Westminster System like the French Fourth Republic

British Parliament, since its inception, has been the model on which emerging democracies base their governments. Today, however, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government finds itself paralyzed in the face of the Brexit question, and on the cusp of succumbing to the inherent flaws that have plagued Westminster systems throughout history.

May’s government has, thus far, found the prospect of a deal held captive by various competing, inter party, factions. These factions, “with their tenuous alliances and uneasy combinations, tend to be unstable. Dissention often arises within the coalition, each group adhering rigidly to its principles, unwilling to sacrifice its standards to the cause of effective government.”(1) The Harvard Crimson wrote in 1957, but not about the English Parliament, but rather, the Westminster System of the French Fourth Republic, similarly paralyzed by an issue of foreign policy.

In the 1950’s, following World War II and the occupation, France created a system of government based on the Westminster Model, with a largely consultative President and upper chamber, while the lower chamber held all the legislative power and selected the nation’s Prime Minister. Unlike the British system it was based on, with its two key parties jostling to implement their own agenda, the French system was plagued by a patchwork of parties that formed governments based on individual issues that propped up unstable governments and lacked popularly mandated leaders. Issues such as the Algerian and Indo-China wars fractured the party unity even further, creating inter-party interest groups that found themselves more in line with their right-left opposites than their own parties or leaders, shattering the carefully molded coalition governments and paralyzing domestic policies over foreign questions.

The British Government, today, faces much the same conundrum. Prime Minister Theresa May finds her government propped up by a coalition composed of differing ideologies, one which is paralyzed over cross party alliances and an inability to find majorities over policies she can negotiate but not approve outside the commons. Brexit has taken the place of the Algerian question, but the deadlock is much the same. The Conservative coalition has been muddled over differences in how to implement Brexit, or whether to at all, leaving the party a loose alliance of MP’s locked in their own personal ideologies and often falling in line behind Labour as much as the Prime Minister. Similarly, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists, the king-makers of the Coalition, are unable to support PM May without a proper answer to the Irish Question. The Labour Minority is in similar disarray, finding themselves aligned with the Scottish Nationalists and Liberal-Democrats, while many still fall in line behind the Conservative “Leave” Coalition. With every new deal proposal, there seems to be new cracks and alliances and shifting votes that seem to bring the Prime Minister even further from breaking the deadlock in the ever fracturing house.

This worsening splinter effect eventually brought the French Fourth Republic to its knees, leaving the door open for a long dormant Charles de Gaulle to step back into the spotlight and dissolve the government in favor of a more decisive system, less reliant on party politics than a President given a mandate directly from the people. “I consider it necessary,” he wrote, “for the government to derive not from parliament, in other words from the parties, but, over and above them, from a leader directly mandated by the nation as a whole and empowered to choose, to decide and to act.”(2) De Gaulle reformed the government to be led by a popularly elected leader who could act independently of the lower chamber, freeing them to make tough decisions without the threat of a loss of support and removing the chains of unstable political coalitions that often bring Prime Ministers to power.

The United Kingdom need not wonder of the future of their current conundrum, but simply look back at the many governments they inspired. The issue of Brexit, and the new foreign questions it creates, varying from trade to Scottish or Northern Irish independence, will continue to create new coalitions formed across inter-party lines, making the positions of the Prime Ministers it elevates ever more tenuous. The lack of independence of the Kingdom’s head of government will continue to paralyze the voting body, which will lead the Parliament to either evolve its constitution, as it has for centuries, or muddle along until the Fourth Republic is once again its equal in the annals of historical record.

(1)“The Fourth Republic.” The Harvard Crimson, 18 Mar. 1957.

(2)“Je Vous Ai Compris.” A Savage War of Peace Algeria, 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne, The Viking Press, 1978, p. 312.