This Side of the Pond – April 27

By Sarah Pridgeon

One of the two countries I call home is referred to as the greatest democracy in the world; the other is known as the “mother of parliaments”. As Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap election this week, taking everyone by surprise, I got to wondering how the two really compare.

Obviously, being a legal alien, I have yet to fully participate in the democratic process here, though I hover in the background during every election and I’ve had the honor of speaking with almost every candidate for local office over the last few years. The opposite is true back in Britain: I’ve voted since I was old enough to do so, but I never paid attention to the finer details.

This set me to thinking: when the U.S. put together its government, I’m told that it did so partly to emulate the British model and partly to fix our many mistakes – hence it being lauded as the greatest democracy of all. I’ve noticed differences during my time here, but exactly how much have the two grown apart since Britain was politely asked to bugger off back home and take its taxes with it?

I was surprised to find out just how different the two systems are, though, at surface levels, you’d think there isn’t much evidence to be found. We both allow everyone over the age of 18 to have a vote and we both hold elections on a regular basis.

In Britain, though, those general elections don’t have a firm date. As long as they happen at least every five years, the timing is entirely at the whim of the prime minister.

Looking specifically at May’s decision to hold one in June, you can see how this tends to play out. Right now, her opposition is floundering in the polls because its leader is divisive and May herself apparently has the confidence of the people to lead negotiations with the European Union.

May took over as party leader when David Cameron slunk off with his tail between his legs after finding out that sticking with Europe wasn’t as popular an idea as he thought. She has yet to win her seat and doing so – right now, when the odds are in her favor – will strengthen her during those negotiations.

Our prime ministers also don’t come with an expiration date. I learned early on that we don’t impose time limits, because it felt as though Margaret Thatcher held the role forever and ever and ever. (It was actually only 11 years, but that feels like a lifetime when you’re young.)

They can also step down halfway through a term and be replaced by an appointed head for their party, just as May was. The Prime Minister meanwhile only holds office and power as long as their party commands a majority of votes in the House of Commons – so really, during the general election, you’re electing a party as much as a person.

We also have a rainbow of parties represented in our parliament. As well as the two “red and blue” options, we have one that places itself ideologically between the two, parties with specific interests (such as the environmentalist Green party) and nationalist parties for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Unlike the States, we don’t have a written Constitution, just a series of laws that lay out what we think should be the case. As the prime minister is also a member of parliament, we also don’t have the same separation of powers, as it’s possible for our executive to dominate the legislative branch. Our prime minister’s appointments also don’t need to be ratified – and we appoint far more positions in local government, such as law enforcement heads and coroners.

However, in terms of being held accountable, we have an innovative way of making sure our prime minister must answer for their actions in the form of “Prime Minister’s Question Time”. This might sound like a game show where you can win a small car with a ribbon on top, but it’s actually a regular chance for the opposition to question everything going on such that, at least in theory, no secrets are kept from the people.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two, though, is the amount of money that gets spent in an election cycle. Even if you adjust for the difference in population, the amount our politicians spend is miniscule by comparison.

This may have something to do with the fact that the whole shebang is done and dusted in the space of a month. Our candidates dust off their policy books, brandish them at the public and then shoo us all into boxes clutching a pencil and a piece of paper.

It’s also because we have limits on spending and our politicians aren’t allowed to buy airtime. No ads, just guaranteed spots on the television and radio and reliance on the press to notice their politicking. While some might argue that a month is not enough time to make a decision, it does mean that you needn’t raise a fortune to be considered a contender.

I could go on but, as you can see, what appears to be a similar form of government is filled with very different nuts and bolts, some of which you might think more positive than others. Perhaps this tells us that – not for want of trying – none of us have got this democracy thing entirely figured out quite yet.

But then, perhaps that’s not even possible and the flaws in the system are simply a whole lot better than the alternative. After all, as Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all those other forms that have been tried.”