Letter - Finding the sweet spot of government


More years ago than I care to remember, I enlisted in the Grenadier Guards. Princess Elizabeth was my colonel.

When I retired from the army 16 years later, Queen Elizabeth, as she had become, was my colonel-in-chief. Now I’ve become an American, I find my reverence for the monarchy lingers.

If anyone in England denigrates the queen, he may have a fight on his hands, but can say anything he likes about a prime minister, and no one will think the worse of him.

Therein lies the advantage of having a head of state above the political fray. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, vilified for calling the president a liar during last year’s State of the Union address, would be the first to agree.

While a senator boasted that the United States Senate is one of the few upper houses in any democracy to have real power, other countries have moved in the opposite direction for good reason.

The House of Lords performs the useful role of searching for hidden flaws in legislation passed by the Commons.

Many ex-ministers, promoted to the Lords, with the wisdom acquired from long experience, form a group of experts to do just that.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “You have to pass the bill so you can see what’s in it,” would be greeted in Westminster with disbelief.

A politician who had spent an inordinate amount of time shepherding a budget through the legislative process in Congress, was moved to a post at the embassy in London. He reported enviously on the ease with which a Chancellor of the Exchequer performed the same task.

Congressional committees are not the best of vehicles for producing budgets. Historically they wasted resources on pork-barrel spending, and have recently been unable to meet their deadlines.

The British civil service is professional in the sense that its employees have no agenda of their own and serve whichever party is in power.

Together with the existence of a shadow cabinet, that enables the transition from one government to another to be done smoothly and quickly.

Britain is less democratic than the United States. But political systems are neither black nor white. They lie on a continuum of shades of gray, running from dictatorship at one end to anarchy at the other.

The challenge is to find the sweet spot on that continuum. Each country has tried to meet the challenge in its own way: The United States through adherence to the Constitution; Britain through a long period of evolution.

How long?

Next year marks the 800th anniversary of King John signing Magna Carta, and the 750th of Simon de Montfort instigating the first English Parliament.

Gordon Philpot

Walla Walla


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