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Parliament Idol 

With the German elections coming up, we thought we’d have a quick poll to find whether Germany, Britain or the US has the best system of government. An electorate of one (me), so no waiting in line to vote and no hanging chads. Strictly proportional.

The Executive

1. Germany

2. The US

3. The UK

The executive is the branch of government that actually does stuff - chancellors, presidents and prime ministers who get to watch football games for free, declare war on other countries and have their photo taken with Bono. The US certainly has the sexiest. Obama. Airforce One. All those people with beautiful teeth in The West Wing. It was The West Wing, however, that offered the memorable episode in which grumpy White House aide Toby Ziegler convinces a delegation from a new post-Soviet democracy not to copy the US presidential model. “One of America’s most dangerous exports,” he tells them, “responsible for wreaking havoc in 30 countries around the globe.” The problem with a mighty executive office in which the roles of head of government, head of the armed forces and head of state are fused in one person is that it can get a little messy if placed in the wrong hands. Only four presidential democracies have lasted more than 30 years. Also, a system in which the president cannot pass gun control legislation but can order the assassination of almost anyone seems to need work. The British executive consists of a kindly old granny who does very little, but in whose name a Prime Minister can do almost anything. People think the Queen has no power. This is only partly true. The monarch as a person has little power, but the monarchy as an institution has huge power - to dissolve parliaments, for example, or declare war. This is wielded by the Prime Minister on the monarch’s behalf. The British flirted with abolishing their monarchy in the 17th century, but when the moment came, they chose not to cast the Ring of Power into the fires of Mount Doom. They gave it to the Prime Minister instead, and many of them have been stroking their precious ever since. Too much power is concentrated in the British executive.

Germany wins here, with a constitutional president most people cannot name (which is not a bad thing) and an executive restrained by a written constitution, a Bundestag elected by PR, an upper chamber which represents the regions of the country, and powerful regional states.

The Legislature

1. The UK

2. Germany

3. The US

Parliaments, congresses, national assemblies. Their job is to enact legislation and hold executives to account. I’m voter-suppressing the US out of this one on the grounds that the current Congress is not mature enough to hold a driving license, and so fails the ID test. That leaves Germany and the UK. Germany wins on architecture - the Reichstag is iconic whereas the Houses of Parliament looks like the Neues Rathaus photoshopped by someone on drugs. The “Mother of Parliaments” comes through to take it at the post, however, with the recent - albeit rare - defeat for the government on Syria. Whatever one thinks of that issue, stopping executives from acting as they please is exactly what legislatures are supposed to do.

Entertainment value

1. The UK

2. The US

3. Germany

A tough one to call. UK parliament TV has a cult following throughout the world, and “PMQs” (Prime Minister’s Question Time) can be funnier that Fawlty Towers. On the other hand, the Americans have Michele Bachmann. Both make Bundestag debates look as entertaining as watching cement set. The Germans do have some skin in the game, however. There was that moment during an angry debate in 1984 when a young Joschka Fischer addressed the vice president of the Bundestag with words never before heard in that august chamber: “With respect, Mr. President, you’re an arsehole.” He was banned from speaking after he said that (actually, he had been banned from speaking before he said it.) I give this one to the British by a nose, however, because any country that can give the world both Margaret (“There is no such thing as society”) Thatcher and Tony (“I’m a pretty straight guy”) Blair within a few years has better script writers than The Daily Show. Also, while British politicians are simply hilarious, US Congressional representatives lose points for being too scary to be truly funny.

And the final results from the electoral college  ….

1. Britain. 300 unbroken years of the rule of law and peaceful transition from one civilian administration to another. Has avoided incendiary arguments over the meaning of the constitution by not bothering to have a constitution.

2. Germany. Stable government, a neat balance between executive and legislature, and a relative absence of people who shouldn’t be allowed to handle scissors.  

3. The US. A beautiful 18th century constitution written by people who thought politicians couldn’t be trusted, and a 21st century Congress determined to prove they were right. (The West Wing is good, though.)


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