The Westminster model of democracy refers to the British system of government in which executive power is derived from and is accountable to the legislative power. This model of democracy is closely associated with the United Kingdom, and elements of it have been present in the political systems of Canada, India, Israel, and New Zealand. The Westminster model also was popular in the first postcolonial decade (the 1960s) in the African independent states.
The term Westminster model was coined by Arend Lijphart in his work Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries (1984) as a contrast to consensus democracy, where he uses it interchangeably with the term majoritarian democracy. According to Lijphart’s definition, “the essence of Westminster democracy is majority rule, e.g., government by the majority and in accordance with the majority’s wishes comes closer to the democratic ideal than government by and responsive to a minority” (4). Describing the Westminster model of democracy, Lijphart distinguishes nine basic interrelated elements and he illustrates them with features from the British political system, particularly as it operated in the period from 1945 to 1970. These elements are: a concentration of executive power (e.g., one-party cabinets or bare-majority cabinets); a fusion of power and cabinet dominance; an asymmetrical bicameralism (one body of representatives has far more power than the other); a two-party system; a one-dimensional party system; a plurality system of elections; a unitary and centralized government; an unwritten constitution and parliamentary sovereignty; and an exclusively representative democracy.
Acknowledging that his majoritarian model is drawn from British and New Zealand examples, Lijphart emphasizes the possibility “to derive all of the characteristics of the majoritarian model logically from the principle of concentrating as much political power as possible in the hands of the majority” (207). That is why this model could be described as a rational one, a political system that can be constructed from an actual system; e.g., the British one. Taken to its logical extreme, the majoritarian (Westminster) model would include each of the following characteristics: minimal winning or one-party cabinets supported by a strong and cohesive legislative majority; a unitary and centralized government; a unicameral parliament; and a two-party system with one-issue dimension politics dividing the party in power and its opposition. The electoral system that maximizes this concentration of power in the hands of the one party is plurality method voting. Constitutional flexibility is very important too; e.g., Lijphart stresses the importance of an unwritten constitution (211–213).
Lijphart also argues that the model could be understood as a prescriptive one, because it includes “a set of basic choices that have to be made by democratic constitutional engineers in countries that attempt to introduce or strengthen a democratic regime” (209). Accepting this interpretation, a major deviation from the majoritarian model in Britain and New Zealand has to do with the fact that neither is a completely homogenous society (e.g., the political influence of regional and national parties like the Scottish national party and Plaid Cymru in the United Kingdom, or the Maori movement in New Zealand). According to Lijphart, the third way to understand the Westminster model is empirically, as all “logically coherent elements of majoritarian model should be found together in the real world” (211).
The Westminster model was widely admired in the immediate postwar years as an example of what a liberal polity should be, and in the 1950s and 1960s this model migrated to the ex-colonies in Africa and Asia, where it seemed for many the very touchstone of democracy. Many African politicians in the beginning of the 1960s believed that they could use the majoritarian model for building newly independent governments on the foundation of Western ideas. As Vernon Bogdanor pointed out in an interdisciplinary introduction to British constitutionalism in 2003, for nationalist entrepreneurs such as Kwame Nkrumah in West Africa, “the ‘Westminster model’ fitted this outlook, since it represented their only idea as to how a political kingdom might be organised; as a slogan, it also helped to deflect any danger that they might be fobbed off with something less than untrammelled independence.”
Nevertheless, Lijphart’s definition of Westminster democracy is suitable only for homogenous societies, none of which can be found in postcolonial African countries. That is why many political and social scientists—such as James B. Christoph—criticize these tendencies, arguing that a “true” majoritarian model should incorporate not only parliamentary democracy as practiced at Westminster but embody the Western political worldview in general, whose specifics cannot be transferred to other societies.
- Bogdanor,Vernon. The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century. British Academy centenary monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Christoph, James B. Cases in Comparative Politics. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965.
- Lijphart, Arend. Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.
- Richards, David. New Labour and the Civil Service: Reconstituting the Westminster Model. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
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