David Starkey and Constitutional Reform

[This is an archive of an note written about Question Time on Thursday, 23rd April 2009]

I gained much entertainment from watching David Starkey on Question Time. I had heard that he was quite barking, but I hadn’t quite realised the extent previously. Fabulous powers of speech.

However, I wasn’t as impressed by his analysis of the US system. From a historical perspective, of course, he was unsurprisingly right. The US system was modelled on the structure of the British system of the time.

However, his argument that the US system means that the US legislature operates far more respectfully than Britain’s due to its rather over-zealous separation of powers (sorry, prejudices getting ahead of me there) rather baffles me, because it’s demonstrably not true. Rather amusingly, he sums up his tirade with a cherry on the cake: “constitutional reform. In one word: constitutional reform”.

American legislators are always being derided for “pork-barrel politics”, in the House in particular. In the Senate, the power of the filibuster is most renouned for being used as an obstruction to some of the most essential of reforms in history.

Neither does Starkey’s argument that the US Congress “actually hold[s] the government to account” hold much water after the rather catastrophic failure of it to hold George W. Bush properly to account over the last 8 years. But what is particularly baffling is why he thinks the reason that the British parliament’s ineffectiveness is due to the lack of such a structural sepration of powers.

It really has nothing to do with it. In theory, the British system could potentially be a lot better than the US one in holding the government to account, and certainly more flexible. Structurally, Parliament is sovereign, with the Executive subordinate, which means that in the case of fundamental disagreement between the two, such as the voting down of a budget, the sensible thing happens which is that the matter is put to the people, rather than what happened in the USA in 1995, where the federal government just shut down.

Essentially, structurally, the Parliamentary system has the clear advantage, as a Parliament can dismiss an Executive if it deems it unfit for service. Of course, this doesn’t happen, and the reasons are a number of things, mainly separating into two categories, the first being an accumulation of informal powers of influence over the House of Commons (and Lords, for that matter) that the government has generally up its sleeve to retain control, the second arguably being the voting system, which gives it a more fundamental on-going domination.

But really, this has nothing to do with the structural division of powers. Seperation of Powers in the USA results in neither branch being held to account, as much as it results in responsible accountability. It’s a system which divides accountability as much as it strengthens it. It’s a rigid, inflexible system that is also more difficult to reform fluidly over time. All this Starkey passes over for a piece of cheap rhetoric.

But his rhetoric is good, I’ll give it that. And very entertaining.

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