Why there is no such thing as the ‘Westminster model’

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgRuxandra.Serban.crop.jpgPractitioners and academics in comparative politics frequently refer to a set of ‘Westminster model’ countries which are similar in some way. But in a new article, summarised here, Meg Russell and Ruxandra Serban show that definitions of the ‘Westminster model’ tend to be muddled, or even absent, and that its meaning is far from clear. Insofar as defined political attributes are linked to the ‘model’, key countries associated with it now lack many of those attributes. The term has hence become increasingly outdated, leading the authors to suggest that it should now be dropped.

The term ‘Westminster model’ appears frequently both in the academic and practitioner literature, and will be familiar to many specialists in comparative politics, public administration and law. But what precisely does it mean, and is there consistency in its application? Our new newly-published paper in the journal Government and Opposition, ‘The Muddle of the ‘Westminster Model’: A Concept Stretched beyond Repair’, addresses this question – based on analysis of the term in the academic literature over the last 20 years. It demonstrates that the use of the term has become extremely confused, leading us to suggest that it should be retired from academic and practitioner discourse.

Authors have often deployed the term ‘Westminster model’ as shorthand for the UK system of government which Bagehot outlined in the 1860s. Bagehot never used the term himself, but it appeared a century later in a classic text by De Smith on ‘Westminster’s export models’. Hence it therefore does not simply describe the British system, but other systems which were modelled upon it. Comparative texts for example often suggest that there is a group of ‘Westminster model countries’, ‘Westminster democracies’ or members of a ‘Westminster family’. The term received a more recent boost when used in the widely-cited comparative texts by Arend Lijphart (1984, 1999, 2012), which classify countries based on whether they have characteristics of ‘majoritarian’ or ‘consensus’ democracy. Lijphart used the term ‘Westminster model’ interchangeably with ‘majoritarian democracy’, and cited Britain as ‘both the original and the best-known example of this model’. Yet – at Lijphart’s own admission – his ideal type did not precisely apply in any country. For example, he associated unicameralism with majoritarian democracy, while Britain has a bicameral parliament. Continue reading

Eastminster: the Westminster model in British Asia

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The ‘Westminster model’ outside the British Isles tends to be associated with the former British settler colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In a new book the influence of British ideas on democracy and institutions across the Asian continent is examined. Here the book’s editor, Harshan Kumarasingham, discusses how the ‘Eastminster’ countries developed political systems with strong institutional and political resemblances to the British system, albeit with cultural and constitutional deviations from Westminster.

 Imagine the following:

  1. Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit. Theresa May has been unable to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the EU or assuage those who wish the UK to remain closely connected with the EU, which has caused anarchic public discord where the Queen wants harmony. The Union risks being dissolved. The Queen sacks her without advice and asks the unelected 7th Marquess of Salisbury to be Prime Minister as a family friend.  Like the first Elizabeth the Queen has a Cecil to advice her and be responsible only to her. The public and establishment approve.
  2. Scotland decides to become independent, but the government are against this assertion despite historical legitimacy to Scotland’s claim and send in the army to subdue the errant Scots. Utilising dormant laws London suspends the Scottish Parliament and direct rule is imposed.
  3. Parliament decides to limit the prerogatives of the Crown but, before the bill passes both houses, the Queen dissolves parliament to prevent it for affecting her powers. The Queen then, through her supporters in the establishment, directs policy through an Order in Council, which does not require parliament’s approval.
  4. To pacify English nationalists legislation is passed in the Houses of Parliament removing the official use of Welsh in Wales. As the main political parties are desperate for English votes in the majoritarian system of Westminster they cooperate and remove the rights of the Welsh with a healthy majority.
  5. During riots in London sparked by draconian law enforcement and spurred by hateful rhetoric by populist politicians involving a potent cocktail of racism, poverty, discrimination, and the sense of being left behind a major breakdown of control occurs and the police are called in to restore order. The Prime Minister unwilling to take responsibility for tough actions against her natural constituency abnegates from the scene and leaves the Queen as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Head of State to restore order and provide safety for all citizens.
  6. Perhaps most shocking of all the cellars of government buildings are emptied and the Palace, Parliament and Whitehall are declared teetotal after the extravagance and alcoholic peccadillos of the previous era.

These six fantastical scenarios seemingly from the outer realms of political science fiction did in fact occur with different contexts and actors in Asia using the Westminster system following the end of British rule. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Nepal operated under institutions and conventions directly and openly derived from Britain’s Westminster system. Exported across the world more than any other political system the British parliamentary model remains more commonly associated with the British settler countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand if it is examined at all outside the British Isles. The situation described by Graham Wilson over 20 years ago, echoing Leon Epstein earlier still, remains largely true that for most British political scientists ‘far from seizing the opportunity to study the essentials of their system of government in different settings’ they instead ‘turned inward’ and most courses on British politics in British universities ‘are taught as if the Westminster model existed only in Britain’. Instead an analysis shows Asia in terms of scale and scope providing the most dramatic experiment of Westminster abroad.

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