Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Westminster System

The Westminster System is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom system of government and used in Westminster, the seat of government, hence its name. It is used in a number of Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia, Singapore, Jamaica, New Zealand and India and in non-Commonwealth states like Ireland. It is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. Although Westminster systems are parliamentary systems, there are parliamentary governments, such as Germany and Italy, whose legislative procedures differ considerably from the Westminster system.

Aspects of the Westminster system include:

Most of the procedures of a Westminster system, though not in Ireland, are typically defined by convention, practice and precedent along with, or rather than, codification through a written constitution. Many older constitutions using the Westminster system may not even mention the existence of a head of government or Prime Minister, with the office's existence and role evolving outside the primary constitutional text.

Table of contents
1 Operation
2 Ceremonies
3 Consequences


In a Westminster system, the members of parliament are elected by popular vote. The head of governed is usually chosen by being invited to form a government by the head of state or representative of the head of state (ie, governor-general in some Commonwealth states), not by parliamentary vote. (See Kiss Hands.) A notable exception occurs in the Republic of Ireland, where the Taoiseach (prime minister) prior to appointment by the President of Ireland is nominated by the democratically elected lower house, Dáil Éireann.

The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister must be able either (a) to control a majority of seats within the elected legislative chamber, (b) ensure the existence of no absolute majority against them. If the parliament passes a resolution of no confidence or if the government fails to pass a major bill such as the budget, then the government must resign or seek a parliamentary dissolution. Although the dissolution of the legislature and the call for new elections is formally done by the head of state, by convention the head of state acts according to the wishes of the head of government, though in exceptional circumstances the head of state may refuse a dissolution request. (See Lascelles Principles.)


The Westminster system has a very distinct appearance when functioning, with many British customs incorporated into day-to-day government function. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long, rectangular room, with two rows of seats and desks on either side. The chairs are positioned so that the two rows are facing each other. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to create a visual representation of the conflict-filled nature of parliamentary government. Traditionally, the opposition parties will sit in one row of seats, and the government party will sit in the other. Of course, sometimes a majority government is so large, it must use the "opposition" seats as well.

At one end of the room sits a large chair, for the Speaker of the House. The speaker usually wears a black robe, and in many countries, a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between the two rows of seats, as well.

Other ceremonies sometimes associated with the Westminster system include an annual Speech from the Throne (or equivalent) in which the Head of State gives a special address (written by the government) to parliament about what kind of policies to expect in the coming year, and lengthy "opening of parliament" ceremonies that often involve the presentation of a large, ceremonial mace.


There are a number of consequences of the Westminster system. They tend to have extremely well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual and generally suicidal for a legislator to vote against their party and in which no confidence votes are very rare. Also, Westminster systems tend to have strong cabinets in which cabinet members other than the prime minister are politicians with independent basis of support. Conversely, legislative committees in Westminster systems tend to be weak.

Another convention of the Westminster system at least used to be that ministers were responsible for the actions of their department (even though government departments can be huge bureaucracies with powerful senior staff), so if the department was responsible for a major misjudgement, blame would fall on the minister regardless of whether they were involved or even aware of the situation. Such a convention of ministerial responsibility, if it were ever explicitly followed, is now ignored, with ministers now only forced to resign when they become such an embarrassment to their government that they are too much of a political liability to leave in their post.

A related convention is that members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy and ministers must publicly support the policy of the government regardless of their private reservation. A minister is duty-bound to resign if they cannot publicly support the government's position.

Countries that follow the Westminster system, at least partly, include:

See also: