Another Reason Why British Politics Work Better

I have previously discussed some of the factors that make British politics more functional than U.S. politics at the moment, such the smaller gap between the parties’ views and the greater prevalence of cross-party friendships.

Bagehot points out another critical force for good in UK politics: Non-partisan redistricting commissions that command wide public respect. Bagehot describes a public meeting of the district Boundary Commission of England at which politicians of all stripes make their varied self-serving pleas for gerrymandering but nonetheless accept the legitimacy of the independent commission’s ultimate findings.

Contrast this victory for democracy and decency with the situation in Arizona. A bipartisan resdistricting commission refused to gerrymander in a fashion that satisfied Republican Governor Jan Brewer. The Governor and her allies in the state legislature therefore promptly removed the commission’s chair from office.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Another Reason Why British Politics Work Better”

  1. The literal GOP elephant in the room in American political dysfunction is that the entire right wing does not consider Democratic election victories or Democratic governance legitimate. UK Conservatives and Labour certainly don’t like each other, but they’re not going to start screaming about “illegal Kenyan usurpers,” “voter fraud” and “second amendment remedies” if they lose an election.

    Accepting electoral defeat as legitimate is the cornerstone of democracy. American politics is breaking down because the GOP responds to defeat by sabotaging and delegitimatizing the institutions of government.

  2. Another problem is residential segregation. We in Cali recently switched to what is supposed to be neutral redistricting, and most commentators don’t think it will change diddly, since people have already separated themselves too much. At the same time, it’s getting challenged in court.

    Intellectually, I’ve never been able to feel comfortable about what a community of interest is anyway (or whatever the phrase is).

    I think our voters are superficial and our discourse and our press must just s*ck a lot more than yours. That would be my working theory.

  3. Might the greater cultural and ethnic homogeneity of Great Britain also have something to do with it? Certainly in Arizona, many Republicans seem to despise Democrats because they perceive them (wrongly, I think) as wanting to “coddle” immigrants, whether legal or illegal. It helps Republicans to define Democrats as “them,” and makes it easier to justify any action required to defeat them. Of course, Great Britain is also smaller than the United States, and that may have just as much to do with the stronger sense of community.

    1. There is, unfortunately, plenty of that in the UK, too. For example, see the current bickering, eh, discussion around the Human Rights Act (which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law) and the Bill of Rights commission. A common populist opinion here is that the primary purpose of the bill (as well as of the European Court of Human Rights) is to protect foreigners from deportation. There’s plenty of ill will against legal (!) aliens from Eastern Europe (under EU law, every citizen of an EU country can live and work in any other EU country, provided they can support themselves or have someone else to support them [1]), because of a fear that they’re stealing jobs. But the Tories, while generally Euroskeptic, don’t tend to openly feed those populist views. The BNP does, but the BNP is a separate party.

      [1] For what it’s worth, I have dual US/German citizenship myself, and my German citizenship allows me to live in the UK without requiring a visa (I’m married to an Englishman, so it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult to get a marriage visa, but I don’t even need that; my German passport, for all intents and purposes, is a permanent work and residency permit; it even allows me to vote in local and Scottish Parliament elections).

  4. I think we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Parliament ADDS district when the population increases, whereas Congress has had the same number of Representatives since 1929.

    1. True sometimes in the past, but the current boundary review will eliminate 50 of the current 650 constituencies.

  5. Canada – a large country, though not with a large population – has independent constituency boundary commissions that work well and whose work is never disputed publicly on political grounds. So it can be done on this side of the Atlantic, if parties figure their interest is either (a) in serving the public, or (b) in getting an acceptable deal all the time instead of a windfall when they win the election at the price of a disaster when they lose (and self-perpetuating disasters if the gerrymandering works).

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