The creation of the Presidential Prime Minister

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The United Kingdom’s democracy is one of the oldest in Europe, and certainly the most stable. Such hyperbole is flattered on Westminster as “the mother of all Parliaments” and other similarly sycophantic claims glowered by politicians, desperate for a nation in relative decline to recover the shiny glaze it once possessed. It is natural that, in possessing a system of government which has been extremely enduring and sustainable, the British Parliamentary democracy has observed the rise of many new iterations of governance. From ‘mirror representation’ in the 18th century to fascism in the first half of the 1900s, Parliament has resiliently suffered the breezes of new political movements and the gales of other nations’ revolutions, but refused to change. For the majority of its tenure there was little issue in the intransigent British attitude to its form of government, first and foremost because no nations had either conceived nor implemented an improved system. A full return to an old-style of monarchical rule seemed unwise and impractical, given the concerning opportunity for the quick rise of despotism as well as the historical circumstances of Britain’s relations with previous kings: three civil wars costing perhaps 200,000 men and innumerable civilian casualties was reason enough not to contemplate a full reversion to a kingdom. Alternative measures were, at best, harbingers of unstable and constantly changing leadership, as in America after 1789, and at worst, procedures to promote the most violent and riotous of the land to power, as in France when Louis XVI was executed in 1793. Whether confidence in a parliamentary monarchy was a decision or a renewed philosophy, whether stability was chosen because it was believed that the British form of a Parliamentary monarchy was most representative of the people or if there was a deep conflation with the pride of the Empire and the system which produced it, is ambiguous. Therefore, there was little impetus to evolve nor practical surrogate to model after. However, both of these variables were provoked in the 1900s.

The least of the victims of the monumental rise of America in the 20th century was British parliamentary democracy. The United States’ Federal Republican government had largely been based off Britain’s institutions, with the notable and obvious exclusion of a monarch, substituted with a powerful, single executive. James Madison, often referred to as “the father of the constitution”, had been careful to split the awesome power of central government between a triumvirate of offices: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. More than ever before, the United Kingdom’s historic amalgamation of the legislative and informal executive appears a malformed compound, made more obvious by the development of the Prime Minister’s branch into a semi-independent entity whilst still inextricably bonded to Parliament.

In following such a path, the movement has oddly adhered to the words of the science-fiction writer Richard A. Heinlein, when he observed “…more than six people cannot agree on anything, three is better and one is perfect for a job that one can do. This is why parliamentary bodies all through history, when they accomplished anything, owed it to a few strong men who dominated the rest.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that Britain has been allured by a premise of such a powerful position given not only the natural desire to attain vast influence, cutting out the bonds of bureaucracy, but the vulnerability of the British system to a relatively small alteration in its structure.

In analysing the symptoms of such a mutation, however, it is first necessary to identify the nature of the disease with which the UK is currently afflicted.

Richard Hefferman discussed, in extensive detail, the nature of Presidentialisation in the United Kingdom, and came to the ultimate conclusion that power, defined as the ability of the Prime Minister to force through legislation and control government, has not necessarily increased with an appropriation of the American system. Hefferman argues that the Prime Minister has always been more powerful than the President on a ‘legislative-executive’ basis, leaving the notion of Presidentialisation to have only affected one aspect of the office: its perception.

Imagery and symbolism are significant forces in politics, an industry where a combination of communication and simplicity will invariably lead to election success. The British Prime Minister has developed into an odd imitation of the role of President in two major ways: imagery, and symbolism. A notable result of the creation of the Presidency is the prominence of individual figures, an unsurprising consequence of imbuing so much power and visibility into one figure. It is hence predictable that a steady assimilation with the system of the United States has bolstered the significance of personality in modern British leadership, which has reached an unprecedented level on two counts. In the first instance, it can confidently be asserted that the contribution of personal characteristics has been more meaningful in electing Prime Ministers in both the late 20th and contemporary political fields than at any other period, which marks a shift from the formerly communal and perhaps even restrained role of previous democratic British leaders. After all, when have the effects of individual figures left such irrepressible legacies on both their parties and countries? Cabinets are dominated by their Prime Minister, not by their constituent offices designed to distribute power around departments: Heseltine only had to target Thatcher, not an unbreakably unified cabinet. From the conservative ethos of Thatcherism to the pragmatism of Blairites, modern communication has elevated Prime Ministers to the same heights as Presidents with regard to the influence instilled into one position. On the second point, it is important to observe the office of President’s dual purpose: to give direction to legislation while simultaneously acting as head of state. The final point, of being a head of state, is the pivot from which an analysis of a new British Presidential system must swing.

