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Great Britain and France: History and Institutional Changes

John W. Cooper

February 12, 2002






Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton. This profound statement reveals the challenge facing many democracies. People in a democracy must give the government enough power to rule effectively, but not too much power or a few ruling elite may dominate the government, rule in a totalitarian manner, and usurp the rights of the people. For the sake of analysis, one can examine how Great Britain and France developed different solutions to provide a stable democratic government, and how historical factors such as the industrial revolution, violent revolutions, and chance events have shaped each country’s government today. Great Britain developed a government dominated by a powerful parliament, whereas France developed an extremely powerful head of state Moreover, one can also examine recent events to find what institutional changes and reforms these countries have implemented to become more democratic by improving participation, representation, accountability, and guarantees of civil rights.

            Great Britain's relatively early industrial revolution eventually played a key role in creating the strength of parliament. As a result of many different factors, in the 1800’s, Britain had a comparative advantage in the production of wool. From an economic perspective this means that if there were only two goods, wool and food, Britain should spend all its time producing wool and trade for food. It just so happened in the British case wool is capital intensive, and not labor intensive. Therefore, as Britain shifted to the production of wool, capital was then accumulated by the people controlling the means of production while many tenant farmers were displaced and took on factory jobs in the cities: the industrial revolution was born. The early industrial revolution created competition, which is the Schumpetarian minimum criterion for a successful democracy. The many different people that controlled the means of production competed across the market for labor and sales of their goods. The ideas here of competition and coming to an agreement over a market can be seen in parliaments as well. As those with the means of production became more and more powerful, there was a slow gradual transfer of power from the monarch, and the House of Lords, to the people, the House of Commons. This gradual transfer of power from the monarch to the people in the House of Commons resulted in a relatively stable government. Additionally, the position of the Monarch, the head of state, was greatly reduced due to the ineptitude of several monarchs, particularly George I and George II who were not even able to speak English as they were German. This created a power vacuum that the parliament gladly filled. As a result of the aforementioned points, Great Britain developed a democracy with an almost all-powerful parliamentary branch.

            In France, unlike in England, there was no early industrial revolution that gave more power to the people, and consequently France was plagued by instability. This instability was partially responsible for the eventual creation of a strong head of state. In France there was a significant delay in the industrial revolution. France had a comparative advantage in the production of wine. Wine production was labor intensive, and consequently there was not such a large build up of capital which is essential for an industrial revolution. Lou IV also drained capital by creating competition among the aristocracy for the king’s favor, won by showering him with gifts. (The aristocracy’s behavior may be the origin of it being prestigious to serve the state in France.) These two factors, the labor-intensive wine industry, and capital depleting aristocracy, delayed France’s industrialization. Without the industrial revolution, there was no gradual shift of power from the monarch to the people. Over the long run the lack of an early industrial revolution, which would create more equal representation, led to numerous violent revolutions throughout France’s History, and consequently “the state sought to preserve political stability rather than promote economic modernization” (Kesselman, 87). Because the French people had bad experiences with strong heads of state in the past, the 3rd and 4th Republic had an extremely powerful parliament with a weak head of state. This was not very conducive to France as there were many opposing parties in coalition governments and consequently governments were “voted out of office an average of once every six months” (Kesselman, 88). During the 5th Republic, General De Gaulle, ended the instability by implementing a new constitution with a strong head of state which was needed “for a country as divided as France” (Kesselman, 89). Unlike Great Britain, France developed a stable democratic government led by a strong head of state, and supported by a strong bureaucracy with the main focus being stability.

Countries in Transition: Institutional Changes in Great Britain and France

            Both Great Britain and France have been experiencing a considerable amount of decentralization in the recent past, within their respective countries, that makes them more effectively democratic. In France there were sweeping reforms in 1981where “[state] supervision of local governments was reduced, regional governments were created, and localities were authorized to levy taxes and engage in a wide range of activities” (Kesselman, 114). Similar reforms have also been taking place in Great Britain. In the past the mayor of London was appointed, now there is both a directly elected mayor and assembly. Similarly, Whales and Scotland now have their own parliament, and currently “Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom only as long as a majority of the population in the province agrees [1998]” (Soe, 30). The reforms mentioned above strengthen the principles inherent within any democracy. Before decentralization, the people were not able to choose their representative at the local level because they were appointed; now these people are voting at the local level for the officials they wish to represent them. This has three important effects: decentralization increases participation because representatives who were formerly appointed are now elected. Since the people are able to directly choose those who represent them, they should have improved representation. Similarly the representatives are now directly accountable to the electorate for their actions, and this adds to their legitimacy. Therefore, decentralization in Great Britain and France has led to improved participation, representation, and accountability.

In recent years new policies have been implemented in Britain and France that have improved the democratic principle of representation. “[A] law was passed last year in France that appears to go further than any other in the world in attempting to share representation more evenly between men and women…[It] obliges all political parties to field and equal number of male and female candidates…” (Soe, 99). This at first may in some ways be considered undemocratic: attaching a quota to the number of women that a political party must run. However, this also has the extremely positive effect of improved participation of women in the government, and consequently improved representation. Similarly as of 1999 in Great Britain the London, Scotland, and Wales elections now use “a combination of single member district and party list proportional [to determine who wins]” (Soe, 32). Just as France improved representation of women, this improves the representation of smaller parties that would not have any voice under a single member district election where only the candidate with the most votes wins (as is still the case in the British House of Commons.) These other governmental components use of proportional representation improves the people’s representation.

            Both Great Britain and France have been weakening the most powerful player in their respective governments with the hopes of increasing the checks and balances in the government. For example, in France during 2000 a law was passed changing all future presidential terms from 7 years to 5 years. This weakens the head of state while increasing the position’s accountability because the president’s term has been shortened. Likewise, the powers of Britain’s extremely dominate Parliament have recently been “checked.” Firstly, membership in the House of Lords, which admittedly did not have huge political positions are now appointed instead of inherited. Secondly, in 1997 Britain “[incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights which] may mean a stronger, more politically active judiciary, a form of creeping judicial review” (Soe, 32). Civil rights are a key component of any democratic system and by guaranteeing them on paper in a written legally binding document they are strengthening this democratic ideal. Also, the creeping in of judiciary review is significant and has been seen in France as well: “The judiciary has gained the vital power to strike down legislation and executive decisions on the grounds that they violate the Constitution” (Kesselman, 104). This is not with out its criticisms, as the judges are not elected and generally appointed whereas the parliament is elected. However, it does increase the democratic ideals by providing a check against one branch becoming too dominant, and perhaps removing fundamental pillars of each respective democracy such as the guarantees of civil rights. In this respect the increased judicial review is without question improving the democracies of both countries.

            Great Britain and France have had extremely different pasts that have led to different forms of democratic government. Great Britain with an early industrial revolution and stable government developed a strong parliament that gradually became more democratic; on the other hand, France had a late industrial revolution, unstable governments, and a rapid change towards a strong stable democratic executive branch. Both these countries have recently instituted similar programs in order to improve the prevalence of certain democratic ideals such as participation, representation, accountability and civil rights. In the future one might speculate that further institutional changes will be made in an attempt to reach the ever-improving democratic ideal.

Works Cited

Kesselman, Mark. Introduction to Comparative Politics. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, 2000.

Soe, Christian. “New Labor in Britain: Avoiding the Past.” Comparative Politics. McGraw-Hill, CT, 2001.