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Ministerial Responsiveness in Westminster Systems: Institutional Choices and House of Commons Debate, 1832–1915

Authors


  • We are grateful to Ken Benoit, Josh Clinton, Peter Hall, Jouni Kuha, and Ken Shotts for helpful comments on an earlier draft. Feedback from audiences at the University of Rochester, London School of Economics, University of Washington, Stanford University, Caltech, IQSS Applied Stats seminar, and the Midwest, Polmeth, and EPSA conferences is gratefully acknowledged. Lauren Fulton, Colby Wilkason, and Tania Amarillas provided excellent research assistance, and Paul Seaward and Jouni Kuha provided very valuable research advice. IQSS contributed financially to the costs of this project, and its assistance is gratefully acknowledged. Reports from five referees and the Editor helped us improve our article a great deal, and we thank them for their efforts. Replication data and code for this article can be found at http://thedata.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/aspirling.

Abstract

In Westminster systems, governments enjoy strong agenda-setting powers but are accountable to an inquisitorial opposition. This article provides insights into the origins of this arrangement from the British House of Commons, drawing primarily on a new data set of a half million parliamentary speeches. We show that, according to a novel measure we develop, government ministers became more responsive to opposition members of parliament in the same period that the government's agenda power was most conclusively strengthened—roughly, the two decades culminating in Balfour's “railway timetable” of 1902. We argue that this increase in responsiveness helps to explain why opposition members of parliament acceded to reductions in their procedural power. We thus highlight a link between government strength and opposition scrutiny in the historical development of the Westminster system.

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