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Testing the Mandate Model in Britain and the United States: Evidence from the Reagan and Thatcher Eras

  • Terry J. Royed

The hypothesis that parties are better able to carry out mandates in Britain than the United States is tested for the Reagan and Thatcher years. A list of specific pledges was compiled and it was determined whether or not the pledges were fulfilled. The primary finding is that more Conservative party pledges were fulfilled, compared to those of the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. In each country policy took a conservative turn, but because more pledges were fulfilled in Britain, the ‘Conservative revolution’ was more thorough there than in the United States. It is suggested, in contrast to the findings of previous literature, that institutional differences between the two countries are one factor that matters when it comes to bringing about policy change.

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1 See, for example, Weaver, R. Kent and Rockman, Bert A., eds, Do Institutions Matter? (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1993); Steinmo, Sven et al. , eds., Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

2 Fiorina, Morris P., ‘An Era of Divided Government’, in Cain, Bruce and Peele, Gillian, eds, Developments in American Politics (London: Macmillan, 1990); Mayhew, David, Divided We Govern (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991); Chubb, John E. and Peterson, Paul E., eds, Can the Government Govern? (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1988); Weaver, and Rockman, , eds., Do Institutions Matter?

3 See Weaver, R. Kent and Rockman, Bert A., ‘Assessing the Effects of Institutions’, in Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?, for a discussion of the assessment of governmental effectiveness. The definition of ‘effectiveness’ used here is narrower than theirs.

4 Lijphart, Arend, Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984), suggests that New Zealand has actually turned out to be more like the ideal-type ‘British model’ than Britain.

5 See ‘Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System: A Report of the Committee on Political Parties, American Political Science Association’, American Political Science Review, supplement to Vol. 44, No. 3, Part 2 (1950).

6 In particular this argument has been made by Sundquist, James L., Constitutional Reform and Effective Government (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1986). But, for the opposite view, see Mayhew, , Divided We Govern; Thurber, James A., ‘Representation, Accountability, and Efficiency in Divided Party Control of Government’, PS: Political Science and Politics, 24 (1991), 653–7.

7 Weaver, R. Kent, ‘Are Parliamentary Systems Better?Brookings Review 3 (Summer 1985), 1625.

8 Skowronek, Stephen, The Politics Presidents Make (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 8, suggests that a ‘repeated pairing of dismal failure with stunning success is one of the more striking patterns in presidential history’. His argument that failure sets the stage for a ‘reconstruction’ of politics seems generalizable to other countries.

9 On presidential ‘honeymoons’, see Light, Paul C., The President's Agenda (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), and Rose, Richard, The Postmodern President, 2nd edn (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1991).

10 Bruce-Gardyne, Jock and Lawson, Nigel, The Power Game: An Examination of Decision-Making in Government (Hamden, Conn.: Arcon Books, 1976); Bruce-Gardyne, Jock, Mrs Thatcher's First Administration (London: Macmillan, 1984); King, Anthony, ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Style of a Prime Minister’, The British Prime Minister (London: Macmillan, 1985).

11 A strong statement of this view is made by Ostrogorski, M. (Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, Volume II: The United States (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964), pp. 138–9), who refers to platforms as ‘a farce’ with ‘little significance for Congress’. Similarly, Schattschneider, E. E. (Party Government (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1942), p. 567) argues that ‘party platforms are fatuities; they persuade no one, deceive no one, and enlighten no one’.

12 Cited in Rose, Richard, Do Parties Make a Difference? (Chatham, Mass.: Chatham House Publishers, 1984), p. 56.

13 Rose, , Do Parties Make A Difference? p. 65.

14 Railings, Colin, ‘The Influence of Election Programmes: Britain and Canada 1945–1979’, in Budge, Ian, Robertson, David and Hearl, Derek, eds, Ideology, Strategy and Party Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

15 Pomper, Gerald with Lederman, Susan, Elections in America (New York: Longman, 1982).

16 Rose, , Do Parties Make A Difference? p. 142.

17 See for example, Bradley, John P., ‘Party Platforms and Party Performance Concerning Social Security’, Polity, 1 (1969), 337–58; David, Paul T., ‘Party Platforms as National Plans’, Public Administration Review, 31 (1971), 303–15; and Wattier, Mark J., ‘Party Platforms and Electoral Politics: Communication of Democratic Platform Promises in the 1988 Presidential Campaign’ (presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 1989).

