Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science






British constitutional democracy is monarchial in form. Great Britain's chief of state is an hereditary monarch, in whose name the government is carried on. Under the Constitution, however, the authority of the Monarch is limited to performance of purely symbolic and ceremonial functions, the real power of government is in the hands of the voters' elected representatives in the lower chamber of Parliament, and the Prime Minister, as the top leader of the majority in the lower chamber and as chairman of the Cabinet, is the effective head of government.

American constitutional democracy is republican, not monarchial, in form. The President, elected by the American voters through the medium of the Electoral College, performs the symbolic functions of ceremonial chief of state as well as the active political leadership and governing functions of national chief executive, or effective head of the national govern- ment. Every other government office is filled either by election or by appointment accord- ing to law. There are no hereditary offices in the government.

The British governmental system is characterized by concentration of political authority. Under the Constitution, the legislative and executive powers of government are lodged in the hands of the House of Commons, the lower, popularly elected chamber of Parliament. These powers are exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, supported by the majority in the Commons.

The American governmental system, in contrast to the British system, is characterized by diffusion of political authority. The powers of the U.S. national government are constitu- tionally divided and distributed among separate and largely independent organs of govern- ment--governmental organs which are equal in rank and have strong motives as well as the constitutional right to oppose and check each other. The power to make and carry out decisions on national public policy is concentrated in neither the President nor a single chamber of Congress. That power is dispersed among three very potent and independent power centers in the national government--the President, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Authoritative decisions on highly controversial, very divisive issues of national policy cannot be made and enforced without the approval of the President and majorities in the two houses of Congress.

The British governmental system operates on the principle of straight majority rule. The system is constitutionally biased toward rapid political decisionmaking by simple majority-- rapid decisionmaking by a simple majority of the voters in a single national election and by a simple majority of the voters' elected representatives in the House of Commons. Au- thoritative decisions on national policy issues--even the most controversial issues--are easily and quickly made and carried out by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as long as they enjoy the support of a stable majority in the Commons. And majority support in the House of Commons is the normal situation in British politics, since British political parties are cohesive, highly disciplined organizations and the Prime Minister is the clearly recognized chief leader of the majority party in the Commons as well as head of the Cabinet, the top executive authority in the government and the steering committee of the majority in the Commons.

The American governmental system, again in contrast to the British system, tends strongly to delay majority decisionmaking and action. The American system was designed to pre- vent quick and easy decisionmaking by the voters in national elections and by their elected representatives in the national government. The governmental system is constitutionally biased toward operation of numerous checks and balances, necessitating delay and pro- longed debate, deliberation, negotiation, bargaining, and compromise. The support of a consensus--considerably more than a simple majority of the voters nationwide--is required for authoritative decisionmaking and action on highly controversial issues of national public policy. Consensus support is derived from the national government's taking into consider- ation and accomodating the interests and views of many different segments of American society.

Finally, the American and British constitutional systems differ significantly, as regards the role of judicial bodies in authoritatively determining the constitutional validity of decisions and actions of the legislative and executive branches of government. In the U.S.A., the courts of law, in cases and controversies brought before them for trial and decision, exer- cise the power of judicial review--the power to rule on the constitutionality of statutes of the legislature and decisions and actions of the executive. An American court has the authority to review and pass on the constitutional validity of any legislative statute or executive decision or action relevant to the case before the court and to nullify the statute or other governmental action, if the judges of the court are of the opinion that the governmental action violates the Constitution. Through exercise of the power of judicial review, American courts play a major role in defining and maintaining the lines of demarcation between gov- ernmental action that is constitutionally permitted and governmental action that is consti- tutionally prohibited. Courts in the U.S.A. are guardians of the Constitution. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution of the United States, since it is the highest judicial body in the U.S.A., with authority to review and uphold, modify, or overturn all state and lower federal court rulings on federal constitutional questions and thus the right of final decision in judicial determination of the meaning and intent of provisions of the U.S. Constitution. A decision of the U.S. Supreme Court interpreting a provision of the Federal Constitution can be changed only by adoption of a federal constitutional amend- ment through the action of Congress and the states or by the Supreme Court reversing itself in a later but similar case.

While judicial review is a very important part of the American constitutional system, it has no place in the British system. No judicial body in Great Britain possesses authority to declare unconstitutional and prevent enforcement of a statute duly enacted by Parliament. Operating in a system characterized by legislative supremacy, a majority in Parliament, technically speaking, can do anything it wishes to do, and no court of law may set aside a parliamentary statute because the judges on the court are of the opinion that the statute is contrary to the British Constitution. Although a British court may entertain and answer questions regarding the statutory authority of actions of the executive and administrative agencies of the government, the court may not rule on the constitutional authority of Parliament to enact particular statutes. Parliament determines the boundaries separating governmental action which is constitutionally permissible from that which is constitutionally impermissible. Parliament, ultimately the House of Commons, has the power of final decision concerning the content of the Constitution and the true meaning and proper application of a particular part of the Constitution, written or unwritten. Parliament, rather than any court of law, is guardian of the British Constitution.

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