The British Political System

By André Mathiot; Jennifer S. Hines | Go to book overview

Chapter One THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM

FREE elections are the essential basis of democracy. In Britain, however, there are fewer elective offices than in many other countries, particularly in the United States. In the first place, no one but members of Parliament and local councils are elected to office. There are no popularly elected judges, officials or other functionaries. Moreover, at the national level there is only one elective organ--the House of Commons--whilst the head of the state is a hereditary monarch and the upper House is an aristocratic body entirely composed of hereditary members and those who sit for life or for as long as they hold a particular office in the church. In these circumstances it might be thought impossible for the electorate to play any very significant part in politics.

In fact, however, the electorate has a rôle of fundamental importance. One reason for this is that today the hereditary elements in the constitution have relatively little influence. The sovereign has practically no discretion in the exercise of her functions, and the gradual self-effacement of the House of Lords has been quite as striking as the way in which the House of Commons has become to an ever-increasing extent the dominant organ in Parliament. Another factor which should not be overlooked is that in Britain general elections are usually held before Parliament has completed its full statutory term. This does not mean that the power of dissolution is very freely used or that it is necessarily as important under the British two-party system as it would be in some other forms of parliamentary government. Nevertheless, Parliament is often dissolved before the end of its term, and this means that elections occur considerably more frequently than would otherwise be the case. The main reason why the electorate is so important, however, is that a general election has exceptionally far-reaching significance. In Great Britain the people do not merely from time to time elect representatives to Parliament. They are actually able to say exactly what policy they think ought to be followed and give political power to one particular party. It is they who in

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