Assignment: A Model with Legs
Most European democracies are patterned after the British system, although with mixed results. France under the Third and Fourth Republics (1876–1958) and Italy since World War II came to be dominated by political parties and a parliament. The political party system became fragmented, internal party discipline broke down, and the government fell victim to never-ending legislative skirmishes. Strong executive leadership was often missing in France before 1958 and remains a chronic problem in Italy to this day.
Such conditions have led to political stalemate in both countries at different times. In France, during the entire life span of the Third and Fourth Republics, no single party ever won a majority of seats in the National Assembly, and no fewer than 119 governments ruled the country, each with an average life of less than a year. A similar malaise has plagued Italy, which had more than forty prime ministers between 1945 and 1986 (one per year on average).
Yet today, parliamentary governments are found all over Europe, with few exceptions—a major triumph in a region divided by war, revolution, and totalitarian rule until recently. Parliamentary rule is Britain’s gift to Europe and the world—a model with “legs.”
Under Labour leadership, Britain developed a model welfare state in the 1950s and 1960s but was stricken by stagflation, or simultaneous recession and inflation, in the 1970s. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party to victory and set about reprivatizing state-run industries and systematically deregulating the British economy.
Voters turned the Conservatives out of office in 1997 for the first time in nearly two decades. Under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s market-friendly policies, the British economy outperformed Europe’s other major economies (Germany, France, and Italy). Gordon Brown moved into 10 Downing Street when Blair moved out in 2007. As Chancellor of the Exchequer (or Finance Minister) in the Blair government, Brown was in charge of economic policy. Although few disputed his qualifications for the job, Prime Minister Brown’s personal popularity hit a low ebb even before the 2008 global financial crisis took its toll.
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