What Can Brown Do For You?
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?