I’m randomly on Wikipedia, reading the entry on the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and it’s sparking some interesting thoughts.
I suspect Americans have a hard time grokking the UK system of government because to us, it looks kind of haphazard. The government of the United States was designed; if you sit down with the Constitution and read the first three or four Articles, you know more or less how we work. The UK Constitution isn’t even a document; it’s a collection of documents and conventions and general force of habit, accumulated over the centuries. You could graphically represent the difference by putting maps of Washington, D.C. and central London next to each other. One of these was planned; the other happened by accident.
So you can’t easily say who the first Prime Minister was, because nobody ever sat down and created the office. Walpole kind of was, in terms of the power he held, but people fought about the term for over a hundred years, and apparently no two lists of PMs are alike, because the criteria for inclusion vary. It’s interesting to me, though, that the office grew out of the Treasury. I suspect — and this is probably me re-inventing the wheel of some Marxist branch of historical study — that you can view the growth of modern democracy as a process wherein the root of political power shifted from control of armed force to the control of money. (And there’s probably an interesting comparison in there somewhere, between the West and Third World military dictatorships. I’m beginning to feel like I ought to have majored in history after all.)
It makes me realize, too — given the season we’re in right now, over here in the U.S. — how amazingly stable our government has been. I don’t hold with whatever dude it is who declared that history’s over, that we’ve arrived at the final, triumphant form of government; democracy on this scale is still the new kid on the political block, and might not have as much staying power as that guy thinks. There are dynasties that lasted longer than the United States of America. But when I compare the succession of U.S. presidents with that of monarchies or Prime Ministers, it’s kind of impressively . . . boring. In a good way. The biggest weirdnesses we have are: FDR with his four terms; Grover Cleveland with his non-consecutive terms; a small handful of male relatives who occupied the same office. A couple of assassinations and deaths in office, whereupon their successors picked up and kept going. And the Civil War, but even then, all that happened politically was that part of the country seceded and formed its own country. I don’t think we’ve ever had, say, two rival Presidents running around, both claiming their Cabinet and Congress are the real ones. Or anything to even approach the Wars of the Roses.
(Yes, most of my comparisons are to British history. For obvious reasons. But I’ve studied other countries, too.)
(Okay, my brain just offered up Emperor Norton. Who is entertaining, but not exactly mainstream American history.)
So, yeah. As contentious as our elections have been lately, and as freaked out as some people are by the possibility of a black man* leading our country, on the whole? We still have an awfully rational and stable thing going on over here.
I have other, unrelated political thoughts to post, but it occurs to me that if I put them here, one half of the post or the other will probably get all the attention in the comments, so I’ll save it for a separate entry later on.
*By which we signify a half-Kenyan black, half-Kansas white guy born in Hawaii and raised partly in Indonesia. Don’t you love how modern American society still boils everything down to one-word reductionist evaluations of skin shade?