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Parliamentarianism, as it originated in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, gave power to elected representatives in the legislative branch of the government, securing property rights for the landed gentry and diminishing power of the absolute monarchy. It aimed to stabilize government administration and provide orderly transfer of power, both at home and in British colonies. The Industrial Revolution and the growing power of trade unions contributed to its decline, although a modified form of the system exists in Canada, Israel, Scandinavia, and the European Union.
As an organizing principle of a governance structure, parliamentarianism comes from modern Britain and is an early variant of constitutional monarchy. It designates a functional, relatively free, civic framework that seeks harmony and prosperity through preventing or managing political conflicts while endowing real power in the legislative branch, which, in turn, represents the will of the people (or, initially, the males who owned considerable property).
Parliamentarianism assured a high degree of stability while diminishing the ruling capacity of absolute monarchy. In its positive and preferred form, the expectation is that an accountable and incumbent sovereign government will enjoy the expressed will of a working majority of elected representatives. A lesser, negative option demands that, if a minority government exists, it will be supported, or at least tolerated, by the legislature, as demonstrated by the government’s not being defeated in routine votes. Parliamentarianism guarantees that authority and power is possessed and is operational at all times, avoiding long periods of caretaker, unstable, or interim regimes.
The framework is akin to that of constitutional monarchy, but with rule-based parliamentary tradition and unwritten political conventions as the pivot of democratic life, rather than chartered documents or explicit regal prerogatives. The legal foundation of this structure is a substitute for a written constitution, which most kings and queens opposed as it would explicitly constrain the powers vested in their office and their public influence. Concomitantly, parliamentarianism assured the elite, political class of substantial impact on the routine formation and implementation of economic, social, diplomatic, and defense policies.
In the British system the governing party, as long as it has an effective mandate between elections, wields executive powers, composing and leading the cabinet. The term of office could last up to five years, but it typically was around four years. Within the maximum of five years that a parliament could be incumbent, it was at the discretion of the prime minister to ask the monarch to dissolve the House of Commons. Indeed, the full authority and the wide discretion exercised by the incumbent prime minister were at the heart of this system. Having the distinction of being the leader of the largest party and the most prominent member of Parliament from the House of Commons, the prime minister increasingly served as a viable substitute for the reigning monarch. Parliamentarianism thus accommodated the rise of the professional, urban, unhereditary, non-land owning, upper class by transferring political power to them from the monarchy and aristocracy.
The loss of an important vote—the approval of an annual budget or the ratification of vital domestic measures or crucial agreements with other countries—causes the instantaneous resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet and/or the immediate calling of new elections. This pattern though not written down, served as a binding convention in the British political culture. Securing a new mandate from the voters was essential even if only a short time has elapsed since ballots were previously cast. New elections were scheduled immediately. Campaigns lasted a few short weeks. The transfer of power from the defeated party to the winning one, if the election results dictated that, was a speedy process amounting to only days after results were officially proclaimed, which, in turn, was also obtained within days.
The Glorious Revolution of the seventeenth century capped a political process that began with the Magna Carta of 1215, the result of widespread resentment of the absolute, authoritarian aspirations of the monarchy. Aristocrats and members of the upper middle class had increasing authority in England, then in the rest of Britain, and, eventually, in its colonies overseas, deciding most issues of public policy. The balance of power gradually shifted to the landed gentry and to an emerging group of liberal urban professionals (the Whig party) who supported the ideas of classic liberalism and were active in society, economic life, intellectual discourse, and diplomacy. Political supremacy, sometimes cloaked in civic and economic rights, was thus increasingly based on a mandate that the legislative chamber increasingly defined the duties and the privileges of kings and queens.
The pattern of vesting real power in members of the British Parliament aimed to revitalize representative government while securing property rights. It developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Coupled with the first post-the-ballot electoral structure—which granted seats for the candidate with the highest number of votes in each district, rather than apportion them to parties by the percentage of votes received overall—the typical result was a two-party system. Inside the bicameral legislature the House of Commons gradually replaced the House of Lords as the senior partner within the structure of enacting and implementing legislation. This change positioned parliamentarianism at the center of government life and bureaucratic transparency (bureaucrats and their acts were subject to Parliament’s consistent review and assessment) in the United Kingdom.
