(Originally posted on tumblr on May 29, 2013)
Before we begin, I’m going to talk for a few paragraphs about some housekeeping stuff, because it occurs to me that while you probably know at least the basics of the world of Harry Potter, you might not be aware of the ridiculous nuances of comparative politics and intergovernmental relations.
The term that might be most confusing to Americans is “state” because our version is slightly warped. In terms of world politics, a “state” refers to a sovereign population and government within a set physical boundary, in the modern era usually one that’s been granted legal recognized status in the U.N. For example, United Kingdom is a state. England is not. England can be called a “nation” in that its people generally share an ethnicity, language, and history. “Country” is the most broad term of the three, usually meaning the physical land itself. This is all confusing and I apologize.
The main difficulty with this project is that fictional governments are usually peripheral to the story itself. This issue is less pronounced in something like A Song of Ice and Fire, which is essentially a global political drama with dragons. The Harry Potter series is a different animal altogether. The narrative is much more narrow; it almost solely follows the adventures of a single teenager, and while these are obviously remarkable adventures, Harry himself has relatively limited contact with and knowledge of his government. (There isn’t a Wizard Government class at Hogwarts, for example. One might assume that this topic is folded into the History of Magic class, but one can’t be sure.) Most actual teenagers are the same way. Also, this information is usually boring to the average reader, and the author therefore invents only as much information is necessary for world-building purposes, leaving the rest of it up to our imaginations to fill in.
I could go into a long commentary based on the structure of Wizarding culture, especially in regard to education. Children in the U.K. magical community are accepted into Hogwarts (the only magical school in the country, though not in the world) by their eleventh birthday. We must assume that children are either home-schooled until then, which would place an economic burden on parents, or sent to Muggle primary schools, which might cause a breach of the International Magical Secrecy Act (which I will discuss in greater detail below) considering that small children aren’t amazing at keeping things secret.
We’re told that going to Hogwarts is not generally compulsory; children may be sent to a foreign school or home schooled, but when a student is expelled from Hogwarts, their wand is broken, which seems like an almost cruel and unusual punishment, given that a wizard’s power is almost completely dependent on their wand.
Wizards in the U.K. are governed by the Ministry of Magic, which in turn functions in a parallel capacity to the Muggle British Government. In fact, the only Muggle who is told of the existence of the magical community (other than family members of Muggle-borns, obviously) is the Prime Minister of Great Britain, a security measure by the Minister of Magic in case of a magical breach of security that may threaten the Muggle population. (As in Half Blood Prince, following the public return of Voldemort.)
Besides this, British Wizards seem to operate completely independently from the Muggle government, a sovereign state that is dispersed among another sovereign state, which is not a concept that has a direct parallel in modern government.
The concept of diplomatic immunity is really the closest analogy I can make to the way witches and wizards operate in Muggle communities. Despite being widely misrepresented in popular culture as a free-for-all pass to break any law in your host country, diplomatic immunity really just refers to a set of relatively banal things a representative of a foreign nation might be protected from, like having their dwelling searched or being called as a witness in a crime. These special rights and protections vary widely based on host nation, nation of origin, and level of importance of the diplomat in question, and have been the subject of a lot of inter-state stress given the sketchy nature of diplomatic relations, but suffice it to say that if you’re a diplomat you really shouldn’t just run people over and claim you were on official government business. You probably shouldn’t do this if you’re not a diplomat either.
The worldwide magical community, under the International Confederation of Wizards, a U.N.- analogous body, is bound by the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, (ISWS) a law that went into effect in 1692. This law was passed in order to protect both the magical and muggle populations, who were beginning to come to a friction (The ISWS was passed around the same time as the real-life Salem Witch Trials.) and it outlaws the magical population from using magic in front of Muggles, or otherwise drawing undue attention to themselves, unless there are lives in danger. Wizards and Witches are required to dress appropriate to the situation and time period when amongst Muggles, which seems to be a struggle for some since magical fashion – along with technological development – appears to have stagnated around whenever robes and cloaks were stylish.
One must assume there are other caveats to this, given that there are Muggles who live with magical children or spouses, and there is canonical evidence that magic was done in front of Muggle family members with no legal repercussions. It is reasonable to infer, however, that the magical community is bound by the same laws as their Muggle counterparts for the simple reason that breaking them might cause a breach of the ISWS. When a Witch or Wizard has performed magic or otherwise made Muggles aware of their presence, a team of specialists is sent to wipe the Muggles’ memories of the event. Muggles who are already aware of the existence of the magical community presumably do not represent this breach of security.
Additionally, though Britain has a democratically elected government on both a national and regional level, Wizards in that country do not seem to hold any kind of elections. They are governed by the aforementioned Ministry of Magic, lead by the Minister of Magic, who is selected by the Wizengamot, a body that appears to act in both a judicial and legislative capacity and itself does not seem to be elected.
Given the lack of democratic representation and oversight in their government, it is easy to imagine that corruption and incompetence would be rampant within the magical community, and it probably goes a long way to explain the ease with which Voldemort was able to take control over the Ministry in such a short amount of time.
While my knowledge of the British criminal justice system is based almost solely on watching Hot Fuzz and a few episodes of Law and Order U.K. I cannot help but feel that the magical version leaves something to be desired. Even discounting the vicious Death Eater regime that was described in Deathly Hallows, there are several examples from the books that detail a system that could and was easily manipulated.
There is one instance within the context of a “normal” judicial hearing that we as an audience are privy to: Harry Potter’s trial for usage of underage magic. It is clear that while the entire Wizengamot was present for Harry’s hearing in Order of the Phoenix , this is not a usual occurrence for a relatively minor crime like underage magic. I’m going to haphazardly compare this to underage unlicensed driving, which in my state in the U.S. carries a sentence of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Having the entire Wizengamot present would be like the U.S. Supreme Court presiding over a standard traffic violation, even with a high-profile individual as a defendant. Other judicial hearings we see are under the Death Eater regime or during what might be called a war-crimes trial, and can’t really be looked at as an example of a standard hearing.
The prison system definitely crosses the line of inhumane treatment, given that the magical community in Britain only has one corrections facility; Azkaban prison. It was staffed with magical creatures called Dementors that literally suck all the happiness out of you and also have the ability to eat your soul. In fact, while the Ministry of Magic does not appear to condone capital punishment, there is precedent for this “Dementor’s Kiss” occurring as a legal punishment, a process that leaves the victim alive and functional, but unresponsive, like the origins of the zombie myth. One would probably argue that simply being executed would be preferable, but this one doesn’t want to open that door. Suffice it to say that if you are sentenced to Azkaban, you are serving time with offenders ranging from petty theft to genocide.
The issue of the actual size of the Magical population also leaves some questions, but may account for what we see as a lack of governmental oversight. Based on this forum thread (though I’ve seen other theories along the same vein) as well as estimates from J.K. Rowling, there are only roughly 3,000 witches and wizards in the U.K. To put this in perspective, I went to an average-sized high school that housed more people. When looked at from this angle, such small infrastructure and splintered communities make sense to a disparate population attempting to stay incognito.