The Isle of Man: nonpartisan ‘consensus’ politics and executive-legislative fusion

By JD Mussel

Last week, curiosity led me to explore politics on the Isle of Man; to this end, the parliament’s website was particularly useful, as well as a recent report issued by the Council of Ministers.

The Isle of Man (or simply: Mann) is not a part of the UK, but a mostly self-governing Dependency of the Crown, with not much more than defence and foreign affairs in the hands of the British government. Its head of state is the Lord of Mann, a title held by the British monarch, who is represented by the Lieutenant-Governor.

The island’s parliament is called Tynwald, and claims to be the world’s oldest in continuous existence, having been founded in CE 979. Tynwald is made up of two chambers, the lower house being the House of Keys, which is composed of 24 members elected for five years by plurality in single- and multi-seat districts; the upper house, the Legislative Council, consists of 8 members elected by the House of Keys and 3 ex-officio members:  the Bishop of Sodor and Man, the President of Tynwald, who is elected by members of both houses, and the Attorney-General, who has no vote.

Manx politics are mostly nonpartisan, with Tynwald being composed almost entirely of independents; the only party – Liberal Vannin – was formed only recently, winning a few seats at the last two elections. An oft-mentioned element of Manx politics is the role of consensus, particularly in relation to, or as a result of, the absence of parties. But it also has an institutional side, in the way the executive is structured. The Island’s cabinet is not unusual: the Chief Minister is nominated by Tynwald (in joint session), with other ministers appointed on his advice. However, many more members of Tynwald (MTs) are generally invited to play a role in the executive, as members of the departments.

According to the Government Code, each department statutorily consists of a minister and at least one additional MT, appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor (presumably on the advice of the minister in question). The scope of delegation of functions and tasks to a department’s members is decided by each minister, who is ultimately responsible for all the department’s functions; nonetheless, that delegation of decision making responsibilities is formally encouraged. The report mentioned above indicates that such delegation is indeed commonplace, and most members of Tynwald tend to take part in the executive in this way. As a result, it is often said that it is “difficult to tell where Government ends and Parliament begins”.

Along with the two types of executive committee (ministerial and departmental) there are two types of collective responsibility, that is, the convention that governmental (or department) decisions are supported by all members even if they do not privately agree with them. This includes voting for government motions and legislation in Tynwald[1]; hence, “a Member of a Government Department may be considered “in Government” on motions affecting a Department of which they are a member, whilst they are free to vote for or against Government on all other matters without repercussions”.

Mann’s political system is characterised as ‘consensus government’, but why should the absence of parties necessarily imply such a format of government by consensus[2]?

It would seem that the extended executive and resulting greater overlap between the members of the it and the legislative branch serves to ensure cohesion and effective co-operation between the two in the absence of party politics. As virtually all MTs are independent, the cabinet has no whip to control the members of its parliamentary majority. The inclusion, to a certain extent, of most MTs in the executive should make up for this absence of the ‘efficient secret’, by providing a base for government policy which needs to pass through (and maintain the confidence of) Tynwald[3].

Other nonpartisan regimes Include Vanuatu, Tuvalu, the Canadian territories of Nunavut and the Northwest Territory, as well as the Isle of Man’s fellow Crown Dependencies of the Channel Islands: Jersey and Guernsey. Many of them have high degrees of legislative-executive institutional fusion, comparable to Mann’s. Among them, the Channel Islands, the polities otherwise most similar to Mann, exhibit a remarkable degree of institutional divergence. Guernsey’s branches of government are even more wound up together, with a committee-based government co-ordinated by a weak ‘Policy Council’ instead of a cabinet, consisting of ‘ministers’ who are in effect chairmen of their respective committees. Jersey, on the other hand, operates a basically ministerial system, but with a plural executive style cabinet: ministers are not appointed by the Chief Minister, but elected in competitive elections by the legislature, and with their own manifestos. Meanwhile, the number of ministers and assistant ministers is capped at 22 members out of the legislature’s 51. However, all this is about to change with the forthcoming introduction of nomination of ministers en bloc by the chief minister (subject to confirmation vote, but no alternative nominations as currently) along with collective ministerial responsibility and a removal of the restriction on the number of executive members (these changes were passed in May).


[1] although the Code formally defines 5 allowable exceptions, circumstances under which Ministers or department members may speak publicly against policies: “Matters of Conscience; A Declared Position; Constituency Matters; Inconsequential Matters and Unresolved Issues”. These might be more exceptions than are allowed in the typical party-based parliamentary cabinet, but I’m not sure.

[2] Especially seeing as the opposite (namely, having a party system) does not necessarily mean not having consensus-based politics.

[3] Of course, appointment of MPs to executive positions in party-political systems often involve similar motivations – but it hardly ever happens to this extent.

One thought on “The Isle of Man: nonpartisan ‘consensus’ politics and executive-legislative fusion

  1. The Territory of Norfolk Island has a very similar arrangement made only slightly more complex because a large minority of islanders believe there is a document somewhere in the British, Australian or New South Wales archives that proves Queen Victoria intended to grant them independence. Norfolk does have its own language, a mixture of 19th century English and Tahitian developed by the Bounty mutineers. The empire moved them from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk because Pitcairn was too small for their population.

    The chief minister is elected by the 9-member legislative assembly and forms a government with 3 other ministers. There is no formal opposition. The head of state is the administrator appointed by the governor-general of Australia. There are no parties.

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