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Cry for Help From UK to USA

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Britain is this weekend the victim of a constitutional asteroid attack. We need help. The election delivered exactly the mysterious, secretive backroom bargaining that a first-past-the-post constituency system -- as in the US house of representatives -- was supposed to avoid. It rarely fails to do so, but when as now it does the outcome is chaos.

The cause of the trouble is a paradox. By favouring the two big parties, the British system usually yields a decisive victor who can get decisions quickly delivered through a parliamentary majority. The cost is a legislature that is grossly unfair to minorities. It has just taken an average of 285,000 votes to get one Green MP into the Commons and 119,000 votes to get one Liberal Democrat. This compares with an average of 33,000 for a Conservative or Labour MP.

Yet if parliamentary representation were proportional to votes, the minority parties would almost always be able to hold the executive to ransom. The outcome can be seen in many European countries -- and in Israel. If the choice is between being unfair to minorities and unfair to the majorities, the former is surely the preferable evil.

The British constitution is rubbish. It is still what it was at the time of the American war of independence, based on the pre-democratic concept of a chamber to advise, finance and curb a hereditary monarch.

There is only one way of squaring this circle and that is a formal separation of powers, as in Washington and a myriad state and civic systems. A directly elected executive must barter its legislative programme with a proportionally elected assembly. What would in effect be a British president (with the Queen still standing aloof) would sit apart from a Commons, which would be composed of both territorial and party representatives. The executive would have to negotiate its measures with the legislature and its varied interests.

Any student of American politics is aware of the current shortcomings of a constitutional separation of powers. All I can say is that power separated is a whole lot better than power concentrated, even in a democracy. This week's election has seen Britain's concentration shattered, and it does not know which way to turn. So please tell us that separation, warts and all, is better!