What is a regime?

English: Constitutional Monarchy

English: Constitutional Monarchy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do we mean by regime? I use this term often in my writing as it explains the wider context for political activity. Politics occurs within the regime and the regime shapes political activity. The term, though, is not used often. When it is used, it usually attracts a negative view, as it is often associated with authoritarian governments or states. Many people confuse it with the state, society, or culture. Instead, these fit within the idea of the regime. Although the modern usage suggests that regime is the layer between the state and the government,[1] I use the term more broadly. A rough equivalent might be to consider it as the Establishment for its ability to influence the way of life within a community. However, the regime is more than the establishment. Even though the idea of an establishment is closely related to regime, as the regime shapes the establishment, which embodies the society’s highest ideals, they are not the same. What the society values and rewards most highly emerges in the establishment, which expresses the regime. The regime creates the ideal type for the community, the citizen. Before we can understand the citizen, though, we have to consider the regime.

What is a regime?

My work relies on Leo Strauss’s approach to the term. He explained that regime means the following.[2]

[T]he order, the form, which gives society its character. Regime is therefore specific manner of life. Regime is the form of life as living together, the manner of living of society and in society…regime means simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life, its moral taste, form of society, form state, form of government, spirit of laws. [3]

The regime shapes and reflects society’s elements and the ends to which they act. We can see that the regime shapes society, which shapes the establishment that in turn creates or encourages a type of person or character. Here I want to illustrate the idea through the United Kingdom regime.

The institutions shape our lives more than we realize

In the UK, the regime manifests in the society that the government wants to create. In certain systems or institutions, such as the legal, benefits, education, and prison system, we discern an effort to create or encourage behaviours to shape a way of life. This way of life depends, though on individuals who exhibit the preferred behaviours. The regime produces the character that the society rewards. At the same time, regime relies on other institutions. The press and media patrol the public domain to discourage behaviour that diverges from the regime. They also celebrate those that fit within it. The regime encourages a certain type of virtue that forms the character of each citizen and shapes public behaviour in the public domain.

Popular media shapes our character as much as the laws do

We can see this illustrated in the way the popular media encourage a celebrity culture that draws a person of a certain character type who seeks fame in entertainment or sports. The character the celebrity culture encourages, though, is not necessarily the regime’s ideal type. Instead, it is a subset in that it is the character acceptable to public opinion. Public opinion even though it influences the regime, is not the same as the regime. From these institutions and the laws, a certain type of behaviour emerges. To succeed, though, a citizen has to do more than obey the laws. They have to conform in some way to the regime. If our focus stays on the government, the laws, the regime’s public face, we miss its deeper systemic nature.

How the regime is founded determines a large part of its nature

In the UK, the regime also includes the Crown, which is made up of the Monarchy, the Church, and Parliament. Each of these is sovereign or absolute in its own way. These shape the government, education system, and laws. The Crown wants to habituate its citizens to obedience. Without obedience, the regime would founder as it lacks a constitutional founding in consent. When we consider how the regime is founded, its origins, we begin to understand how it operates. The UK regime began in conquest and force of arms not by consent. In a system based in consent, the government has to persuade the people and encourages political obligations through reason while a system based on coercion has to command the people and habituate obedience through custom, practice and only occasional through reason. From this founding, we see how the regime has habituated the people to accept and obey the Crown’s rule.

How a regime is founded influences the character it nurtures

From that founding, we can also understand why the regime embraced a slave economy and exploited the slave trade. Slavery fits the royal prerogative ethos and a regime based in the idea that the strong rule and the weak suffer what they must. Over time, though, the regime has changed. The Crown has a democratic veneer through its steady embrace of the idea of the rule of law. The Monarchy’s founding ethos, perhaps softened by the democratic veneer, is transmitted through its Government as shaped by Parliament and the Supreme Court. The founding ethos although diminished in its intensity remains present in the Royal prerogative.[4] Through the prerogative the Crown acts with arbitrary power beyond the rule of law even if it has to accord to the law. Before we believe that the rule of law restrains prerogative power, we must remember that Parliament sees no limit to its sovereign will, it is above the law.[5] In that belief, it reiterates the same will to power that is found within the Monarchy’s founding. As the Crown is central to the regime, the Crown servants swear an oath of allegiance and obedience to the Queen. The regime gains its character from Monarchy and to overlook this reality is to misunderstand the regime and the establishment that reflects and maintains the regime. As the Monarch does not rule by consent, she is not elected nor is her successor, it is based in coercion. The coercion, though, is hidden, subtle, and almost implicit, which shapes the regime and the citizen’s behaviour. The near implicit coercion is part of the idea of policing by consent. On the surface, it sounds reasonable, yet it betrays the nature of the political regime’s founding in force. Despite the democratic veneer given by Parliament, elections only change the government; they never change the regime or its nature.[6] Something else would be required to change the regime. The regime can change by consent or by coercion. The latter is unlikely, as the Crown possesses the monopoly on all force and the former would require a crisis greater than any government. Moreover, the possibility of regime change through consent is reduced by the regime’s ability to inculcate acceptance and loyalty to such institutions as the Monarchy.

The Crown as the pinnacle of public behaviour embodies the regime

The Crown’s coercive power is subtlety reinforced by public displays of military force such as the trooping of the guard and the Queen’s birthday honours. These are her soldiers. They serve her first. They do not serve her as head of state. Were they to serve the UK state, they would swear allegiance to the state not the Queen. However, the regime also relies on positive incentives such as the honours system to encourage certain types of behaviour in particular public service. Yet, there are other the less public incentives such as wealth and power. The city of Westminster and the City of London, the UK regime’s twin towers of power and influence, contain the guilds and inns. These institutions reflect and advance the regime. The courts and the markets are ways the regime channels the ambitious away from such thoughts as drove men such as Alcibiades, Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell. Thus, even efforts to change the regime by consent will be stymied or greatly restrained, as the powerful and gifted will be turned to other pursuits.

