How Much Power Does the British Parliament Have?
Earlier this year, David Cameron shocked analysts, journalists and President Obama by giving parliament the ultimate decision-making power over the deployment of the British military forces in the Syrian conflict (BBC, August 30 2013). As the leader of the executive branch, he could have made this decision without feeling the need to necessarily include parliament in the decision-making process. Yet, the shockwaves produced by this development indicate the power the House of Commons has at its disposal; in fact, Cameron ended up ultimately losing the vote, as a majority in the House voted against military action in Syria. It is regarded as highly unusual that the House would be given the right to make a decision of this scale independent of the executive. Even though parliament is sovereign, it is usually seen as subservient to the will of the executive. All of this begs the question: How much power does parliament have, really?
This essay will tackle this question from a three-dimensional perspective of power. In line with the notions of power as developed by Dahl (1961), Bachrach and Baratz (1962), and Lukes (2004) and applied to parliament by Norton (2013). This multi-dimensional framework will facilitate a differentiated discussion of parliamentary power, rather than merely stating the obvious point that parliament possesses little legislative freedom. In order to illustrate an answer to this question, comparisons to other legislatures will be employed to better understand where the UK parliament is situated vis-à-vis its counterparts. Thus, the combination of the theoretical framework and empirical findings should suggest a clear indication as to how parliamentary power in the UK may be understood. The essay will conclude that parliament’s powers remain weak in the face of executive dominance, and that, when compared to other legislatures, the House of Commons rates as one the most feeble parliaments.
Concepts of Power
In his textbook, Norton employs a multidimensional framework of power in order to differentiate how power may be understood in the context of assessing parliamentary power in Britain (2013: 5-7). Roughly speaking, Norton’s framework corresponds to the three dimensions of power; coercive and persuasive power, agenda-setting, and institutional power. These views are derived from the works of Dahl (1961), Bachrach and Baratz (1962) as well as Lukes (1974).
Conventional wisdom would indicate that power as understood within the concepts of the first dimension materializes within the actual legislative process. The government can assert its power over parliament and vice-versa. Whichever gets their way could be said to have exercised power over the other. Norton also points out a second manifestation, persuasive power (2013: 5). Thus, parliament may exercise power by persuading the executive of the merits of a certain bill, which may then be adopted. Even though the government is not coerced, parliament has exercised a degree of power.
Agenda-setting refers to a facet of power which is not initially accessible by merely looking at the outcome of a given process. Rather than looking at who gets their way, agenda-setting power is important in the context of what actually makes it onto the floor of the House, and what is being left out. As will be explained subsequently, the UK executive has significant agenda-setting powers.
Thirdly, institutional power looks at the constraints imposed not only by concrete agency, but also at those generated by legal frameworks, historical developments and implicit understandings, all of which have a bearing on what is and is not a legitimate course of action within parliament. Thus, institutional power is about the structure which parliament is subject to, and which binds both private members and the government.