Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


What Can Brown Do For You?

By Riley Roberts
On Wednesday the 27th of June, I waited outside of Buckingham Palace to see - not the routine Changing of the Guards - but the far more historic Changing of the Prime Ministers. Tony Blair, the United Kingdom's longest-serving PM in recent memory, delivered his resignation and the 'seals of office' to the Queen, and only a few minutes later Gordon Brown, longtime second fiddle to Blair's party leadership, arrived to pick them up.

Thus, with a whimper, the unpopular Blair made his exit - and when two car bombs were discovered in England's capital city only a day later, Brown's tenure began with a narrowly-avoided bang.

It is a peculiarity of the British system that no citizen ever cast a vote for Mr. Brown. This means that, although the United Kingdom operates as a republic, voters arguably have less of a voice in choosing the leader of their government. As long as Brown's party (Labour) maintains a majority in the legislature, their leader becomes the Prime Minister. Although he is expected to call for a full Parliamentary election within about two years, the unpopularity of his predecessor means that, unless things change significantly, Labour is expected to lose its majority and Brown will have to step down.

In order to understand the relationship between the British voter and the Prime Minister, it is first necessary to examine the functioning government as a whole.

It is another peculiarity of the system that allows the UK, a constitutional monarchy, to function without a constitution. Instead, the system relies on old customs and various pieces of constitutional law. The monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II) remains nominal head of state, but she 'selects' a prime minister (and other cabinet ministers) to exercise the executive authority that technically still rests with her (though all are actually chosen by Parliament). These ministers are generally drawn from the House of Commons, being the more powerful of the two halves of the bicameral legislature. This is because, at the moment, the House of Lords remains an unelected body (although there has been a good deal of talk about changing this).

It is because of this intricate relationship between monarch and Parliament that British voters have a less opportunity to have a direct effect on who leads their government. In the American system, voters choose between specific candidates for the presidency, while in the UK they merely elect Members of Parliament who then choose a Prime Minister. Granted, in most elections it is fairly clear who will assume the position - thus, it was known that a vote for one's local Labour candidate in the 2001 election was also a vote for Blair (like the US, Britons have a 'first past the post' system with only two major parties). However, unlike in the American system, it is possible for the head of government to resign and be replaced by a candidate upon whom the country has never had the chance to vote - in this case, Brown.

Perhaps the only American president to ascend to office in similar fashion has been Gerald Ford, who was appointed Vice President by Nixon, and thus was never elected to any office in the Executive Branch. All other presidents have been democratically chosen; unlike in Great Britain, the system's design does not allow for this to happen under normal circumstances.

Thus, while British subjects may participate in an electoral process as ' free and fair' as the one we enjoy in the United States, the process can at times seem to hold them at arm's length. The case of Mr. Brown is only the most recent example of such an occurrence - though it should be noted that this is not meant as an indictment of the British system nor an outright criticism of it; rather, I merely intend to explore some relevant differences between British and American democracy. Books have been written about the advantages and disadvantages of each respective system, and that is another topic for another time.

While some in the press have harangued Gordon Brown for his status as an 'unelected' Prime Minister, and while many Americans (including myself) marvel at such a circumstance, the British people seem to be more focused on other things. Their concerns, as a whole, are much more immediate. In the face of a grave terrorist threat and an unstable economic outlook, amidst the uncertainty of Iraq and North Korea, they want to know just one thing: What can Brown do for us?


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at