British political institutions (3): the government

I like to attend short courses at the City Literary Institute in central London and I’m now doing a six-week course on “British Political Institutions”.  The third session of the course was delivered by the City Lit’s Director Mark Malcolmson and covered the executive, that is the government of the Cabinet and junior ministers.

I have myself written a guide to the British political system and you can read about government here.

In this session of the course, we had a discussion about the electoral system which, in Britain, is the first-past-the-post (FPTP), like the USA but unlike most countries which have a version of proportional representation (PR). FPTP is said to provide a clear result and a majority government, but we were reminded of several occasions – some very recent – when this has not been the case:

  • The minority Labour Government of February-October 1974 (when I was a Special Adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and fought the two General Elections of that year)
  • The Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) Pact of 1977-1978  (when I was a Special Adviser in the Home Offcie) which involved Liberals generally supporting the minority Labour Government without actually joining the government
  • The coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats from 2010-2015 when the Lib Dems had ministers at every level of government on the basis of a detailed joint policy programme
  • The current agreement between the minority Conservative Government and the Democratic Unionist Party whereby the DUP – in return for lots of extra expenditure in Northern Ireland – support the government on ‘confidence and supply’ terms

In my view, the case for proportional representation – on both moral and practical grounds – is a strong one.


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