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Assignment: Loyal Opposition

Assignment: Loyal Opposition

Assignment: Loyal Opposition


Disciplined Parties

Party discipline in the United Kingdom manifests itself in a ritual show of public unity, coherent party platforms, and bloc voting. British parties differ sharply in this respect from U.S. parties, which are more loosely organized and often less important to voters than are the personal traits of the candidates.

In Parliament, the government demands unwavering support from its majority-party members. Strong party discipline does not mean that MPs never cross the aisle to vote with the opposition, however. They can also abstain on an important vote or even engineer a party realignment. In the early 1900s, for example, when the trade union movement transformed the British working class into a powerful political force, the Labour Party eclipsed the old Liberal (or Whig) Party as the Conservative (or Tory) Party’s chief rival.

The party-out-of-power—formally called Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition—criticizes the majority’s policy initiatives and holds the government accountable for its actions. Criticism is usually tempered by civility, because the Opposition “thinks of itself as the next government, and a wise Opposition operates within those limits which it hopes its own opponents will respect when the tables are turned.”* In fact, the Leader of the Opposition is considered an essential role player in the British system—and since 1937 given a special salary paid out of public funds.

Are Two Heads Better Than One?

Unlike the United States, where one chief executive (the president) serves as both the head of state and the head of government, Great Britain separates these functions. The British head of state is the reigning monarch. Queen Elizabeth II, “arguably the most famous person in the world,” has occupied the British throne for over half a century. The monarch is a national symbol and a source of unity, personifying the state but not wielding its powers.

The actual head of the government is the prime minister, who, in close consultation with key cabinet members (often called the inner cabinet), sets domestic and foreign policy. National policy emerges from this leadership core, which then presents it to the cabinet as a whole. Cabinet members who are out of step with the government on an important policy matter are expected to resign quietly.