The limits to regime as an analytical tool

Regime, though, has specific limits that constrain its use as an analytical tool. The term reflects an earlier time when politics was practiced differently and society was organised differently. Today, larger, more complex, modern states and societies require the term to be adjusted. The regime, though, always captures the relationship between the individual and the community. Despite its pre-modern origins, the regime is better suited for the UK given its monarchy. The UK’s founding and the monarchy’s continued presence and influence throughout all institutions and society, has a strong influence on the regime. We must remember despite the monarchy’s diminished power, it is still Her Majesty’s government and Her Majesty’s ministers who enforce her laws even if they are proposed by Parliament. The Crown still rules and is still sovereign and the people are ruled and are subject to it. Within that understanding, regime allows us to understand the politics and the political activity.

Regime influences our understanding of politics

With regime as an analytical term, we can explore the way different regimes address key issues. Each regime reflects an approach to legitimacy, democracy, liberalism, and the relationship between the individual and the community. We note the difference between a liberal democracy and a constitutional democracy in these areas. Although they may share some characteristics, they are different regimes. Their founding reveals who possesses sovereignty. In the UK, the Crown rules and has sovereignty. In the liberal democracy, the people are sovereign and this is expressed through the government that represents their interests. The people rule and are ruled in turn. From this founding, and the way it is expressed, the different regimes will encourage different behaviours. They also reveal a different understanding of the relationship between the individual and the society. In the UK, the individual has, with the Human Rights Act, gained access to a standard beyond Parliament’s or the Crown’s sovereign will. By contrast, liberal democratic regimes serve the individual and further their self-interest.

A regime expresses and shapes the relationship between ruler and ruled

We also see the difference in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. In the constitutional monarchy, the Crown rules and the people are ruled or governed. In contrast, the liberal democracy is based on the belief that the people rule and are ruled in turn. To put it directly, no one rules the Queen. She is above the law and only those laws directly written about her apply to her. Where she obeys the laws, she does so voluntarily. No one in a liberal democracy has the option to obey the laws they want to obey; everyone is subject to the law. From this difference, we can see why the Royal Household, an extension of the Queen, has tremendous influence even if she no longer possesses direct political power.

How the regime exercises power tell us about its nature

Once we consider the regime, we can also start to understand the way the regime exercises power. Institutions create the regime and these institutions exercise power. In particular, we see that the laws are only one form of power available to the Crown to influence and shape behaviour. Another instrument is the ability to shape public opinion. Other instruments are not open to the public to influence. In particular, the UK as a constitutional monarchy retains its prerogative power, which provides an arbitrary power unconstrained by law. The government regularly uses the prerogative instead of as an exception.[7] A liberal democracy has the same prerogative power but it is exercised in rare exceptions. The exceptions are usually a severe threat that requires a state of emergency. The prerogative power is not exercised to suit the government’s interest. In the constitutional monarchy, with prerogative power and the Queen’s status, we see that the rule of law is less robust as arbitrary political power can be exercised beyond the law. Such an approach encourages a view that law and political power reflect the regime’s will and neither the rule of law nor a higher standard, such as human rights, guides it. An individual will see political power exercised by arbitrary will rather than through law equal to all and be encouraged to defer to its use. In the liberal democracy, the rule of law encourages a moderate behaviour encouraged by a belief in the equality before the law and the need for political power to justify itself before the law.


I hope this essay provides an insight into what I mean by regime. I hope others can find it of use and interest. I would be interested in your views on the idea of regime and whether you would recommend other material or sources to complement what I have described.

[1] “Contemporary academic usage of the term “regime” is broader than popular and journalistic usage, meaning “an intermediate stratum between the government (which makes day-to-day decisions and is easy to alter) and the state (which is a complex bureaucracy tasked with a range of coercive functions).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regime

[2] The idea of regime is found more in ancient political philosophy as Plato and Aristotle relied on it as central to their approach to politics. An important caveat is that ancient political communities were smaller and had a greater control, in a certain sense, over the individual’s life than the modern nation states. For the idea of regime in ancient political philosophy consider http://batesca.tripod.com/regime.htm and http://federalistpublicola.com/2007/10/15/plato-and-aristotles-regimes-republic-and-politics/

[3] Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? pp 9-55 in What is political Philosophy? and other studies Free Press 1959 p.34

[4] See for example: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200506/ldselect/ldconst/236/23603.htm

[5] Lord Neuberger recognized this point when he quoted Lord Justice Laws,

“It may be that my perceptive and far-thinking colleague , Lord Justice Laws, will one day turn out to be right when he argued that, through judicial development of the common law, ‘a gradual reordering of our constitutional priorities [may] bring alive the nascent idea that a democratic legislature cannot be above the law.61 ’ But we are not there yet.” (the footnote is from: Laws, Illegality and the Problem of Jurisdiction, in Supperstone & Goudie (eds), Judicial Review, (Butterworths) (1997) 4.17 cited in Goldworthy, The Myth of the Common Law Constitution in Edlin (ed), Common Law Theory (CUP) (2007) at 204) http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20131202164909/http://judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Speeches/mr-speech-weedon-lecture-110406.pdf

[6] As Vernon Bogdanor explains, the UK lacks a constitutional moment. http://www.consoc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/COSJ2947_The-Crisis-of-the-Constitution_WEB_FINAL.pdf Such a moment would create consent.

[7] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200506/ldselect/ldconst/236/23603.htm

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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