Checks and Balances in U.S., UK and France from comparative perspective

Essays | Shabnam Mammadova | 16-08-2017, 09:00


The concept of “checks and balances” is a system of separation of power by ensuring that each branch of government such as legislative, executive and judiciary would have exclusive control over its sphere of responsibility, thus precluding any of them from concentrating power. Contemporary states have widely different political system, even if they belong to a large family of democratic states. From this perspective, my purpose in this paper is to define check and balance system as a concept in a democratic setting and to give a short background about its historical evolution. Secondly, I will examine how various institutional settings based on this principle differ from each other by bringing 3 cases, including the U.S., UK and France. Finally, I will explain which crucial points resulted in these countries implementing the checks and balances system differently, and give some suggestions. To that end, my aim is to answer the research question why these countries, including the U.S., UK and France have created divergent check and balance systems.  


I. Check and balance in democracy 

1.1. Democracy as a concept 

The concept of democracy has long been one of the core concepts of contemporary politics. Of course, researchers of the contemporary politics are struggling to answer such questions as what democracy means in real life, what it should be, and how it can be measured. 

Returning to history, a core definition of democracy can be derived from the Ancient Greek word by looking at the 2 parts it consists of: “δημοκρατία” - demos and kratos “rule by the people” since 500 BC. [1] In this regard, democracy in fact is about the rule of majority. However, this meaning puts questions on the both sides of this definition: 1) who are these people? 2) what is the nature of this rule? [14]

As a core element of the contemporary democratic system, an idea of separation of power between legislative, executive and judiciary emerged in Ancient Rome, and Renaissance Italian city-states since that period. However, the contemporary concept of national and representative democracy called democracy’s “second transformation” [3] by Robert A. Dahl developed in the mid-18th century in Europe. This second transformation made political organisation shift from the city to the nation level. It is true that this transformation did not occur immediately; however, national democracy was replaced by representative democracy. Furthermore, American and French revolutions had impacts on formation of contemporary representative democracy by bringing some major changes. At the end of 19th century, the concept of democracy started to call as “representative democracy” which expressed the exact meaning provided by the Ancient Greek institutions. Interestingly, one group of the Western political theorists accepted democracy as “representative democracy”; however, some Western theorists like Locke, Rousseau, Madison, Bentham, and James Mill had considered democracy as an Athenian-style direct democracy. Regardless of how they called democracy, my point is that Western understanding or perception on democracy can be traced back from the same sources.  


1.2. Conceptualization of separation of power within democracy

Arguably, the most important tool for defining how state as a mechanism works is to look at its checks and balances system. This shows political power is dispersed and decentralized and how government would be better or worse off by separating power among 3 different bodies. [6] 

The view of separation of powers as a device of accountability and an essential tool for good governance in modern democratic societies was inspired by Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of the Laws”, published in 1748. [11] Montesquieu suggests separation of power as equally among the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary bodies, and identifies three different dimensions thereof: the separation of functions, institutions, and personnel. He also argues that the separation of powers would help prevent the abuse of power by allowing for checks and balances among different branches of government. [12]

Researchers of contemporary politics consider the existence of “separation of powers” is one of the key factors for consolidation of democracy. Some scholars emphasize the importance of a well-functioning civil society in modern democratic societies. However, some argue that effective separation of powers among government bodies also means existence of active civil society. [5] From this point of view, executive branch seems more assertive under certain conditions in parliamentary systems. In particular, legislative bodies in transitional democracies tend to be weaker and less institutionalized than the other branches of power. Therefore, we frequently observe elimination of parliaments in most Westminster-style systems, says Grossman. [4] 

From a theoretical point of view, balance between the legislative and executive bodies emerges through allowing legislative oversight over the government via the process of vote of non-confidence and granting the chief executive the right to dissolve the parliament. [8] The Judiciary increases the checks and balances through the judicial and constitutional review of the law, and of course its implementation procedure. It seems that the government’s branches work in harmony; however, if one of them abuses its power, then the checks and balances system intervenes to restore meaning that “check and balance is a system to balance evil against evil”.  

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, parliaments started to be more powerful than executive offices, while executive bodies regained power at the expense of the legislature after the 1950s. [10] For instance, the French Parliament witnessed a considerable decline in its status and of course, the constitutional changes of 1958 had affected its arrangements. [10] From the 1950s onwards, parliaments started to consent and authorize legislative proposals in accordance with offers of the executive office instead of being a source of law itself. For instance, the British Parliament accepted almost all introduced government bills between 1992 and 2002. [7]  


II. Differences in checks and balances systems 

2.1. The United States 

In the modern world, the American-style separation of powers is in fact not the most common arrangement of democratic institutions. Some modern democracies are parliamentary systems meaning that the legislative body is ultimately more powerful, and the executive branch has no independent constitutional authority, instead being chosen by the legislative branch. However, the number of parliamentary countries where Heads of State are elected popularly, has been growing recently. Very interestingly, when the United States started to participate in the establishment of democratic governments – in Germany and Japan after World War II and in Iraq after 2003– parliamentary structures were adopted, not the American system of separated powers. 

