Westminster System

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Concept description

Wikipedia defines Westminster system as a parliamentary system of government modelled after that which developed in the United Kingdom, where the seat of Parliament is the Palace of Westminster.

In a particularly concise and comprehensive entry, Wikipedia goes on to say:

“The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once used, in the national legislatures and subnational legislatures of most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations upon being granted responsible government, beginning with the first of the Canadian provinces in 1848 and the six Australian colonies between 1855 and 1890. However, some former colonies have since adopted either the presidential system (Nigeria for example) or a hybrid system (like South Africa) as their form of government.”

“A Westminster system of government may include some of the following features:

  • A sovereign or head of state who functions as the nominal or legal and constitutional holder of executive power, and holds numerous reserve powers, but whose daily duties mainly consist of performing ceremonial functions. Examples include Queen Elizabeth II, the governors-general in Commonwealth realms, or the presidents of many countries, and state or provincial governors in federal systems. Exceptions to this are Ireland and Israel, whose presidents are de jure and de facto ceremonial, and the latter possesses no reserve powers whatsoever.
  • A head of government (or head of the executive), known as the prime minister (PM), premier, or first minister. While the head of state appoints the head of government, constitutional convention suggests that a majority of elected Members of Parliament must support the person appointed. If more than half of elected parliamentarians belong to the same political party, then the parliamentary leader of that party typically is appointed. An exception to this was Israel, in which direct prime-ministerial elections were made in 1996, 1999 and 2001.
  • An executive branch led by the head of government usually made up of members of the legislature with the senior members of the executive in a cabinet adhering to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility; such members execute executive authority on behalf of the nominal or theoretical executive authority.
  • An independent, non-partisan civil service which advises on, and implements, decisions of those ministers. Civil servants hold permanent appointments and can expect merit-based selection processes and continuity of employment when governments change.
  • A parliamentary opposition (in a multi-party system) with an official Leader of the Opposition.
  • A legislature, often bicameral, with at least one elected house – although unicameral systems also exist; legislative members are usually elected by district in first-past-the-post elections (as opposed to country-wide proportional representation). Exceptions to this include New Zealand, which changed in 1993 to use mixed-member proportional representation; Israel, which has always used country wide proportional representation; and Australia, which uses preferential voting.
  • A lower house of parliament with an ability to dismiss a government by “withholding (or blocking) Supply” (rejecting a budget), passing a motion of no confidence, or defeating a confidence motion. The Westminster system enables a government to be defeated or forced into a general election independently.
  • A parliament which can be dissolved and snap elections called at any time.
  • Parliamentary privilege, which allows the legislature to discuss any issue it deems relevant, without fear of consequences stemming from defamatory statements or records thereof.
  • Minutes of meetings, often known as Hansard, including an ability for the legislature to strike discussion from these minutes.
  • The ability of courts to address silence or ambiguity in the parliament’s statutory law through the development of common law. Another parallel system of legal principles also exists known as equity though this has mostly been merged with common law or codified into statutory law. Exceptions to this include India, Quebec in Canada, and Scotland in the UK amongst others which mix common law with other legal systems.”
Atlas topic, subject, and course

Constitutional Framework (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Wikipedia, Westminster system, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westminster_system, accessed 15 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 15 August 2016.

Image: Londontopia.net at http://londontopia.net/site-news/featured/great-london-buildings-palace-westminster-houses-parliament/, accessed 11 September 2016.