18 Budge, Ian and Hofferbert, Richard, ‘Mandates and Policy Outputs: US Party Platforms and Federal Expenditures’, American Political Science Review, 84 (1990), 111–32; and Hofferbert, Richard I. and Budge, Ian, ‘The Party Mandate and the Westminster Model: Election Programmes and Government Spending in Britain, 1948–85’, British Journal of Political Science, 23 (1992), 151–82.

19 Budge, and Hofferbert, , ‘Mandates and Policy Outputs’, pp. 129–30.

20 Hofferbert, and Budge, , ‘The Party Mandate and the Westminster Model’, p. 181.

21 Hofferbert, and Budge, , ‘The Party Mandate and the Westminster Model’, p. 181.

22 This data is thoroughly described in Budge, , Robertson, and Hearl, , Ideology, Strategy and Party Change.

23 Budge, and Hofferbert, , ‘Mandates and Policy Outputs’, p. 114.

24 Budge, and Hofferbert, , ‘Mandates and Policy Outputs’, p. 115. Categories are described in their Appendix B.

25 King, Gary and Laver, Michael, ‘Party Platforms, Mandates, and Government Spending’, American Political Science Review, 87 (1993), 744–7.

26 King, and Laver, , ‘Party Platforms’, p. 746.

27 King, and Laver, , ‘Party Platforms’, p. 746.

28 The third Thatcher term is not included in the analysis because the change of leaders in 1988 in the United States complicates the pictures. We would no longer be comparing two ‘revolutionaries’, but rather one revolutionary and one more moderate successor to a revolutionary.

29 Rose, , Do Parties Make A Difference

30 Domestic policy is the area that most voters care the most about, and thus it could be argued that it is most relevant for ‘mandate theory’. In addition, domestic policy has been the primary focus of previous studies on mandate theory, including Rose, , Do Parties Make a Difference? and the Budge and Hofferbert pieces.

31 At this point, a comment is in order regarding the rate of ‘testing’ of pledges in each country. As noted in Table 2, not all pledges were determined to have been carried out or not; these ‘untested’ pledges are then excluded from the analysis. There are more US pledges ‘tested’ (96.8 per cent compared to 88.4 per cent for Britain) simply because information on policy action, even obscure action, is more readily available to the researcher for the United States. Since the objection could be made that this could affect the findings, the author looked at what would happen if all of the untested British pledges were unfulfilled. This assumption would stack the deck against what we expect to find – that is, more pledge fulfilment in Britain. It was determined that even with this ‘worst case’ scenario, the Conservatives still significantly outperform the Republicans, particularly when comparing Reagan and Thatcher's second terms and particularly when status quo and review pledges are excluded. More detailed information is available upon request from the author.

32 If status quo and review pledges (i.e., those pledges which are fulfilled by doing nothing, or by simply forming a commission to ‘study’ a problem) are eliminated, overall fulfilment rates are reduced to 78.6 per cent and 85.5 per cent for the Conservatives and 28.7 per cent and 10.7 per cent for Labour. The ‘gaps’ between success of the two parties then become 49.9 per cent for the first term, and 74.8 per cent for the second – about the same as when all pledges are included. In other words, eliminating the most easily achieved pledges does not much change the overall fulfilment rates for each party.

33 ‘Direct agreement’ and ‘direct disagreement’ were defined strictly as taking the same or opposite stands on a specific policy: for example, in 1980 both the Republicans and Democrats pledged to oppose taxation of Social Security; and the Democrats pledged to oppose a subminimum wage for youth, while the Republicans pledged to enact one.