The American Constitution claims that all legislative powers herein shall be vested in a Congress of the U.S., which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives. [17] The President of the USA shall be vested with executive power. [17] The judicial power of the U.S. shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts that the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office. [17]


2.2. The United Kingdom

Britain is an example of a purely parliamentary democracy. In fact, differences between this “Westminster model” and the U.S. model challenge researchers of the Comparative Politics. Why two countries, that share so much in terms of language and culture, have created so different political systems, whereby one is governed by a president and the other by a prime minister?

Historically, the U.S. Founding Fathers invented the checks and balances concept, which is central to the separation of powers by claiming dangers of concentrated power. However, Britain was less worried about concentrated power, and came to a solution which implies porous borders between executive and legislative branches (the so-called “Westminster system”). Interestingly, some argue that it is in fact a more rational choice than the U.S. system, since Britain does not have a “deadlock of democracy” often found in Washington, meaning that one party controls Congress and another the White House. However, the largest party in Parliament forms the executive from within its own ranks in Britain, and deadlock is impossible. 

Cabinet also distinguishes between the British and American systems. In Britain, the members of Parliament are very high ranked people and important political figures. Originally, the British cabinet consisted of ministers to the king. Two major parties represented several views and power centres. Under this system, the Prime Ministers usually have represented them in the cabinet. By looking at the British system, we can easily observe how the cabinet has filled the gap between the “executive” and “legislative”. Separation of powers in American system is not as Britain’s. By contrast, the British government has combined powers. Under this system, the British citizens vote only for the parliament, which later establishes the executive branch. In fact, the executive branch is a committee of the legislative branch in Britain. Unlike the British system, the U.S. citizens vote both for legislature and a chief of executive at the elections, and it is expected that two of them check and balance each other. However, under the Westminster system this is impossible. 


2.3. France 

The 5th Republic of France has a semi-presidential system of governance, and under this system the cabinet still retains a certain connection with the Parliament. The President chooses and appoints the prime minister; however, the National Assembly is entitled to censure and even force the President to repeal this decision. If that happens – and it has happened in 1962, only once – the president can dissolve the legislature and hold new elections. It is argued that if French people want to avoid cohabitation and reinforce the presidential office, they could eliminate a link between the legislative and executive bodies and become a straightforwardly presidential system, like the U.S. It is true that the latter frequently leads to deadlocks between the White House and Capitol Hill; nevertheless, the president still has a plenty of power to govern without permission from Congress. 

The French political system has a very interesting history. In France, contemporary political institutions have developed since 1958. Even though the 3rd and 4th Republics had come to perpetuate political instability in France, the 1962 legislative election brought a new opinion on president’s predominant power to examine the government’s general issues. Furthermore, the executive power received significant preferences and prerogatives in terms of law-making process they got. 

Obviously, these developments had significant impacts on the understanding of doctrinal frameworks of public law of France, in particular the “constitutionalisation of law and of political life”. [3] The French institutions are also criticized for not referring to any parliamentary doctrine in the legal issues; however, idea is that how balance among them is distributed. The notion of “contre-pouvoirs” is present in constitutional analysis, and although it should not be assimilated to the rigid power-separated American doctrine of “Checks and Balances”, it introduces the concept of balance through control in French constitutionalism. [3] 


III. Discussion by Historical Institutionalism Paradigm

Sven Steinmo argues that we frequently ask ourselves why policies and politics differ from each other in certain nations and in a given time period. He believes the answer of this question is political institutions which force themselves into the centre of the analysis. This is institution made structured politics. [16] According his views, core of Historical Institutionalism tells us history matters not just because it provides different contexts in which rational actors make choices, but because history influences actors’ beliefs, values and preferences. History matters for our understanding of politics because it provides experience, and each experience can change the beliefs and preferences of citizens and their elites. [15] From this point of view, I believe Historical Institutionalism would answer the research question why the U.S., UK and France have ended up with different checks and balances systems. 

