether the Constitution has through the threat of gridlock and the use of super-majorities tacitly awarded sovereignty to Congress.

And there is a further aspect of government that suggests we may be moving back toward the sort of hereditary rule the Brits long ago abandoned: the untrammeled power of rich Americans to buy their way into government by spending their fortunes on influencing  politicians and elections. There are few open advocates for a return to aristocracy here, though by stealth that appears to be what is happening as superrich families hand down their wealth from generation to generation and impose their will on the rest of us.

PHOTO: Carriage restorer David Evens cleans the 1902 State Landau carriage at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace, as the horses and carriages are prepared for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, May 28, 2012.  REUTERS/Sean Dempsey/POOL

Comments
17 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

the British never let America go , there are still four commonwealth states in the U.S., you have to decide if you’re a “commoner” or not

Posted by running | Report as abusive
 

the British never let America go , there are still four commonwealth states in the U.S., you have to decide if you’re a “commoner” or not

Posted by running | Report as abusive
 

& running: you misunderstand the term. “Commonwealth” is not unique to Britain and various commonwealths exist around the world.

The American Commonwealths of Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and

Posted by bogwart | Report as abusive
 

…Massachusetts are not part of the British Commonwealth and the term has nothing to do with “commoners”.

Posted by bogwart | Report as abusive
 

Really insightful, thought-provoking, and yet brief piece.

Although, historian Professor Garry Wills (“Bomb Power”) might assert that Madison in writing the Constitution definitely awarded sovereignty to Congress, and that it is only the Manhattan Project and the resulting “national security state”, and the cult of personality around the “Commander-in-Chief” that has improperly taken power away from Congress, to the President.

But that probably misses your important point that the (Republican) Congress is crippling the US Government.

Posted by rohdesscholar | Report as abusive
 

You state, “few countries do pomp as well as the Brits”, but I would put it somewhat differently.

Few countries have their noses shoved so far up the wealthys’ anal cavities as the Brits, AND they think they are smelling roses.

Your article proves my theory.

It is disgusting.

Unfortunately, it is EXACTLY what the wealthy in this country want.

So, yes, we are VERY likely to have a British system of government very shortly.

Do you also realize that what you are saying is clearly treason?

Of course, given the fact the US government is now openly treasonous, why would you?

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive
 

Of course, the Congress has always had the power to reign in the executive by virtue of its power of the purse but it has rarely had the balls to do that as we saw with Libya where they said all sorts of things but at the end of the day they voted to fund the O-bamination’s little foreign adventure. However comma the constitution does not dictate the “super majority” requirement currently operating in the Senate. The cloture rule in the Senate is a rule adopted by that house of the legislature under the section of the constitution giving each house the power to make their own rules. The House of Representatives could adopt a similar rule should they chose to do so.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive
 

Our republic was not founded on principles born of the French Revolution. We explicitly repudiated indivisible sovereignty by having a separation of powers a la Montesquieu and Locke, while the French following Rousseau eventually sought an indivisibly powerful legislature. Our convention took place just under two years before the commencement of the French estates-general that would become revolutionary. There are multitudinous other differences between our revolutions that can be cited; perhaps instead you should have said that our republic was born out of some Enlightenment principles in common with the French revolution. Get your political history right.

Posted by Jayhay | Report as abusive
 

*By convention, I mean constitutional convention. Of course the revolution itself preceded the French one by at least a decade.

Posted by Jayhay | Report as abusive
 

How about giving the human beings who live in the USA the right to vote as opposed to our current open auction which awards political power to the highest bidder? How about having politicians with real power instead of being the hired flunkies of the rich, both foreign and domestic, that we permit to bid for their positions?

We need to shift electoral power from checkbooks to the common people, and to eliminate lifetime sinecures for judges at all levels. Those two factors have corrupted our system beyond recognition, and neither are Constitutional.

Beyond that, our “two party” system, which in practice is a one party system, needs to move to a proportional representation system as opposed to a “winner take all” setup. “Winner take all” is yet another corrupting non-Constitutional addition to our system which is intended to corrupt real representation.

Without these changes, we are moving more toward a Russian Tsarist type of “democracy”, except that our Secret Police are much, much more efficient. We are moving toward Totalitarianism, not Monarchy.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

“Our republic was founded instead upon democratic principles born of the French Revolution.” Correction: American revolution: 1775-1783. French Revolution: 1789-1799. We did not borrow from the French Revoution.

Posted by hmsvictory | Report as abusive
 

To say that America’s revolution and constitution owe anything to the French revolution is nonsense. The former preceded the latter. True, the American revolution succeeded largely due to the naval blockade imposed by the French on British colonial forces, a venture so ruinously expensive for the French it bankrupted their State and Monarchy. Ultimately, it was the American revolution that was a causal factor in the French revolution.

Posted by ronmacdee | Report as abusive
 

This article is right on! Whoever supplies the money, rules. The swarms of highly paid lobbyists, SuperPacs, major contributors continue to affect our lives, often in negative ways. In Texas, for example, the legislature shows itself in the pockets of insurance companies just by the fact that, in personal injury cases, no one — not the plaintive, defendant or their attorneys — may say the word “insured”. To do so results in the case’s dismissal. The jury is not to know insurance is involved lest it might award a substantially higher amount of money.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive
 

This article is right on! Whoever supplies the money, rules. The swarms of highly paid lobbyists, SuperPacs, major contributors continue to affect our lives, often in negative ways. In Texas, for example, the legislature shows itself in the pockets of insurance companies just by the fact that, in personal injury cases, no one — not the plaintive, defendant or their attorneys — may say the word “insured”. To do so results in the case’s dismissal. The jury is not to know insurance is involved lest it might award a substantially higher amount of money.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive
 

This article is right on! Whoever supplies the money, rules. The swarms of highly paid lobbyists, SuperPacs, major contributors continue to affect our lives, often in negative ways. In Texas, for example, the legislature shows itself in the pockets of insurance companies just by the fact that, in personal injury cases, no one — not the plaintive, defendant or their attorneys — may say the word “insured”. To do so results in the case’s dismissal. The jury is not to know insurance is involved lest it might award a substantially higher amount of money.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive
 

One half of the British legislative branch owns their seats by divine right not election. the UK is not a democracy, it has a large vestige of the monarchy still in power.

Posted by advocatusdiabol | Report as abusive
 

One half of the British legislative branch owns their seats by divine right not election. the UK is not a democracy, it has a large vestige of the monarchy still in power.

Posted by advocatusdiabol | Report as abusive
 

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