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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE

BRITISH POLITICAL SYSTEM

Contents


BACKGROUND HISTORY

The single most important fact in understanding the nature of the British political system is the fundamental continuity of that system. Britain has not had a revolution of the kind experienced by so many other countries and Britain has not been invaded or occupied for almost 1,000 years. The last successful invasion was in 1066 by the Normans. Is this true of any other country in the world? I can only think of Sweden.

Some might argue that the English Civil War (1642-1651) was yjr nation's revolution but the main constitutional consequence - the abolition of the monarchy - only lasted 11 years and the Restoration of the Monarchy has so far lasted 350 years (although it is now, of course, a very different monarchy). There was a time in British history which we call the Glorious Revolution but it was a very English revolution, in the sense that nobody died, if a rather Dutch revolution in that it saw William of Orange take the throne.

So the British have never had anything equivalent to the American Revolution or the French Revolution, they have not been colonised in a millennium but rather been the greatest colonisers in history, and in neither of the two world wars were they invaded or occupied.

This explains why:

To simplify British political history very much, it has essentially been a struggle to shift political power and accountability from the all-powerful king - who claimed that he obtained his right to rule from God - to a national parliament that was increasingly representative of ordinary people and accountable to ordinary people. There have been many milestones along this long and troubled road to full democracy.

A key date in this evolution was 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta which involved him sharing power with the barons. This is regarded as the first statement of citizen rights in the world - although Hungarians are proud of the Golden Bull of just seven years later.

The so-called Model Parliament was summoned by King Edward I in 1295 and is regarded as the first representative assembly. Unlike the absolute monarchs of other parts of Europe, the King of England required the approval of Parliament to tax his subjects and so, then as now, central to the exercise of power was the ability to raise funds.

The bicameral nature of the British Parliament - Commons and Lords - emerged in 1341 and the two-chamber model of the legislature has served as a model in very many other parliamentary systems.

The Bill of Rights of 1689 - which is still in effect - lays down limits on the powers of the crown and sets out the rights of Parliament and rules for freedom of speech in Parliament, the requirement to regular elections to Parliament, and the right to petition the monarch without fear of retribution.

It was the 19th century before the franchise was seriously extended and each extension was the subject of conflict and opposition. The great Reform Act of 1832 abolished 60 'rotten', or largely unpopulated, boroughs and extended the vote from 400,000 citizens to 600,000, but this legislation - promoted by the Whigs (forerunners of the Liberals) - was only carried after being opposed three times by the Tories (forerunners of the Conservatives). Further Reform Acts followed in 1867 and 1884. It was 1918 before the country achieved a near universal franchise and 1970 before the last extension of the franchise (to 18-21 year olds).

Another important feature of British political history is that three parts of the United Kingdom - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - have a special status and have local administrations with a wide range of responsibilities. However, England - which represents about 84% of the total UK population of around 63 million - does not have a clear and strong sense of regionalism. So the British political system does not have anything equivalent to the federal system of the 50 states in the USA.

The final important part of British political history is that, since 1973, we have been a member of what is now called the European Union (EU). This now has 27 Member States covering most of the continent of Europe. Therefore the UK Government and Parliament are limited in some respects by what they can do because certain areas of policy or decision-making are a matter for the EU which operates through a European Commission appointed by the member governments and a European Parliament elected by the citizens of the member states.

The year 2015 will be a special year for the British Parliament as it will be the 750th anniversary of the de Montfort Parliament (the first gathering in England that can be called a parliament in the dictionary sense of the word), along with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document that set the scene for the later 1265 de Montfort Parliament.

THREE ARMS OF THE STATE

The British political system is headed by a monarchy but essentially the powers of the monarch as head of state - currently Queen Elizabeth II - are ceremonial. The most important practical power is the choice of the Member of Parliament to form a government, but invariably the monarch follows the convention that this opportunity is granted to the leader of the political party with the most seats in the House of Commons.

