GED Social Studies Test: The Parliamentary System

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

You will need to know about the parliamentary system for the GED Social Studies test. The parliamentary system in Britain, Canada, and elsewhere separates the role of head of state and head of government. In many countries once part of the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state. She is queen of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, and several other Commonwealth realms.

The British monarch, the head of state, has a purely ceremonial role with very few actual powers. The head of government, the real power, rests with the prime minister, who with the cabinet forms the executive branch. The judicial branch is the Supreme Court, which deals with constitutional issues.

The legislative branch of the British parliament consists of two houses, the elected House of Commons and the hereditary House of Lords. Most members of the House of Lords are aristocrats, who hold their position by right of birth, or bishops, who are members because of their positions. The House of Lords was once the most powerful part of parliament, existing to advise the monarch.

Today the House of Lords has very limited powers. It may initiate legislation, which must then pass in the Commons, or it may delay (but not stop) legislation approved by the Commons. The same pattern exists in Canada, where the upper chamber, the Senate, has only very limited power to amend and delay legislation.

What is the difference between head of state and head of government in the British parliamentary system?

  • (A) The Head of State is the legal representative of the nation.

  • (B) The Head of Government is leader of the executive branch of government.

  • (C) The head of government may change, but the head of state is so for life.

  • (D) all of the above.

Your best answer is Choice (D), All of the above.

Parliamentary elections

Elections in the parliamentary system are similar to those in most democracies. Candidates run in their electoral district, a riding, for a seat in the House of Commons. The candidate with the most votes in the riding is elected. Candidates may run for office as often as they want; they have no term limits. The political party that wins the most seats in the legislature forms the next government.

The voters don’t elect the prime minister. He or she runs for a seat in parliament like any other candidate, as the representative for one riding. The leader of the winning party becomes prime minister, even if she doesn’t win her personal election and has no seat in parliament. The leader of the party is chosen by a party convention, not by the public at large.

To form a government, a political party must have a majority of seats, or the ability to work together with a second or third party that will give it sufficient seats to provide majority in the House of Commons. The government has no fixed term; it stays in power for up to five years or until it loses a vote on a significant issue. If the governing party loses such a vote, it must resign and call an election. Otherwise, it may call an election any time before the end of the five-year limit.

How many times may a person serve as prime minister?

  • (A) for two terms

  • (B) for up to ten years

  • (C) The prime minister is elected for life.

  • (D) no limit

Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King served for more than 21 years, while Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female prime minister, was in office for less than five months. The correct choice is Choice (D).

Parliamentary legislation

Legislation can be proposed by any member of parliament, but it usually comes from the prime minister or cabinet members. The governing party usually has an absolute majority in the House of Commons, the lower house, and can pass any legislation it wants. Opposition parties don’t have a majority in the house and thus have little ability to block legislation. Deadlocks of the kind seen recently in the U.S. Congress simply don’t happen unless there is a minority government.

The upper chamber, the House of Lords, has only limited ability to block legislation. It may pass amendments or delay legislation but not stop it entirely. The final step is royal assent, meaning the monarch signs the legislation.

The monarch has few powers other than to advise, and even that is severely restricted. The remaining powers are the rights to dismiss parliament, call for elections, appoint the prime minister, and withhold royal assent to any legislation. In practice, the monarch always appoints the leader of the winning party prime minister, dismisses parliament only when asked by the prime minister, and never withholds assent to legislation.

The Supreme Court in countries with a parliamentary system has the same role as that of the U.S. Supreme Court. It deals with issues of law that have significance to the country as a whole, usually based on constitutional interpretation. The major difference is that judges of the Supreme Course in parliamentary governments are appointed for life by the monarch on advice of the prime minister.

Other countries also have adapted the parliamentary system. Germany, for example, uses a similar form, but the monarch is replaced as head of state by an elected president, also a largely ceremonial position.

What is the major difference between the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament?

  • (A) The governing party in Britain usually has an absolute majority and can pass any legislation it wants.

  • (B) Members of the U.S. Congress are solely responsible for proposing legislation.

  • (C) Supreme Court judges are appointed for life.

  • (D) none of the above.

Even if a bill passes both the House and Senate, the president can veto it, in which case a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate is required to override the veto. Choice (A) is the correct answer.