Politics 1


Institutionalism and institutions

Institutionalism - a set of approaches concerned with the central role of structures, roles and routines in shaping political outcomes. 

Institutions - regular patterns of behaviour that give stability to political and social life. Either formal or informal. Informal institutions are more ‘codes of behaviour’; they are not formally laid out but will structure society and culture. Formal institutions have codified rules and organisation e.g. gov.s, parties, legislatures. They shape the behaviour of political groups and actors and so can influence political outcomes. 

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Constitutionalism and constitutions

Constitutionalism - can mean two things:

1. An outlook on the political values set out in a particular country’s constitution (going against a constitution is going against its spirit).
2. A broader standpoint that making constitutions and observing these is an important part of political life.

Constitutions - lay down the state’s institutions and procedures for changing them as well as establishing the relationships between these institutions, the state and individual. Sets out its citizens’ basic rights and obligations.

Meta-norms - legal rules and principles that tell us how all their lower-order legal norms are to be produced, applied and interpreted. A body of meta-norms make up a constitution.

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Fundamental rights and functions

Fundamental rights - a type of meta-norm that imposes constraints on the exercise of publoic authority. Rights are hierchically superior to all other norms and so rights provisions can impose obligations to public authorities (can be positive or negative - constraining).

Functions of a constitution:

1. Implements the political bargains that are essential for nation building.
2. Structures the exercise of power.
3. Limits the exercise of government power.
4. Creates affirmative obligations of the government to the citizenry.

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Forms of constitutions

The absolutist constitution - the authority to change and produce legal norms is centralised and absolute. In the hands of a single-man or one party. Rulers are ‘above the law’ and the meta-norms reflect, rather than restrict, the power of those who govern.

The legislative supremacy constitution - sets up gov. Institutions and elections for the legislative. Key meta-norm: parliamentary sovereignty. Constitution is not entrenched and can be revised by a majority vote.

The higher law constitution - prioritises rights protection, rejects legislative sovereignty and makes overriding the constitutional rulings of high courts difficult. It is entrenched - rules govern whether the constitutional text can be amended. 

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Strengths of a codified constitution

E.g. the US constitution is the shortest at 4.4k words. It is codified but has to be interpreted (many of the rules of how things work do not come from the constitution but from interpretations). 

Easy to know what the institutions, executive etc. should do.

Gives citizens a common sense of identity, direction and belonging. Melton et al (2015) found that 80% of UK citizens know little about their constitution.

Harder to overturn citizens’ rights. ALTHOUGH, a constitution can’t do anything as it’s only a piece of paper. Constitutions need to be interpreted by judges and then their decisions need to be enforced by the government. So, it is not an easy solution to problems but instead introduces new judicial/ constitutional policies. And, written constitutions can limit capacity for independence and regional rights. E.g. the Spanish constitution includes ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ - made the referendum illegal.

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Strengths of an uncodified constitution

E.g. the UK constitution. It has evolved gradually over 800 years worth of texts from the Magna Carta onwards. Has no single document with a lot left up to convention.

Enables there to be some fluidity and adaptability. 

Nothing becomes too sacred e.g. the 2nd amendment of US constitution - right to bear arms. The US constitution was supposed to be revisited every 40 years (Jefferson, 1979 - ‘The dead should not govern the living’).

Chubb (1970) - ‘A constitution will reflect the basic values of the community at the time of its formation, but values will inevitably change…’

BUT, US constitution is the exception, not the rule. The average life span is 19 years (Ginsburg et al). 

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Anthony King (2007)

Distinguishes between the old constitution (was easier to understand) and the new constitution (more messy).

In the old constitution:

Power was highly centralised in Westminster
Power was highly concentrated (majority government)
Power remained inside the government (role of outside groups was minimal).

The new constitution came about because:

The UK joined the EEC (now the EU)
Loss of local government
Gains of devolution - more powers to Scotland and Wales
Civil service - competition from special advisers
The public matter more e.g. referenda, petitions

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Why does King favour the old constitution?

  • It enabled greater governmental effectiveness (if a party gets in, you know what you’re getting and will get it quickly)
  • There was greater governmental stability - between 1945-75, UK had 8 governments (compared with 31 in France) and no radical violent swings of power

Effectiveness + stability = prosperity

  • There was more accountability (only one party in power)
  • It was ‘indubitably democratic’ - plurality caused public to get the government they voted for. King sees the new constitution as a complete mess. 
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Executive and the main forms of government

A branch of gov. responsible for putting policy into effect. Can involve coordinating and acting as a mediator between different bodies. And, executives can have an influence over the laws passed and control the direction the country is taking. Separate from the other two branches of gov. - legislative and judicial. 

Presidential - a system in which the chief executive, a single politician, is directly elected by the citizens and has a fixed term in office. The president is not responsible to the legislature and there is a mutual independence between these two bodies. E.g. US President picks a cabinet often made up of non-partisan field ‘experts’. 

Semi-presidential - a system in which there is a directly elected President alongside a cabinet appointed by the President and a Prime Minister. Can take different forms: the President can act as the head of state with the Prime Minister in more of an assistant role; the President and Prime Minister can work together or against each other; or the President only represents a symbolic head of state. Presidents are responsible to the legislature.

Parliamentary - a system in which the executive is not directly elected by the people but is put in office by parliament which is directly elected. The prime minister is held accountable by parliament and must have a legislative majority. Holds a ‘first among equals’ role.

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Legislature - an organised body made up of individuals or groups with the authority to make laws or policies. Parliaments, assemblies and Congress are all legislative bodies. 

Assembly - any group or gathering of people brought together by a shared purpose. In the political context, can mean a legislative body, especially the lower house of a legislative. 

Parliament - the supreme legislative body in a fused-powers system (the executive is chosen by the legislative). Generally, the activities of parliament involve a lot of debate and discussion. Can consist of one or two chambers.

Congress - the supreme legislative body in a separation of powers system (usually within presidential systems). Can consist of one chamber or two. 

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Functions of legislatures

Representational functions - can relate to how representative parliament is of wider society e.g. at least 40 countries have introduced a quota for the no. of female members. Also can mean how members of the legislature serve as a link between citizens and central gov. Members should represent their constituents’ interests - will depend on whether they understand their role as a delegate (agents of their constituents’ interests) or trustee (interpreter of constituents’ interests while keeping in mind the nation as a whole). 

Governmental functions - formulating policies, ensuring government accountability and influencing policy. Members of the legislature can be involved in the policy-making process through delaying and vetoing bills, amending bills and putting forward their own policies. They also hold the executive to account and make sure they fulfil the promises they made to the public e.g. Prime Minister’s Questions. Parliaments can also contribute to the formation of public opinion and provide a forum for national debate.

Procedural functions - these determine the procedures under which the legislatures work. Legislatures ritualise conflict and allow for a diversity of views to be expressed. This can be used to tame excessive conflict that may lead to violence. Members are also expected to hold partisan ideologies. They can contribute to open policy-making and the publicizing of issues.  

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