In the United States, the American Revolution (1765-1783) as a historical event has influenced actors’ values and preferences. The Revolution itself was essentially a conservative movement. Up until the Revolution, the New York Assembly mainly consisted of urban merchants; whereas, the number of lawyers among them raised to 25% to nearly 95% after the Revolution. State constitutions concentrated on legislative power because most people considered legislators to be closer to the voters than governors or judges. Furthermore, legislators started to overrule court decisions, and criticized judges because of unpopular decisions. From that period, the Americans started to grow into “the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world.” [18]

In Britain, English kings called two or four knights to London from each shire, ever since the 13th century. Burghers representing their towns consulted kings on tax increases, when the monarch had to finance his wars, mostly against France. In this period, Parliament was a king’s court; however, he owned it over centuries. Accordingly, kings and burghers arranged a new establishment called a lower house, or the House of Commons. Even though historically Lords were much more powerful, the Commons gained the upper hand over time. The ultimate outcome of this is the fact that a leader member of Commons as Speaker would speak to the King. [13]  

In France, the French Revolution in fact, divided country. Dramatic changes and regime instability made the French people struggle with manifold challenges. On the one hand De Gaulle hated the executive weakness of the government during the 4th Republic term; on the other hand, he wasn’t keen on resorting to the American-style presidential system either. As a result, he developed a semi-presidential system which constitutes a hybrid of both, with the executive power divided between the President and Prime Minister. [13] 


IV. Conclusion and suggestions

Considering some key events in given countries’ political life, it seems that historical background, culture, traditions had significant impacts on the establishment of check and balances of government. In this paper, I just put one single historical event into establishment of each country’s check and balance, and tried to see connection between them. Of course, a single event cannot determine everything and anything about how state decided to choose such kind of check and balance system. However, my point is that each repeated historical event strengthens people’s beliefs, perception, and helps to understand what is going on.  

From my perspective, I would like to suggest such a kind of check and balance system which its some elements would be taken from 3 counties, like hybrid model check and balance. The 1st taken element from the US would be that all 3 branches are extremely spilled from each other, and everyone has authority to check and balance each other. This is ultimate idea of creation check and balance, meaning that “check and balance evil against evil”. Without strong check and balance system, you would not have good governance. But here there is also a problem that which I mentioned. In the U.S., deadlocks happen frequently, and president has power to govern without permission from Congress. This in fact, “checks evils, but not balance it against another evil”. For instance, considering Trump’s current presidency, there would be several unexpected situations within American government. This is a problem in the U.S. check and balance system. The 2nd element taken from Britain would be creation of cabinet. I would like to suggest that creation of cabinet should be also through voting. Meaning the fact that, people would have the right to vote who should represent us as citizens in the cabinet. The reason is we as citizens are not aware what happen in the cabinet, how discussion is going on and why they made decision on any issue. I think that the 3rd element would be taken from French public law. Strong legal system and Court make you believe that it is justice. When Court corrupts, that would be a place where you cannot sustain. From this perspective, I believe good governance would emerge, when they really check and balance each other in a given such kind of condition like “the men are not angels”. 



Reference list:

1. Dahl, R. A., & Shapiro, I. (1998). On democracy. 

2. Dahl, R.A. (1989). Democracy and its critics. New Haven: Yale University Press. Cited in Saward (2007). 

3. Georgopoulos, T. (2003). Checks and balances doctrine in member states as a rule of EC law: the cases of France and Germany. Retrieved from

4. Grossman, G. M. & Helpman, E. (2008). Separation of powers and the budget process, Journal of Public Economics, 92, 407-425. 

5. Haynes, J. (2001). Democracy in the Developing World. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, Cambridge: Polity Press. 

6. Johnnie, G. (2008, May). Democracy: A Fleeting Elusion or a Possible Reality for Liberia? The Perspective. Retrieved from

7. Judge, D. (2006). This is what democracy looks like: New Labour's blind spot and peripheral vision. British Politics, 1, 367-396. Retrieved from

8. Laver, M. (2008). Legislatures and Parliaments in comparative context. Oxford Handbook of Political Economy. Retrieved from

9. Linz, J. J., & Stepan, A. C. (1996). Problems of democratic transition and consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-communist Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

10. Loewemberg G. (2010). British and French Parliaments in comparative perspective. New Brunswick and London: AldineTransaction .

11. Montesquieu, C. (1748). The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws, edited by A. M. Cohler, H. S. Stone, and B. C. Miller, (Eds.), 1989, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

12. Persson, T., Roland , G., & Tabellini, G. (1997). Separation of Powers and Political Accountability. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(4), 1163–1202. Retrieved from

13. Roskin, M. (2011). Countries and Concepts: politics, geography, culture. United States: Pearson.

14. Saward, M. (2007). In Democracy - critical concepts in political science (pp. 1–20). New York: Routledge.

15. Steinmo, S. (2008). Historical institutionalism. Approaches and methodologies in the social sciences: A pluralist perspective, 118-138

16. Steinmo, S. (2014).  Historical Institutionalism: Theory and Methods Revisited. APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper. 

17. United States Constitution.

18. Wood, G. (2011). The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Cited in Edwards, C., & Wattenberg P., & Lineberry L. (2011). Government in America:people, politics and policy. (pp. 35-36). Pearson Education. 


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Shabnam Mammadova

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