The British System: Legal-Rational Or Traditional?
Historically, traditional authority has characterized the British system of government. For centuries, the government, led by the monarch, consisted of a patrimonial feudalism. Over time, however, Parliament came to dominate a system increasingly characterized by the rule of law. The British system today has a legal-rational basis of authority, with some elements of traditional authority assimilated into the workings of government and the British Constitution.
England's first monarch, King Egbert, who united the country under his rule in A.D. 829, laid the foundation for traditional authority as the basis of British government. Great Britain's current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, can trace her descent from this first king (Norton 347). Therefore, as long as there has been an England, there has been a monarch, and thus, the monarchy is a legitimate institution with traditional authority. The British monarchs have at times also made claims to charismatic authority, most notably the Stuart kings, who tried to claim the doctrine of the divine right of kings and thereby reduce the growing power of Parliament. Oliver Cromwell's military dictatorship was another effort to establish a charismatic system in Britain. These attempts to change the government's basis of authority were all unsuccessful, however (42-43). Charismatic authority has never taken long-term root in the British system.
Traditional authority, though, formed the basis of the government's authority in Britain for much of its history. For centuries, Britain had a feudal, patrimonial system of government, consisting of a king and his loyal vassals. Max Weber defines governmental legitimacy based on traditional grounds as "resting on immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising authority under them" (Weber 328). The traditional institution of the monarchy in Britain was established before any other secular institution in the nation, including Parliament, which only appeared four centuries later (Norton 347). Public support for the monarchy has remained high in recent years, with 70% of respondents to a poll conducted by Market & Opinion Research International saying that they favored Britain remaining a monarchy. In addition, 67% responded that they believed that the monarchy would still exist in twenty-five years (MORI 1). But while the monarchy is a firmly entrenched institution in Britain, with enough support as to conceivably still assert traditional authority, modern monarchs have very little power and mainly serve as figureheads for the nation.
The modern British government, in fact, has a legal-rational basis of
authority. The British Constitution defines the structure and powers of
the government and serves as the pattern of rules that Weber says gives
a legal-rational system of government legitimacy (Weber 328). Although
the British Constitution is uncodified and only partially written, it
clearly has four main provisions: parliamentary sovereignty, the rule
of law, a unitary system of government, and government through Parliament
under a constitutional monarchy (Norton 69). These four ideas form a framework
of abstract laws and rules that constitute the highest authority in Britain.
They classify the overall system as predominantly legal-rational, since
the government's legitimacy in the eyes of citizens depends not on the
holder of the government's highest political office but instead on abstract
concepts defined by the corporate group as legal.
However, the British system is not perfectly legal-rational. The continued existence of the monarchy is the most obvious example of the persistence of traditional elements in the system. Although she serves mainly as a symbol of the unity of the nation, the queen does have nominal political responsibilities. She must appoint the prime minister, give her assent to Parliament's legislation, and decide whether to allow the prime minister to dissolve Parliament. Although these are the monarch's traditional powers, the modern British system governs their exercise through the constitutional element of convention. By convention, the queen appoints the head of the political party with a majority in the House of Commons the prime minister, assents automatically to all of the legislation passed by Parliament, and always accepts the prime minister's request for an election (353). The monarch is actually controlled by the Constitution, the legal-rational basis of authority, and cannot exert her traditional authority. The queen governs, but only with Parliament's assent, as is made clear in the Act of Settlement of 1701, which, as statute law, is a part of the British Constitution: " all the Kings and Queens who shall ascend the Throne of the Realm ought to administer the Government of the same [England] according to the said Laws" (quoted in 43).
Weber also states that the group heading the government of a traditional system bases its organization and composition on ties of personal loyalty. This loyalty may stem from family relationships, or it may come from being a "favorite" of the group's leader (Weber 341-342). Loyalty plays an important role in the British electoral system. Since no residency requirements exist for candidates seeking a seat in the House of Commons, political party activists may select which candidates they wants to run and which constituencies those candidates will run in (Norton 91). In this system, loyalty to the party and its leader becomes important. Voting against the party platform or showing disloyalty to the party leader can result in a candidate not being selected to run again (98-99).
Loyalty also plays a strong role in the current Labour administration. Critics have accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of centralizing power in the government around him and his close advisers, excluding the Cabinet Office and the rest of Parliament from the running of the government (Richards 6). Blair has hired these new advisers as part of his government reform plan intended to make the civil service more responsive ("The New Centre" 50). This inner circle of Blair's most loyal advisers, critics say, has free rein of the government (Richards 6). Blair has effectively created a new center of government, weakening other, separate departments and strengthening himself by having the new advisers answer directly to him ("The New Centre" 50).
Loyalty plays a significant role in the British government, but it is counterbalanced in the system by the legal-rational framework of the bureaucracy. Weber points out that in a legal-rational system, there is a separation between the office and the office-holder in the government bureaucracy (Weber 332). Through democratic elections, that separation is maintained in the British system. Constitutionally, the prime minister does not have a right to his office but, instead, earns the privilege of holding that office for a term by becoming the elected head of the majority party and then, by convention, being summoned by the queen to serve. Government positions also fulfill several other characteristics of the legal-rational bureaucracy: For example, they have a rational hierarchy, with the prime minister at the head, followed by other ministers and then members of Parliament. Office-holders also are paid fixed salaries, and they treat their positions as careers (333-334). Thus, while loyalty may play a part in securing a position, the holding that position is not purely a matter of staying in the leader's good graces, since the office itself is independent.
The British government has many examples of elements of traditional authority
in place throughout the system. However, the Constitution can incorporate
these traditional elements of the system by recognizing the authority
of convention. Since convention is one of the sources of the Constitution,
traditions in the system easily become rules, thus transforming them into
Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002