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Government and Law

Updated on June 8, 2010

When communities formed they found it necessary to elect a headman, or group of elders, to make rules for behavior. These rules, like the Ten Commandments of Moses, though they limited the liberties of the individual, were laid down so that the members of the community could live together in peace and security. This was the beginning of government, for government is no more than the machinery through which the rules governing a society are enforced.

During the course of history there have been many types of government. One in which the overruling authority is vested in one individual is called a monarchy, though the actual head may be called a sovereign, tsar, king, monarch, khan or emperor. Normally a monarchy is hereditary. At the death of the monarch the eldest son or daughter succeeds, otherwise the succession may go to another close relative. On the other hand, as in America and France, the ruler's term of office can be limited by the constitution; then a successor has to be elected. A monarch whose power is unlimited and who rules without the benefit of parliament is called an absolute monarch or autocrat; a modern name for such a person is a dictator.

Another form of government, an aristocracy, is rule by the few. In an ideal State it is rule by the best, who rule conscientiously and without personal preference in the interest of the State.

In the third form, democracy, every member possesses an equal voice in the government. Then the will of the many becomes the rule of the State. In small communities (and even among primitive tribes today) it was quite possible to call all the members together and take a vote whenever a decision had to be reached, but nowadays, with our complex societies, it would be physically impossible to rule in this way. Even if it was possible to assemble the whole population of a country in one area, it would so disrupt the daily life that it would be both impractical and unwise to do so. So to get round this another method has been evolved whereby the many millions of the population are represented in parliament by a few hundred men and women who speak for, and reach agreement on behalf of, the electors.

In Great Britain the country is divided up into constituencies, where two, and sometimes three or more, candidates are put forward for election, one only being elected on a simple majority. As much time would be wasted in parliament if each member propounded his own ideas, the majority of candidates belong to one of the political parties whose policy they support. In Great Britain anyone over twenty-one years old has the franchise, i.e. is eligible to vote. It is interesting to note that in France the members of the National Assembly are returned on a basis of proportional representation. By this method a larger area is covered and several candidates are returned, the actual number depending on the proportion of votes polled for them. One of the disadvantages of the British system results in the fact that the member returned to parliament might represent a minority of the electorate. To take a very simple example. Say a constituency consists of a hundred people. Three candidates put up for election: the first receives forty votes and the other two thirty each. The first is returned to parliament even though sixty people voted against him.

It has been found that the most practical form of government is one not dissimilar from the British pattern. It consists of two assemblies: one where the elected representatives meet, the other, an upper chamber, in theory a chamber of brains, whose main function is to moderate the more enthusiastic and unpractical measures voted for by the lower house. From these two bodies are drawn the members of the executive who make the plans.

In Britain the monarch rules, but over hundreds of years a custom has grown up whereby he must accept the decisions of parliament as advised to him by his ministers, and in particular by the Prime Minister.

The function of government is threefold: legislative, judicative and administrative. Parliament makes the laws, justice is administered by judges (in England appointed for life), and the day-to-day administration of the country is in the hands of the Civil Service. Local laws and measures are administered and passed by county councils, which are elected by the votes of the people in the locality. They deal with rates, roadways, sanitation, refuse and many other important matters. The financing of many large-scale projects is often shared between the local authority and the government department concerned, which also assists in the planning and administration.

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