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Asked by memories-of-you | Feb 14, 2008 | AS Level > Politics > Homework
memories-of-you asks:

I was given a 5 and 15 mark question on legitimacy. They are:
a) Distinguish between power and authority
b)How does government acquire its legitimacy?

I particularly lost on question b as I seem to have absoloutley no notes on it! And how would incoporate examples into both answers? as I'm on the Edexcel exam board.

Any help would be much appreciated.

etutor answers:

Quite a tough question - more theoretical than most set by Edexcel!

a) Distinguish between power and authority

Power is the ability to compel obedience – to require others to modify their behaviour, and to comply with laws, decisions or instructions, even where they are reluctant or in disagreement. Power is based upon coercion – in other words, upon sanctions, or upon the threat of sanctions. Governments and assemblies have power because they have the ability to ensure compliance through the force of law – the police and the judicial process. Every State possesses ultimate coercive power over its citizens since membership of the State is not a voluntary decision. By contrast, authority is the acknowledged right to exercise power, where the power of government and of government officials is seen as legitimate, and therefore justified. Max Weber identified three sources of authority: traditional (based on the length of time an institution, practice or custom has existed); charismatic (based on the personal and inspirational qualities of leaders or other politicians); and legal-rational (based on the status of the office itself). In liberal democracies governments have both power and authority.

The formal powers attached to political offices or exercised by holders of the office may be set out in a written constitution, as is the case in the United States. Here the powers of the president (such as appointments, Commander-in-Chief and veto of legislation) and of Congress (such as law-making, oversight, and ‘advice and consent’) are set out in some detail, together with the checks that each branch of government has on the other branches. In Britain, the former royal prerogative powers are now exercised on the Queen’s behalf by the prime minister and by ministerial colleagues. In the absence of a codified constitution, most political power is based upon convention. An obvious example of such power in Britain is the appointment and dismissal of ministers by the prime minister.

b) How does government acquire its legitimacy?

Legitimacy is linked with both power and authority, but particularly the latter. It should never be confused with popularity (of a government or of its individual policies) as it refers to the acknowledged right to govern. There is, however, a link, as legitimacy can steadily be eroded over time. To that effect, a general election can be seen as a verdict on the performance of a government; an unpopular government will have forfeited its right to govern and will lose the election.

Traditional authority is clearly in decline in Britain, with citizens appearing to be increasingly sceptical towards established institutions such as parliament (witness recent reaction to revelations about MPs' expenses) and individual governments. Charismatic authority is frequently associated with dictators, though many democratic politicians have also possessed it – examples might include Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, and prime ministers Thatcher and Blair. Legal-rational authority is particularly important, and is best seen in the role played by general elections in providing legitimate access to office. It might be argued that turnout in elections is an indication of popular consent to the system of government, and hence to the authority of elected office holders. In this context, the trend decline in turnout in the UK and the USA should be noted. Turnout fell to 59.4% in the British General Election of 2001, and recovered to only 61% in 2005. This casts doubt on the legitimacy of government - for example, less than 25% of those eligible to vote supported Labour in 2005. Still lower turnouts are recorded in other elections – barely a quarter of the British electorate voted in the most recent (2004) elections for the European Parliament.. Such voter apathy (or alienation) could be seen as undermining the authority of elected politicians.

Governments also acquire legitimacy through their command of a majority of seats in the House of Commons. In this sense they are accountable to parliament, and a prime minister and his/her government will resign from office (and a general election then takes place) if the governing party is defeated on a Commons Motion of No Confidence. This last occurred in 1979 with the Callaghan Labour government. The Conservatives won the ensuing election and Thatcher became prime minister. Note that if there is a change of prime minister as a result of an internal party resignation then there is no general election - as occurred when Major replaced Thatcher in 1990 and Brown replaced Blair in 2007. At the same time, critics argued that the new PM and his government lacked legitimacy since the PM had no diret mandate to govern from the electorate.

Governments also acquire legitimacy because all Cabinet members and ministers are also members of parliament (though those in the Lords are not elected, hence bringing into question legitimacy) and parliament is sovereign. Two meanings of sovereignty should be distinguished. Legal sovereignty relates to a defined geographical territory and refers to the unquestioned and ultimate authority of a State or assembly to make laws that regulate the activities of citizens living in that territory. Political sovereignty refers to the effectiveness of the power exercised by sovereign bodies – in other words, the extent to which power is constrained (or expanded) by the existence of treaty obligations, membership of international organisations, and external and internal influences.

The UK parliament is legally sovereign in that it can make, amend or repeal any law on any subject. Its statutes cannot be struck down by the courts, since they have no power of judicial review, and the laws passed by parliament are, by definition, constitutional. In practice, given the ascendancy of the Commons over the Lords and the strength of majority party government in the UK, it might be contended that political sovereignty really rests with the government of the day. Devolved bodies such as the Scottish Parliament and local authorities are not legally sovereign, since their very existence, together with their legislative, executive and financial powers, is determined by parliament, and may be altered at any time. At the same time, their governing arrangements could be seen as legitimate, not least because support was secured in referendums in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London before the legislation was passed by parliament to set up each of these assemblies.

Some law-making powers have been delegated by treaty by parliament to EU bodies such as the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament; wherever UK law comes into conflict with EU law, the UK parliament must amend UK law accordingly. Moreover, since the signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam, all EU legislation must automatically be compatible with the Convention on Human Rights. In principle, parliament remains legally sovereign since it retains the power to leave the EU. It is not, however, politically sovereign since many of the laws that affect UK citizens do not originate in parliament or from the British government but rather, as provided for in the various treaties, from the EU. Critics of the recent Lisbon Treaty (2007) argue that it transfers still further powers to the European Union, and that it should have been subject to a referendum of the UK people, as promised by all parties in their 2005 election manifestos. If this argument is accepted, then the Treaty does not have the consent of the people, and therefore weakens both the legitimacy of EU institutions and the UK parliament.

I hope this is helpful.

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