Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sobel Wiki: government in a minor key

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on John McDowell, the seventh Governor-General of the Confederation of North America. McDowell's time as chief executive of the C.N.A. is another example of Sobel not getting the details of his own timeline right.

The government of the C.N.A., as set out in the Second Britannic Design of 1842, is basically parliamentary in nature. The governor-general is chosen by a majority vote of the Grand Council, the 150-seat unicameral legislature of the C.N.A., and as Sobel noted, "would serve so long as he retained the confidence of that body." The C.N.A. already had a two-party system in place when the Second Design was adopted, and those two parties dominated its politics for the first thirty years of its existence. But in 1869, a third party was formed called the People's Coalition, and in 1873 it managed to win ten seats in the Grand Council. This wasn't quite enough to deny one of the older parties a majority, but it was close. Five years later, the Coalition did win enough seats to deny any party a majority. The Liberal Party won a plurality of 62 seats in 1878, fourteen short of the necessary 76 needed for a majority.

Under the terms of the Second Design, the members of the Grand Council had to keep balloting until a candidate received a majority of the votes. We never find out what would happen if the Grand Council remained permanently deadlocked, because it never happened. What happened in 1878 was that eventually, the Liberal candidate, John McDowell, received enough crossover votes from the other two parties to become governor-general.

Note what did not happen: McDowell did not form a coalition government with one of the other parties. His was a minority government, and at any time, the two opposition parties could join together in a no-confidence vote and bring him down. Those of my readers who live in countries with parliementary governments know how unstable a minority government is.

Astonishingly enough, despite being head of a minority government, McDowell made it through an entire five-year term of office without ever facing a no-confidence vote. In 1888, McDowell's successor, Ezra Gallivan of the People's Coalition, also found himself at the head of a minority government, and he too made it through an entire five-year term of office without ever facing a no-confidence vote.

The trouble was that Sobel, being an American, just couldn't make the necessary conceptual leap. Of course a chief executive won't fall from power just because his government doesn't have a legislative majority. So McDowell made it all the way through his first term of office, and Gallivan made it all the way through his.


DaveMB said...

I think Sobel has another failure of parliamentary imagination in the 1963 elections. In 1958 Mason wins very narrowly and the electorate is described as bitterly divided but not on sectional lines. Then there is a split in the Liberal Party, with Mason getting a divided convention endorsement but purging the party of malcontents and running his own third-party candidates in several districts. The obvious IOW analogue is the Democrats in 1972 (after Sobel wrote the book), who got utterly hammered. Mason should have had trouble getting pluralities in very many seats at all, but Sobel has him losing only 80-70...

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