British Electoral Speech

On this past Thursday the United Kingdom held a general election to choose a new parliament and government. As expected, the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair, despite losing a few seats, won a majority of seats, giving Blair an unprecedented (for a Labour politician) third term. Despite both being democracies and sharing similar political traditions, the United Kingdom and the United States have different political mechanisms and different vocabularies to describe them.

Both nations hold general elections (1800), where the legislatures are selected, although the schedules are different. US general elections are held every two years, where the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate runs for election. In Britain there is no regular schedule of elections. Usually, the prime minister selects the date for election when the political advantage rests with the ruling party, but an election must be held at least every five years. Occasionally, an election is forced on the government when the parliament votes a bill of no-confidence (1846). In between general elections, vacancies for parliamentary seats are filled in by-elections (1880), or what are called special elections in the United States.

The parties in Britain put forward their ideas for leading the country into a manifesto (1620). In the United States parties have platforms (1803) instead. The parties go head to head on polling day in Britain, or election day in America.

The object of these elections are seats in parliament (ca.1290, from the Latin via Old French, meaning place of speaking) in Britain or congress (1678, from the Latin meaning coming together, meeting) in America. Both legislatures are bicameral (1832), or two-chambered. The British Parliament is divided into the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with the lower house possessing almost all the real power. The prime minister and most of the cabinet ministers are members of the House of Commons. In the US, the two houses of Congress are the House of Representatives and, taking the name from the ancient Roman Republic, the Senate. By law, members of Congress are prohibited from serving in the cabinet; they must resign their seats in the legislature before joining the president’s administration.

Each seat represents a constituency in the UK or a district in the US (and riding in Canada). Constituency is used in the U.S. to mean those that are represented, but rarely as a synonym for the area where the constituents live. Those elected to parliament are Members of Parliament, or MPs. Their counterparts in the U.S. are congressmen, or the non-sexist member of congress. The term congressman is sometimes restricted to those elected to the House of Representatives, but it can include senators as well. Those who wish to be MPs must stand for election; those who want to be congressmen run for office.

The biggest difference between the British and American systems of government is that in the United States the executive functions of government are separate from the legislature. The president appoints the cabinet (1644). In the U.S., this is the administration; in Britain it is the prime minister who forms the government. This latter term is used in the US to refer to the executive, legislature, judiciary, and civil service.

The main opposition party in Britain forms a shadow cabinet (1906) of politicians who would run the cabinet ministries if their party comes to power. This allows for a swift transition if the government falls. The term shadow cabinet is unknown in the US, although the District of Columbia elects shadow senators because, not being a state, the capital city does not have representation in that branch of the legislature. (The District has a delegate who officially serves in the House of Representatives, but who cannot vote on the House floor.)

The British cabinet consists of ministers, or secretaries of state, who have a portfolio and run a ministry. The head of the government is, of course, the prime minister. The number two official is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who runs the treasury. In the US, cabinet officials are called secretaries and the organizations they run are generally called departments instead of ministries. There is only one Secretary of State, who runs what in Britain is called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Those MPs who are not in the cabinet (either real or shadow) are called backbenchers (1874), from the fact that they sit behind the ministers. There is no equivalent term in the US. Both the House of Commons and the House of Representatives have a Speaker, although the position is ceremonial in the UK while the Speaker of the House of Representatives wields great power, able to set the agenda for the house single-handedly. Parties in both countries have whips (1850), who are responsible for ensuring members vote the party line. The US parties also have majority leaders and minority leaders who lead the party delegations in their respective houses of Congress. In the UK, the prime minister (real or shadow) is the head of the party. In the US, the president leads his party and there is no single leader for the party that is not in the White House.

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