Theories of Parliamentary Power

the westminster model This is the classic view of Parliament as the lynchpin of the UK system of government. It implies that Parliament delivers both representative government (it is the mouthpiece of the people) and responsible government (it holds the executive to account). In this view, Parliament has significant policy influence. (This model was perhaps only realistic during the ‘golden age’ of Parliament.)

Key features of the Westminster model include the following:

● The constitution is uncodified and can be easily amended.

● The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty concentrates authority at the centre.

● The executive and legislature are fused, and the former is dominant.

● Government ministers are bound by collective responsibility and party discipline is imposed in parliament.

● An independent judiciary upholds the rule of law but cannot strike down laws made by parliament.

● Sub-national government is largely absent and local government is weak.

● Single-party government is the norm, given the operation of the single-member plurality electoral system and the two-party system.

● A system of representative democracy means that government is held accountable through elections, which are the key form of political participation.

the whitehall model This model suggests that political and constitutional power have shifted firmly from Parliament to the executive. Parliament is executive-dominated, and acts as little more than a ‘rubber stamp’ for government policy. In this view, Parliament has no meaningful policy influence. (This model was widely accepted until the 1980s.)

the transformative model This model provides an alternative to the ‘Westminster’ and the ‘Whitehall’ models of parliamentary power. It accepts that Parliament is no longer a policy-making body, but neither is it a simple irrelevance. In this view, Parliament can transform policy but only by reacting to executive initiatives. (This model has been generally accepted in recent years, not least because of recent changes within the parliamentary system.)

Majoritarian or consensual democracy?

Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart located liberal democracies on a spectrum with majoritarian democracy at one extreme and consensual democracy at the other.

In a majoritarian democracy, political power is concentrated at the centre and there are few limits to its exercise. Common features include a flexible constitution, a plurality electoral system, a two-party system, a dominant executive and a unitary state. In a consensual democracy, political power is diffused. Typical features are a rigid constitution, proportional representation, multiparty politics, the separation of powers and a federal system. There are also important differences in political culture. Politics is adversarial in a majoritarian democracy, characterised by conflict between two main parties with opposing ideological positions.

Power sharing is the norm in a consensual democracy. The UK Westminster model is the archetypal majoritarian democracy, while Switzerland is a leading example of consensual democracy. The Blair governments’ constitutional reforms introduced elements of consensual democracy (e.g. devolution and the Human Rights Act), while multiparty politics and coalition government have also become more apparent. But the UK is still close to the majoritarian position. Parliamentary sovereignty remains the guiding constitutional principle, the fusion of the legislature and executive has not been disturbed greatly, and the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is still used for Westminster elections.