The role of the moral anchor for the people of the United Kingdom is a responsibility harboured by the monarch: a position since rejected by democracies across the globe as an impediment to ultimate representation. It has long been the case that Britain has sought the advice and guidance of its hereditary leadership in times of great turbulence, from the visits of George V to front line hospitals in the Great War to the reassuring rallying address of his heir George VI in the successive European conflict, the role of Prime Minister has long distinguished itself from the Presidency because of a reliance on the monarch as a spiritual embodiment of the will and sentiments of the people. This same sentiment has crumbled in the 21st century, however. As of 2021, a greater number of 18 to 24 year olds polled to abolish the monarchy than continue with the current form of the institution, marking an unprecedented shift in attitudes. An analysis of a cross section of society is far less impressive than the youngest age-bracket, with all divisions above 25 averaging a substantially greater respect and affinity to the monarchy than antipathy. On average, a mere 20% of respondents reacted negatively to the YouGov survey, indicating the strong sense of retainment present in contemporary British society. Nonetheless, a generation of republicans have been injected into the political atmosphere, which is not  to be undervalued. These views may transpire to evaporate with age – a passing surge of rebellious passion – but it is certain that debate is changing, and that the monarch is no longer considered by all to be the rightful head of state.

Meanwhile, the position Prime Minister has increasingly become the moral centre of politics. While scandals ordinarily damage the reputations of all ministers involved, the revelations of communal gatherings in the gardens of Number 10 Downing Street and the overwhelming torrent of backlash against them typify the common outrage felt when Prime Ministers act out of what the public deems socially and morally correct. Calls of resignation by the opposition were predictable, but also indicative, perhaps, of the shifting standards held up to Prime Ministers as both political and moral vehicles of the nations which they represent.

It must be considered that the presidentialisation of the British Parliamentary system has only been possible through the poisoning of the spring: party politics and political groupings’ Americanisation. Both parties are guilty of this infection, including Blair’s 1995 bypass of Clause IV and direct communication to party members rather than delegates, the ‘personalisation’ of political parties, according to Samuels and Shugart, have genetically altered their spawn: their candidates for Prime Minister. The characteristics exhibited by these leaders, of both party and perhaps country, are that of an inclination towards autonomous party leadership, according to Hayton and Heppell. In these ways, Britain has now developed into a pseudo-Parliamentary democracy. It could be argued that this is not a profound judgement: Prime Ministers have always been the most powerful figures within their governments, in which case the most substantial effect of Presidentialisation is certainly not to do with power, but iconography. Parliamentary democracy is a thinly etched structure, which is predicated, in part, on the notion of a present distinction between Prime Minister and monarch, between law-maker and moral compass. The alteration, if there has been an identifiable one, is in the image of the ‘PM’, no longer a legislator, but a public orator, a communicator and a societal mediator.

The Prime Ministerial office is in an uncomfortable political and structural position. On the one hand, the latest evolution of Parliamentary democracy can no longer dare to recognise itself as thus: a President irrevocably tied to the House of Representatives can neither be entirely identified as Presidential. Nonetheless, a resilient monarchy, deriving its strength from sentimentality still present in contemporary voters’ hearts and the proclivity of Parliamentary parties to attain such an office may disguise the issue. Perhaps this innovation should not be treated with disdain, however. Larger imagery for Prime Ministers will certainly create greater problems when issues arise, but such communication and media representation translates into accountability and comprehension for the voters of the nation. In an era of frustration at the stunted nature of legislation, the seeming ineptitude of leadership as a result of the laboriousness of political debate, this irregular political position could be the antidote to the faults in British politics. As the director of Office and Management under President Jimmy Carter outlined in his banal aphorism, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ If the presidentialisation of the Prime Minister is damaging though, inducing the national politics into a frenzied cult of personality, the costs may be harder to pay than any one might think.


Photo: ABC News, ‘History of the special relationship – between U.S. Presidents and British Prime Ministers