Written in 1998, when America was impeaching its President.
The American confusion between Head of State and Head of Government is damaging
Head of what?
By Quentin Langley
Dateline 09 October 1998
To remove from office a serving Head of State is a traumatic and rare thing. In the UK we have only accomplished it peacefully once – in 1936. All other times it has involved a murder at the very least: more often a civil war or an armed uprising.
Removing a serving Head of Government, however, is a very different thing. In a democracy there ought to be procedures that allow this to happen swiftly and without significant disruption. Margaret Thatcher announced her intention to resign on a Thursday morning. The following Wednesday John Major was Prime Minister. His departure, though following a six week election campaign, was even swifter in its execution - just 14 hours after the polling stations closed Tony Blair was forming a government.
And this, of course, is right. Heads of State can be left in office for years. We change ours just once in a generation. If one happens to be weak, or incompetent, or adulterous, it doesn't really matter. Heads of State don't do anything dangerous, because they don't really do anything at all.
Heads of Government on the other hand ARE dangerous. They need to be
watched constantly. The moment they step out of line we have to be prepared to remove them, preferably within hours. Any Prime Minister who lied to the country, or worse to the House of Commons, over a personal matter, over any matter, save perhaps to preserve national security, would be treated with appropriate ruthlessness. The Prime Minister has powers - over the budget, for example, and to legislate - that any American President would envy. But they are not a gift, they are on loan from the House of Commons. They exist only as long as the PM has the confidence of the Commons, and can be removed without notice.
Which is why it is so sad that America, alone among serious democracies, seeks to combine the quite different roles of Head of State and Head of Government. Can it really be right that in a democracy a politician who exercises real power in the government can demand, and recieve, a degree of deference from the media that constitutional monarchies deny even the monarch?
It is no coincidence that countries of the British Commonwealth endowed at independence with a Parliamentary system have largely maintained it if remaining democratic. The decision to move to an executive presidency has almost always advented a decision to dispense with inconveniences like election and a free press.
Politicians don't deserve deference: they deserve rigorous accountability. They should be ruthlessly tossed aside the moment they become embarrassing, difficult, or irritating, or if they simply hang around after they have stopped being useful.
America will decide for itself whether it wants to remove Bill Clinton. But removing a President shouldn't be this hard, should not take this long and not involve such involve such trauma. If it is to be done, there should be a way to do it quickly.
Copyright © Quentin Langley 09 October 1998