The absolute control of the British government was alternately held by the Liberals (Whigs) or the Conservatives (Tories), rather than by a third party or a wide coalition, even during prolonged wars. Dominant prime ministers included the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) and the Liberal William E. Gladstone (1809–1898), who alternated in power during the second half of the nineteenth century.
While practically guaranteeing an unbreakable sequence of stable administrations and an orderly transfer of political power, there were severe consequences to this scheme. Civil service positions, especially those of permanent undersecretaries, became very influential as it was the people who held these positions continuously who ran governmental departments. These position holders came from the ranks of prominent families and elite schools. They largely represented the interests of the upper classes, which were naturally disposed to inhibiting reforms or repudiating radical alternatives. Prime ministers could, and sometimes did (especially around the middle of their terms), shuffle portfolios among different officials, even within the same cabinet, decreasing the tenure of ministers in the same position. As a result, long-term bureaucrats often decided policy issues, not merely implemented them. Furthermore, this conservative hierarchy was considerably less sensitive to sectarian interests, the advancement of economic reforms and social mobility, and the well-being of colonial communities, or else subordinated these concerns to the concerns of major factions and large corporations based in the British Isles.
Settlers in North American colonies during the 1760s and 1770s increasingly resented this rigid framework. It deprived them of adequate access to decision-making that concerned their daily lives. This pattern was epitomized in the slogan “no taxation without representation” adopted by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), who was well acquainted with the British, having lived in London. He led the movement that also vigorously opposed the “virtual representation” system, which allowed well-connected politicians access to legislative power although they did not have any constituencies (representing “corrupt boroughs”), then prevalent in Britain. Furthermore, the subsequent U.S. system of a balance of powers (“checks and balances”) among the three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—and the relative independence of the presidency from Congress, as drawn up in a written constitution, were, in part, responses to the perceived excesses and shortcomings of parliamentarianism.
Ostensibly, Irish Catholics, British subjects until the 1920s, had power equal to that of other voters. In reality, however, they were misrepresented by the politics of the British system, including the property requirements that limited suffrage. Their distinct ethnic and religious interests, moreover, were either left to sectarian parties that did not have realistic chances of reaching power nationally or were subsumed by parties whose main constituents were English and Irish Protestants. This lack of representation was one of the major reasons for the demand for Irish home rule in the nineteenth century, subsequently leading to independence after World War I.
Decline of Parliamentarianism
The impact of the Industrial Revolution in Britain changed the internal political structure, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. In the early 1900s the Victorian age passed with Queen Victoria, who was succeeded by mediocre, much less impressive monarchs. The concomitant rise of trade unions and the Labour Party representing the wider franchise of the working classes and non-English elements (such as the Scots) within Britain broke the hold of the traditional, wealthy establishment. Culminating a process that had lasted decades—and with the turmoil of World War I (1914–1918) and the rise to power of the Labour Party—power shifted away from the restricted halls of Parliament into the more public arena.
Nevertheless, a modified form of the British parliamentary system continued in existence, especially in the developing world, in countries that used to be controlled by the British (the “Westminster System”). Westminster is the British system of a democratic, deliberative, representative parliamentary in control of state affairs through a government formed by the party that has a majority in Parliament and an independent judiciary. In a pattern similar to that leading to the creation of U.S. institutions, this democratic legacy of colonialism is in competition with the American hybrid of checks and balances between a Congress and a president, both of whom are directly elected by the people, rather than a prime minister selected by a Parliament.
Although Scandinavia was never a part of the British Empire, there was enough awareness of and affinity with Great Britain—through commercial connections and geographical proximity—that the result was that unique versions of parliamentarianism as an organizing principle within constitutional monarchies developed.
In Sweden the framework was put into place in 1907, with a parliament, the Riksdag, as the focal point of political power. This emulation of the British system was a major part of wide reforms that introduced universal franchise and aimed to neutralize class antagonism and tensions between growing urban and rural populations. Unlike those in Britain, however, many governments in Sweden have been coalitions of at least two parties, making them inherently less stable.