34 Which pledges are ‘major’ is clearly a value judgement; pledges shown in the table were chosen because they were a significant part of the Reagan and Thatcher agendas as discussed in the literature, and because they were particularly visible or contentious issues. Some pledges are shown to illustrate the primary actions taken in that policy area, although they may not have been ‘major’ in the sense defined above.

35 Layton-Henry, Zig, ‘Race and the Thatcher Government’, in Layton-Henry, Zig and Rich, Paul, eds, Race, Government and Politics in Britain (London: Macmillan Press, 1986).

36 Congressional Quarterly Weekly, 1984, p. 3167.

37 ‘Catastrophic health insurance’ would cover major, long-term medical expenses for the elderly, compensating for insufficient coverage of Medicare and many private insurance plans

38 The AFDC-UP programme allows two-parent families to qualify for welfare as long as the primary wage-earner was unemployed. At the time of the debate, some states had AFDC-UP programmes, some did not. The programme was strongly opposed by the Reagan administration, because it would add more people to the welfare payment rolls.

39 Schwartz, Herman, Packing the Courts (New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1988); Yarbrough, Tinsley E., ed., The Reagan Administration and Human Rights (New York: Praeger, 1985).

40 The Clean Air Act was finally amended during the Bush administration.

41 Rose, , Do Parties Make a Difference? The difference in findings is certainly at least partly due to real changes in the parties: the Conservative party under Thatcher took a more programmatic, neo-liberal turn; the Labour party by 1983 had clearly shifted to the left. But the difference in findings is also due to a difference in methodology: we have looked at specific pledges and their fate, and ‘policy change’ is measured primarily in terms of legislative or other action taken. Rose focused his discussion of policy change on an analysis of aggregate data on government spending, interest rates, economic growth, etc. As we pointed out earlier, legislative and other action may or may not have a clear impact on such aggregate indicators; lack of impact is not proof that ‘significant’ policy change has not occurred.

42 The results confirm the findings of Mayhew, Divided We Govern. But the difference from Mayhew's approach is that the focus has been not just on the extent to which ‘significant’ legislation passed, but on the relationship between pledges and action, and the pledge fulfilment rate of each party. Looking at both pledges and legislation (and other action) allows us to look at what does not get done, as well as what does.

43 Stockman, David, The Triumph of Politics (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), describes very well the reluctance of some Republicans, both in the administration and Congress, to agree to cuts in specific programmes.

44 All of this is not to imply that more of a ‘revolution’ happened in Britain than in the United States solely because of institutional differences which allow policy agendas to be carried out more effectively in Britain. Given that much of the ‘revolution’ was about reducing the role of the government in economic affairs, it is important to remember that the two countries had very different starting lines in the race to a ‘free market’. Given that there was already relatively little government ownership and government spending in the United States, there was less room for reducing the government's role in the economy.

45 Thurber, ‘Representation, Accountability, and Efficiency’, discusses the literature on why we have divided government; he looks at three categories of explanation. Some evidence does support the explanation that voters make a deliberate choice. Fiorina and Ladd have shown that American voters prefer divided government because it is seen as a way of checking power (Fiorina, ‘An Era of Divided Government’; Ladd, Everett C., ‘Public Opinion and the “Congress Problem”’, Public Interest (Summer 1990), 66–7). For another discussion of voters and divided government, see Jacobson, Gary C., ‘Explaining Divided Government: Why Can't the Republicans Win the House? PS: Political Science and Politics, 24 (1991), 640–6.

46 The Conservatives received 43.9 per cent in 1979,42.4 per cent in 1983, and 42.3 per cent in 1987.

47 Pomper, and Lederman, , Elections in America.

* Department of Political Science, University of Alabama. This article is drawn from the author's dissertation and the author would like to thank dissertation advisers Richard Gunther, Anthony Mughan and Samuel Patterson, all of the Ohio State University, for their support of this project. In addition, thanks are due to Stephen Borrelli of the University of Alabama for his comments, and Margaret Purcell and Steven Marlowe for research assistance.

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
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