Are We Witnessing the Demise of the "Westminster Model" in the Uk?

Topics: Plurality voting system, United Kingdom, Tony Blair Pages: 6 (2011 words) Published: December 7, 2007
One of the most celebrated forms of democracy, the "Westminster model" has been a defining feature of the British political system for the past century. Coined after the location where the Houses of Parliament stand, the system is also sometimes referred to as the majoritarian model, in that majority rule is a central attribute of the model. The characterising factors of the model have been present throughout modern British political history, but more apparent in some years than others. The years 1945-1970 symbolise a strong alignment with the main features of the model, in which bare majority cabinets and the concentration of executive power in one party delineated the British political system. The 1970s on the other hand saw a deviation from the Westminster model, with a Lab-Lib coalition government being formed – a step away from the majoritarian notion of the model. Despite the restoration of cabinet dominance under the Thatcher governments of the late 70s and 80s, the progressive break away from the Westminster model continued. Moreover, in the past decade there have been significant steps taken away from the model - devolution, the limitations on British sovereignty as a consequence of its involvement in the EU, the re-shaping of party ideology and the growing use of referendums all serve to highlight this. Yet despite these deviations, concentration of power in one party and cabinet dominance still shapes British politics, the constitution is still flexible and the electoral system still produces disproportional results during general elections. A strict following of the model has ceased to exist since the 1970s, but despite this, to claim that we are witnessing the demise of the Westminster model is far fetched – the model may not be strictly implemented, but the main features of the model can still be seen in today's political climate.

A concentration of executive power in one party and bare majority cabinets is one of the main characteristics of the majoritarian model. In the last century, this has been a re-occurring trait, with coalition governments being very rare. The 1940-45 coalition between the Conservatives, who had a parliamentary majority, with the Labour and Liberal parties, is one such exception, but this was largely due to the fact that Britain was at war. The only example of a deviation from a concentration of executive power in one party in the post-war era is the two minority Labour governments of the 1970s. Internal strife within the Labour party and economic upheaval were largely to blame for this anomaly. With the exception of the 1970s however, executive power has very much been concentrated in one party – the Thatcher governments, Blair governments and presently Brown government all bare witness to this fact. The implementation of the first past the post system in British general elections ensures that coalition cabinets are very rare. Large majorities are achieved with less than half of the popular vote, a theme which will be addressed later on in the essay. As Lijphart points out, "the British one-party and bare-majority cabinet is the perfect embodiment of the principle of majority rule" . The UK's electoral system, as long as it remains first past the post, will continue to follow one of the main principles of the Westminster model in that executive power will be in the hands of one party and bare majority cabinets and not coalition cabinets.

A leading ideal of the Westminster model is that the electoral system is a winner takes all method, often leading to disproportional results. The UK continues to use the first past the post process, and in the climate of two-party politics, has more often than not produced large majorities for either the Conservatives or Labour with a relatively small portion of the popular vote. In the period 1979 to 1997, the winning party has won a clear majority of the seats in the House of Commons with never more than 44% of the popular vote. Even more...

Bibliography: Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy (1999)
Dunleavy, Developments in British Politics 6 (2000)
Coxall, Contemporary British Politics (2003)
Bagehot, The English Constitution (1876)
James, British Cabinet Government (1999)
MacNaughton, Prime Minister & Cabinet Government (1999)
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