A comparative guide
Series: Understandings

Political systems are shaped by the societies in which they function. For this reason, it is helpful to know something about the historical, geographical, social and economic settings against which they operate. It is also helpful to understand something of the values and ideas which have mattered and continue to matter to those who inhabit any individual country. This book examines the background factors that help to shape the way in which political life and processes operate in Britain and America. In particular, it examines the similarities and differences in the political culture of the countries. Constitutions describe the fundamental rules according to which states are governed, be they embodied in the law, customs or conventions. Liberties and rights are of especial concern in liberal democracies, which claim to provide a broad range of them. The book examines the protection of liberties in both countries, in particular the right of freedom of expression. In advanced Western democracies, the media perform a major role. The book deals with the impact on political life of the two major mass media: the press and television. Elections are the main mechanism for expressing the public's collective desires about who should be in government and what the government should do. The book examines a number of issues about the functioning of elections in two democracies, looking at the electoral system, and the way in which voters behave and the influence upon their voting.

Political systems are shaped by the societies in which they function. This chapter examines the background factors that help to shape the way in which political life and processes operate in Britain and America. Political culture in the USA derives from some of the ideas which inspired the pioneers who made the country and the Founding Fathers who wrote its constitution. The chapter also examines similarities and differences in the political culture of the two countries, for some commentators have attempted to identify broadly shared attitudes, belief systems and values that characterise the people of a country. The most obvious similarity is a common commitment to the democratic process, with overwhelming support for the political institutions of either country and a wide measure of consensus about the framework in which politics should operate.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics
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Constitutions describe the fundamental rules according to which states are governed, be they embodied in the law, customs or conventions. There are wide variations between different types of constitution and even between different constitutions of the same type. The British Constitution can be described as unwritten, unitary, parliamentary, monarchical and flexible, whereas the American one can be seen as written, federal, presidential, republican and rigid. Both constitutions include implicit or explicit constitutional principles. The rule of law is a core liberal-democratic principle with deep roots in Western civilisation. The British Constitution is a unitary rather than a federal one. Parliament at Westminster makes laws for all parts of the United Kingdom, whereas under federal arrangements the power to make laws is divided between central and state authority.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics

In Britain and America, anti-discriminatory legislation has been enacted to allow for the protection of minorities and other disadvantaged groups. This chapter examines the protection of liberties in both countries, in particular the right of freedom of expression. There was no Bill of Rights in the original American Constitution, not least because the federalists who dominated the gathering felt that it was unnecessary. In their view, liberty would be protected by procedures such as federalism and the checks and balances built into the proposals. For all of the protection afforded by the Constitution, some groups have not been able to enjoy their full rights. Civil rights are a set of protections from something which could otherwise greatly affect people's lives, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and from discrimination on such grounds as disability, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics
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Technically, executive branch includes the head of state, members of the government and the officials who serve them, as well as the enforcement agencies such as the military and the police. This chapter considers the political executive, in other words with the politicians rather than the civil servants. In a parliamentary system such as Britain, the key politicians include the ministers headed by a prime or chief minister, all of whom are members of and responsible to Parliament. In presidential systems such as the United States, the President acts as a single executive, though he appoints Cabinet members to work with him. The chapter reviews the official executive and examines the role of bureaucracies, the way in which they operate and the attempts by their political masters to make them work efficiently and achieve control over them.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics
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The constitutions of most countries describe the legislature, parliament or congress as the key decision-making body in the realm. A distinction is sometimes made between legislatures and parliaments. The distinction has some validity, so that in presidential systems such as the United States and many Latin American countries the legislature is powerful and secure but cannot vote the President out of office. In parliamentary systems such as those of Britain, most of Western Europe, the Commonwealth, Japan and Israel, assemblies do have the power to censure the government. Legislatures have six main purposes that include: representation, deliberation, financial control, political recruitment, legislation and control of the executive. This chapter assesses the theory of legislative decline and its application to Britain and America. The tendency towards the 'decline of legislatures' is certainly less true of presidential systems.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics
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Courts of law are part of the political process, for governmental decisions and acts passed by the legislative body may require judicial decisions to be implemented. This chapter explores the role of judiciaries, how judicial independence is protected in Britain and America, and the types of person who become judges. It also explores the differing conceptions of their role and assesses the extent to which they are involved in political matters. Much of the work of the Court is related to social and political matters that have a direct impact on everyday life. In America, the Supreme Court is clearly a political as well as a judicial institution. In applying the Constitution and laws to the cases which come before it, the justices are involved in making political choices on controversial aspects of national policy.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics

Britain has a unitary system in which legal sovereignty lies entirely at the centre, whereas the United States has a federal structure in which there are what R. Hague and M. Harrop refer to as 'multiple layers of governance'. This chapter examines sub-national government and its relationship to the centre. It argues that Britain has made some moves to decentralisation, and America, always a markedly more decentralised country, has a stronger centre than was ever intended by the Founding Fathers. In its early days, the USA operated a system of dual federalism as laid down in the Constitution. In Britain, local government has no constitutional status. It has been created by legislation and the functions of the different councils are only those which are specifically granted to them.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics
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Political parties are organisations of broadly like-minded men and women which seek to win power in elections in order that they can then assume responsibility for controlling the apparatus of government. This chapter examines their relevance in Britain and America. It focuses on the competition between the two main parties in either country for the control of public offices, and also considers the nature, role and difficulties experienced by third parties. There is an obvious distinction between party systems which allow for the existence of only a single party and those which allow competition between a range of parties. State funding is almost universal in modern democracies. In many cases, state aid is the main source of party revenue, so that only in the Netherlands, Britain and the USA do membership contributions clearly exceed funding from the public purse.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics
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This chapter examines the range of groups in Britain and the United States, the ways in which they operate and their effectiveness. The Americans talk mainly of interest groups, lobbying and single-issue groups, whereas in Britain the tendency is to use the term 'pressure groups' and then to sub-divide them into different categories. The chapter considers the changes in pressure-group activity on both sides of the Atlantic. Pressure groups have traditionally operated at four main levels, seeking to influence the Executive, the Legislature, the Judiciary and the public at large. The chapter presents some 'pressure points' which includes government beyond the centre, media, companies, pressure groups and the European Union. There have been significant changes in the number, campaigning methods and effectiveness of various other types of groups.

in Understanding US/UK government and politics