Saturday, 16 April 2011

Observations on political systems. (BSDA #13)

One of the questions that has always fascinated me, ever since my interest in politics evolved into a dangerous and maddening obsession about three years ago, is that of how people in different countries relate to their political systems. I know far too much about this kind of thing, and I've decided to make the next few blogs purely informational ones about the practical and constitutional differences between different systems; namely, those of the USA, Britain, Germany and possibly any others that strike my fancy. That said, I thought a good way into these would be to try and tackle the question on a purely subjective level, by considering how the political cultures of different nations are borne out in their attitudes to their elected representatives.

So. A day or two ago I was watching a video on Youtube in which a young woman declared that since her leader, US President Obama, is a Democrat, this makes her a Republican. This is, in many ways, an extremely odd pattern of thought, yet extremely common, I have noticed, in my admittedly few dealings with Americans, and in other political debate. It is interesting, because such a logic implies that, firstly, there are only two answers to any political question, and, secondly, opposition to a single person and his/her policies means opposition to his/her broad position on the political spectrum. Duverger's law (more on that another day, when I will get terribly nerdy about electoral systems) tells us that in first-past-the-post systems such as that used in the USA, political thought inevitably polarises around two extremes, two political parties, with little possibility of compromise or cooperation. This incident, and, in a wider sense, the near-total hegemony of Democrat and Republican, two parties who often seem to be bitterly opposed to each other on fundamental levels, seems to be the apotheosis of such a concept. 

This phenomenon can be witnessed in the UK too, where we often hear such talk as "Labour caused the financial crisis" or "the Tories will wreck the NHS" (neither of which statements are totally wrong, or totally right), although here it is tempered by two factors - the disdain of the public for any party politician, whatever the stripe, and the widespread feeling that all three major parties are less than a gnat's wing apart from each other. Where in the USA Democrat and Republican seem implacably opposed to each other, here in the UK the parties are often considered too close to each other for any meaningful debate. It appears to me, and again this is based on purely circumstantial evidence, that such a feeling is not so powerful in those countries which have proportional representation. This system, which requires coalitions, cooperation and the willingness to listen to other shades of opinion, seems to me to foster a culture of understanding and of unity, which ultimately leads to a better politics. 

So there are some opening observations. Over the next few days of this blog, I will attempt to impart some of what I know, in a hopefully useful fashion, in the following order. I hope you are willing to keep reading, even in the scary bits. Out of the frying pan into the fire, as one might irrelevantly say.

April 16th - the British political system, part one: the House of Commons, the Cabinet and political parties.
April 17th - the British political system, part two: Lords, kings and devolved parliaments.
April 18th-22nd - I'm not here. Do something with your lives.
April 23rd - to break it up, a review of the first episode of Doctor Who! EXCITED.
April 24th - political systems compared across the world. Or something along those lines.
April 25th - the aforementioned nerdy electoral systems post. Be happy.
Et cetera.

Any suggestions, questions, criticism or whatever - either scribble down below or hit me up on twitter. You should follow me in both places too. Cos, you know. That's how we roll round here. 

This blog was inspired by an impromptu twitter conversation with all-round interesting person Julia Taylor. Linky.


  1. Your point about the British parties being "too close" is actually really interesting. We label the Labour party as a left-wing party, and the Conservative party as a centrist party. When the American Political Science Association did a Responsible Parties Report in the 60's, they concluded the following needed to happen to make the American parties more like the British ones, and therefore "better".
    1. More and better ORGANIZATION
    2. Greater ISSUE CLARITY
    3. Strong nat’l level (CENTRALIZATION)
    4. COHESION in government parties
    5. Internal party DEMOCRACY

    But this is interesting, because upon further examination, it was proven that the British parties weren't actually BETTER overall, just better at some things. Although part of that isn't the parties' "fault". It's more of the way that the government distributes funds and the way the people vote. If you want, I can send you a copy of my notes from Political Science on that subject. lol. This is already too long of a comment.

  2. There are two interesting things about that comment. Firstly, that report was produced in the 60s. Back then, Labour were properly socialist, and the Tories were a traditionalist group, not the libertarian free-marketers they became under Thatcher. And the Liberals were nothing. Since then, it may well be argued (as I will be doing) that all three parties have converged on the radical centre-right.

    Secondly, the issue of organisation is related to the issue of federation vs. unitary state. Our parties are, normally, centralised at Westminster, with none of the localised quirks of US politicians. More on the 16th and 24th.

    Am I on the right lines for being interesting? Stop me if it gets too like a lecture.

    You think you write long comments.

  3. Right, the currency is one of the things that has led APSA to question the validity of the report.

    I AM SO INTERESTED TO HEAR MORE. Seriously, this is really interesting.

    Pshh, we're tied.