News your connection to The Boston Globe

Georgian America

Why George III would have felt right at home in George W. Bush's Washington By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

ALTHOUGH THE UNITED KINGDOM and United States are, on the face of it, comparable democracies, to watch the way Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair must remind Americans how politically different the two countries really are.

On Wednesday, Brown went to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen "invited" him to form what is known as Her Majesty's Government, just as monarchs have been doing since the 18th century. By now, of course, this is a conventional fiction. Brown is prime minster not because the queen asked him to be but because he commands a majority in the House of Commons.

But there is a deeper difference between the countries that is even more striking: It's American politics, not British politics, that is from the 18th century.

The Founding Fathers consciously reacted against England and tried to create a new polity free from the ills of the old, with separation of powers, checks and balances, and a Bill of Rights. But there was another side, which illustrates Karl Marx's saying that when we try to make sense of fresh events we are like a man learning a new language who instinctively translates back to the language he knows, and England was the language the framers knew.

American life, including political life, has changed in ways large and small since Washington and Jefferson's day, but the American political system is still based on a written constitution that set its basic principles and institutions in stone. By contrast, "The English Constitution" (as the Victorian writer Walter Bagehot called it), isn't a written document at all but an accretion of conventions. And these have evolved out of all recognition since King George III's American subjects rebelled.

And yet, whereas present-day British politics would be incomprehensible to George III, he would easily understand the political culture across the Atlantic. In many ways, the political system of a kingdom ruled by one George 230 years ago survives in a republic ruled by another today: Georgian England has found its unlikely political offspring in Georgian America.

In 1776, at the time of the truly revolutionary declaration that all men were created equal, England was anything but a democracy. Government was by an aristocratic cabal supported by a corrupt House of Commons for which only one Englishman in 20 could vote. But by the early 20th century, in a process that began tentatively with the Reform Bill of 1832, the United Kingdom had become fully democratic.

Yet before universal suffrage arrived, another development had come about which would define the modern British system: responsible parliamentary government, in which the head of government (the prime minister) is whoever controls a majority in the House of Commons and is quite separate from the head of state (the monarch). Hence that pretense that the Queen invites someone to form a government, and that at the formal opening of parliament she reads a speech saying what "my government" will do.

But these were not fictions at all under George III, who was his own chief executive as well as head of state. And that's why George III would recognize the way politics works under George W. For all that President Bush didn't inherit the throne (well, not technically), his rule, like the British sovereign's before the 19th century, does not depend on controlling the legislature: Thanks to the framers, a president doesn't need to enjoy a congressional majority and quite often, as at the moment, does not.

Like King George, President George is at once head of state and head of government. Although America didn't officially become a monarchy (as some Americans originally hoped and others feared), the mantle of the president's office is unmistakably monarchical to English eyes. When I've been at any function in Washington attended by the president of the day, I have been struck by how his deferential treatment resembles the way we treat the Queen, rather than our politicians.

And so, without a legislative majority but with the almost regal authority of a head of state, the president is obliged to rule very much as the king once did: through appeals to loyalty, along with cajolery, threats, and something not far short of bribery. The king could buy the support of a politician by offering him a peerage or appointing him to a lucrative sinecure. A president has his own wide range of patronages available. Lyndon Johnson told a recalcitrant senator who cited the journalist Walter Lippmann's opposition to the Vietnam War to go ask Lippmann the next time he wanted a dam built in his state. And one might say President Bush exercises his own royal prerogatives, as when he makes unpopular appointments while Congress is in recess, and when he issues "signing statements" in order to avoid enforcing laws passed by Congress.

It would be a stretch to compare Congress today with the unreformed parliament of Georgian times, but there are echoes. The candidates' notorious thirst for campaign money can give congressional elections a flavor of the corrupt polls immortalized by Hogarth and Dickens. And if congressional districts aren't literally available to the highest bidder -- like the "pocket boroughs" or "rotten boroughs" of 18th-century England, so depopulated that they barely existed, but still expensive for whoever wanted to control their MPs -- it is scarcely easier to become a congressman without a long purse than it was to become the member for the ghost towns of Old Sarum or Dunwich.

Then again, the combination of low voting rates and sheer inertia means that many congressional districts rarely change hands and are effectively uncontested. In the 2006 midterms, three-quarters of the House races were "noncompetitive," according to one survey. That was also true in Georgian England, where the representation of the shires was often arranged by the local large landowners -- peers and gentlemen -- who got together over many pints of port and decided which two of them would represent the shire, whereupon the candidates would be returned unopposed.

As a consequence there were few dramatic turnovers in the general elections in Georgian England, just as there are few in American general elections today. While Congress can change hands, as it did last November, congressional elections almost never see epochal landslides such as the British 1997 election -- Blair's first victory -- when the Labour Party leapt from 271 MPs five years earlier to 419, and the Tories collapsed from 336 to 165.

The 18th-century House of Commons had at least some pretense of being elected, unlike the House of Lords. And if the Senate isn't as flagrantly undemocratic as "their lordships' house," it is no model of democracy either, thanks to the deals cut among the Founders. Madison wanted representation in the Senate as well as the House to be proportionate to population, but instead Delaware and Rhode Island, New York and Virginia all ended up with two senators each. And so too today, when Wyoming has two senators along with California, despite having less than 1/60th of the population.

Maybe the the Senate isn't quite as anomalous as the House of Lords, although some senators are as grandiose as Georgian peers, or as the original Roman senators after whom they were named. One can well imagine Ted Kennedy or John Warner depicted in togas, as 18th-century English statesmen liked to appear when painted or sculpted. And the president's parlaying with these mighty subjects in the Senate can be reminiscent of the way King George treated with the Dukes of Bedford and Portland.

Neither the framers nor their contemporaries in London could have foreseen the concurrent development of parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy in the old country, where the head of state is a figurehead. Nor could they have seen that there would be much to be said for the British system as it has evolved.

No one planned the combination of parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy in the way the Founders planned the Constitution, but the British system has turned out to work rather well in practice, with another kind of "separation of powers," formal and practical. By way of defending the monarchy, George Orwell said in 1944, in one of his "London letters" to the American magazine Partisan Review, that people need parades, flags, and the other paraphernalia of patriotism, and "it is better that they should tie their leader-worship onto some figure who has no real power" -- the queen in the palace rather than those who really do rule the country. "It is at any rate possible that while this division of function exists a Hitler or Stalin cannot come to power," Orwell suggested.

Because of the gradual change of the monarchy into a figurehead or constitutional fiction, no one could possibly say in England today that, in the words of Dunning's famous parliamentary motion of 1780, "the power of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished." But if you substitute "presidency" for "crown," that might strike a chord with Americans.

Of course, even that power of Orwell's phrase can find its limits. After all, the most bitter resemblance of all between George III and George W. is that they both found themselves fighting distant, unwinnable wars.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, an English journalist, is the author most recently of "Yo Blair!" and "The Strange Death of Tory England."