Norwegian independence from Sweden was peacefully secured in 1905. Through the subsequent written constitution, a form of parliamentarianism was adopted; it was strengthened after occupied Norway regained its sovereignty in 1945, following Germany’s defeat in World War II. The monarch, although occupying a hereditary position, has to pledge an oath to uphold the constitution and the laws of Norway, which provide for a universal franchise. After an election, the monarch appoints the leader of the largest party in Norway’s parliament, the Storting, as the prime minister, who then forms a government—if need be, a coalition that enjoys a working majority. Members of the cabinet are formally selected by the monarch but are nominated by the prime minister. Elections are customarily held every four years; the Storting can be dissolved earlier, but not during in its fourth year.
The State of Israel was created by the United Nations in 1948 out of the British Mandate of Palestine. Close to three decades of British control left its mark. A government cannot be established or survive unless it receives and maintains a working majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In a role analogous to that of the British monarch, Israel has a president serving as titular head of state, one of whose major responsibilities is to designate a prime minister. A loss in a no-confidence vote does cause the fall of the government, but it does not trigger new elections without a specific law dissolving the current Knesset. Until a new cabinet is sworn in upon receiving confidence from the Knesset, the outgoing prime minister has full authority.
Caretaker regimes can remain in office for a relatively long duration. In March 1990, when the national unity alliance between Labor and the rightwing Likud collapsed over disagreements concerning the Arab–Israeli peace process, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (b. 1915) took three months to form an alternative coalition. Between 1996 and 2001, a mixed system existed, under which two ballots were cast: one for a prime minister, the other for a party. The elected leader could start ruling only after forging a coalition that commands a majority in the Knesset.
In July 2000, following his controversial offers for peace with the Palestinians, Labor’s Ehud Barak (b. 1942), who was elected in the previous year with a convincing individual majority (56 percent as compared with Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu’s 44 percent) but with a weak party following (the one Israel bloc he led garnered merely 26 of 120 seats) lost most of his coalition partners, thus the plurality in the Knesset. Nevertheless, because there was no absolute majority to topple him, Barak was only forced to call personal elections in December 2000 for February 2001. He remained as a prime minister one more month, even after his resounding defeat (38 percent to 62 percent) to Likud’s Ariel Sharon (b. 1928).
Canada is a former British colony. It slowly became independent from 1867 to 1948. It is a leading member of the British Commonwealth, has adopted parliamentarianism, and the British monarch is the titular head of state. Canadian federalism allows a strong degree of autonomy to provinces. The federal parliament represents, almost proportionately (some preference to the Atlantic region that has a smaller population), the Canadian people. There is also an unelected Senate, to which the Prime Minister appoints by patronage, obviously a duplication of the British House of Lords. There were plans (like the 1992 Charlottetown Accord) to reform the system, but to no avail.
A particularly intriguing example of the workings of parlimentarianism can be found in the short tenure of Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark (b. 1940). Clark led a minority government, after defeating in 1979 the former Liberal prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1919–2000), who had served as PM for eleven years. Clark was supported by several independent right-wing members of Parliament from western Canada. In February 1980, after only eight months in office, Clark failed to secure sufficient support for his first annual budget. He was compelled to ask Canada’s governor-general (the vice regal representative appointed by the British monarch) to dissolve the federal parliament. Clark lost in the ballots cast the following month, and Trudeau became, again, the prime minister, after only nine short months in the opposition.
The European Union (EU) had grown from a French vision in 1950, and a humble start in which Britain did not partake, in the 1957 Treaties of Rome. The EU has become a continental powerhouse with complex institutions and a hybrid of structures. The EU is gathering more political momentum, adding new members, incorporating territory in southern and Eastern Europe, consolidating its laws, and proclaiming constitutional powers. The EU is increasingly independent from the countries that make up its rapidly expanding ranks. Parliamentarianism may become its guiding principle on the road to securing popular support for strong federalism. The formation of the European Parliament, as a body whose members since 1979 are directly elected and often represent ideological agendas and continental (rather than national) interests, also balances the influence of local politicians and state governments. While competition for authority will continue, real power seems to increasingly to be vested in an institution whose structure and procedures may resemble the traditional role of the British House of Commons, although the vast majority of EU members do not have a tradition of parliamentarianism.
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