democracy politics

Three forms of Western democracy

One of the overarching themes of recent history has been the spread of Western democracy, sometimes through reform, other times through revolution, and sometimes by force. Right or wrong, there is more or less a consensus that whatever its shortcomings may be, it’s the best form of government anyone has thought of yet. Most of us certainly wouldn’t choose anything different for ourselves.

There is, however, a degree of diversity within Western democracy. There are certain things in common – free elections, market economies, and the liberal values of individual rights – but there are three distinct streams within this field. In the LSE’s ‘democratic audit’ of Britain, the authors use three categories of Western democracy: Westminster, Consensual, and Nordic.

  • The Westminster democracies are English speaking, including Britain, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They are characterised by electoral systems that deliver majority governments, from a smaller number of parties. They tend to have weaker separation of powers, and to be more centralised.
  • Consensual democracies include Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Power is more fragmented in such countries, with proportional electoral systems that deliver coalition governments. Power is decentralised, and there is more separation between executive, legislative and judiciary branches.
  • The third category is Nordic democracy, practiced in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. This is similar to Consensual system, but with a strong commitment to social democracy, particularly equality.

We’re in a period of profound change in Britain at the moment, and at times we seem to be trapped in the Westminster model. Scotland is dominated by the SNP, which is socially democratic. Had the country voted for independence, a transition to something closer to the Nordic model seemed likely. It voted to stay by a slim margin, but Scotland is clearly different in its political landscape.

The landscape is changing nationally too. Fewer people line themselves up with the two main parties. The current coalition reflects that, and the next government could well be a coalition too. UKIP gets all the headlines, but membership lists are booming in the minority parties, Liberal Democrats excepted. Votes are going to be much more widely spread in 2015, but our ‘first past the post’ electoral system locks out diversity of opinion.

Has the Westminster model run its course? Is it working for us? I’ll be interested to see who raises these sorts of questions in the election next year.


  1. Interesting article and one that begs the question – has any country moved from one to another of these three forms of Western democracy? It seems hard to imagine it happening gradually as any change, especially to or from the Westminster system, would require major electoral change which is not likely to be agreed by any party that has come to power through the status quo.

  2. I would put New Zealand somewhere between the Westminster system and the consensual system. Since 1996 it has used the mixed member proportional system. Since the study used to define these categories was published in 1999 it is hardly surprising it is miscategorisation.

    Electoral reform is likely. We are likely to move to some form of English devolution. Regional assemblies would be elected by some form of PR. Or a quid pro quo for English votes for English laws would be a move to PR. A more devolved UK would make Westminster less important so the politicians would be more prepared to share power there so PR I expected in some form in the next 10 years.

  3. Yes, these are broad categories and there have been multiple attempts at sorting them. Democracy Audit draws on two of them, one from 1990 and one from 1999, but ends up with something that’s their own.

    New Zealand is an interesting example of a country moving politically. It’s still based on the Westminster model and is more centralised than it could be for a nation of islands, but it’s been transitioning away from a two-party system.

    Australia changed its electoral system as well, but not in a way that radically changed the make-up of parliament. Interestingly, the Senate uses the STV electoral system and delivers a much broader spread of parties than the House of Representatives.

    With the Scottish vote, a whole host of possibilities have opened up that weren’t on the table a year ago, so it’s an interesting time.

  4. Although I subscribe to the fact that Westminster in its present format has many faults, it is nevertheless difficult to envisage another style of model working just now. We must move away from a three party maxim to rule, it is far too restrictive for Britain now and especially more so if we leave the EU. A fairer representation of people’s concerns and judgements could then come about, with added proportional representation giving a far fairer voting system. Of course such a step would more than likely lead to coalition governments, but to continue on with our democracy as is, this maybe the way forward to rather uncertain future.

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