British Parliamentary System of Government


S. government. It was written and passed in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention, which had been convened in the midst of the political crisis that followed the American Revolution. At that time relations between the central government and the states were strained. One of the main reasons behind forming a Constitution was to ease these tensions. The other was the urgency to consolidate the revolution by creating a single unit or a political entity consisting of 13 states (other states joint the union later) whose status at the time was of 13 independent former colonies. The Constitution making effort was, thus, also a reflection of the country's motto, E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). The Constitution became the 'law of the land' after it was ratified by nine states in 1788. (Ibid.)

Highlighting the Differences

Having reviewed the main features of the British Parliamentary System and the U.S. System of governments let us highlight the main differences between the two:

British constitutional democracy is monarchial in form. The government of Great Britain is carried on under the name of a hereditary monarch who is also its chief of state. The actual powers of the monarch are now limited to symbolic functions only -- with the real powers vested in the democratically elected House of Commons with the leader of the House -- the Prime Minister being the effective head of the government.

American constitutional democracy is republican and not monarchial, in form. The President of the country is elected through a system of Electoral College (that approximately reflects the popular vote, though not strictly) who acts as the chief of state and the effective head of government. The elections of the President are completely separate from that of the Congress.

There are no hereditary offices in the government.

In the British system of government the legislative and executive powers of government are fused and both are performed by the lower House of Parliament, the House of Commons. These powers are by the Prime Minister (and his Cabinet) who is supported by the majority of Members of the House.

The American governmental system has a system of 'checks and balances' in which the legislative and executive functions are deliberately kept separate. Political Authority in the U.S. system is, therefore, divided between the President, and the Congress (that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives). Most vital national decisions cannot be taken unless agreed to by both.

The British system facilitates rapid political decision-making as it operates on the principle of straight majority rule. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet can take quick decisions on even vital issues as long as they are supported by the majority in the House of Commons, which is usually the case as the Prime Minister is the leader of the majority political party.

The American system has been deliberately designed to prevent quick (and arbitrary) decision-making by the simple majority and tends to seek consensus opinion of the people in order to accommodate the diversity of the population.

In the British system, the Chief Executive (the Prime Minister) automatically loses power if he loses the majority support of the House of Commons, while in the American system, the Chief Executive (the President) is immune from such danger and remains in power for his elected term, unless he is impeached.

In the British political system, the leader of the majority political party usually becomes the Prime Minister (the exception could be in a 'hung' parliament when no single party has a majority and a coalition government is formed). In the American system, although the Presidential candidates belong to the leading political parties, the majority party leader or the leader of the House of Representatives or the Senate does not become the Chief Executive. The President and the majority of members of the Congress may belong to different parties.

Another major difference between the two systems of government is the right of judicial review given to the judiciary to determine or challenge the validity of the decisions of the executive and the legislative bodies. This is part of the 'checks and balances' provided in the U.S. constitution in which the U.S. Supreme Court is considered to be the guardian of its constitution. The British judiciary has no such powers and the Parliament (in practice the House of Commons) performs the functions of making the laws and interpreting them.


As we have seen in the comparison and brief review of the working of the British and American systems of government they have several major differences and some similarities too. The reasons for the differences are that both systems have evolved or developed to cater for the political and social needs of the two countries and their people. For example, while the British have maintained a system of Monarchy, albeit ceremonial, to reflect continuity of tradition, the Americans have deliberately debarred hereditary offices to emphasize the reflection of the will of the people in their government. The supremacy of the democratically elected representatives is, however, reflected in both systems of government.

Works Cited

Baker, Jean H. "The United States Government." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 2003. CD-ROM Version

The British Constitution -- an Introduction." April 22, 2002. December 10, 2002.

The British Parliamentary System." BBC Web Site. 2002. December 10, 2002.

Judicial Independence" April 2002. December 10, 2002.

Kilcullen, John. A Comparison of the Australian, British, and American Political Systems. 2002. December 10, 2002.

Kramnick, Isaac. "Thematic Essay: British Political and Social Thought." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 2003.

The Role of the House of Commons." The United Kingdom Parliament. 2002.

Way, Almon Leroy, Jr. Dr. "The American System of Government Politics & Government in the U.S.A." part Three. How does the American presidential system differ from the British parliamentary system? December 10, 2002.

British & American Constitutional Democracy: Summary & Conclusion. (n.d.) December 10, 2002.

Weisser and Kishlansky. "The United Kingdom." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2003.

Summarized from Dr. Almon Leroy Jr.'s Political Science Lecture on "Parliamentary and Presidential Systems" & John Kilcullen's "A Comparison of the Australian, British, and American Political Systems." [both texts available online]