Although any remaining powers of the monarchy are largely ceremonial, the Royal Family does have some subtle and hidden influence on the legislative process because of a little-known provision that senior royals - notably the Queen and her eldest son the Prince of Wales - have to be consulted about legislation that might affect their private interests and given the opportunity to have such legislation amended.

The monarch is determined on the hereditary and primogeniture principles which means that the oldest male child of a monarch is the next in line to the throne. Under the terms of the Act of Settlement of 1701, the monarch and the monarch's spouse cannot be Catholics because the UK monarch is also the Head of the Church of England. These archaic arrangements are currently under review.

In classical political theory, there are three arms of the state:

  1. The executive - the Ministers who run the country and propose new laws
  2. The legislature - the elected body that passes new laws
  3. The judiciary - the judges and the courts who ensure that everyone obeys the laws
In the political system of the United States, the constitution provides that there must be a strict separate of powers of these three arms of the state, so that no individual can be a member of more than one. So, for example, the President is not and cannot be a member of the Congress. This concept is called 'separation of powers', a term coined by the French political, enlightenment thinker Montesquieu.

This is not the case in the UK:

This is an illustration of how pragmatic and flexible the British political system is.

THE U.K. PARLIAMENT

The British Parliament is often called Westminster because it is housed in a distinguished building in central London called the Palace of Westminster.

The British Parliament - like most in the world - is bicameral, that is there are two houses or chambers. The only exceptions to this practice around the world are some small countries such as Finland, Israel and New Zealand.

The House of Commons

This is the lower chamber but the one with the most authority. I worked there as a Research Assistant to Merlyn Rees MP, then Labour's Opposition spokesperson on Northern Ireland, from 1972-1974.

The last General Election was held in May 2010 and the result was as follows: Note 1: In practice, the Speaker - notionally Conservative - is not counted against any political party because he is required to be neutral.

Note 2: One constituency did not vote because the death of a candidate postponed that election.

Link: House of Commons site click here

The House of Lords

This is the upper chamber but the one with less authority. Its main roles are to revise legislation and keep a check on Government by scrutinising its activities. Since 1911, its power to block "money bills" is limited to one month and its power to block other bills is limited to one session, so ultimately it cannot block the will of the House of Commons.

The House of Lords is an utterly bizarre institution that has no parallel anywhere in the democratic world. Indeed the only other country with an unelected second chamber is Lesotho. The explanation for the unusual nature of the Lords goes back to the beginning of this essay: the British political system has evolved very slowly and peacefully and it is not totally logical or democratic.

Link: House of Lords site click here

Some distinguishing features of the British Parliamentary system

THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS

In the British political system, almost all legislation is proposed by the Government and much of it comes from promises made in the manifesto of the relevant political party at the last election. At the beginning of each annual session of the Parliament, the main Bills to be considered are announced by the Queen in a speech opening that year's session of Parliament.

All legislation has to be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

In each House of Parliament, a proposed piece of legislation – called a Bill – goes through the following stages:

Several points are worth noting about the legislative process:

Link: Bill stages click here

POLITICAL PARTIES

The idea of political parties first took form in Britain and the Conservative Party claims to be the oldest political party in the world. Political parties began to form during the English civil wars of the 1640s and 1650s. First, there were Royalists and Parliamentarians; then Tories and Whigs. Whereas the Whigs wanted to curtail the power of the monarch, the Tories - today the Conservatives - were seen as the patriotic party.

Today there are three major political parties in the British system of politics:

In recent years, Britain - or more specifically England - has seen the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage. In the English local elections of May 2013, UKIP did spectacularly well, taking 23% of the vote. It remains to be seen whether this is a protest movement that will implode or whether continued success will impact the nature of British politics.

In addition to these four main parties, there are some much smaller UK parties (notably the Green Party) and some parties which operate specifically in Scotland (the Scottish National Party), Wales (Plaid Cymru) or Northern Ireland (such as Sinn Fein for the nationalists and the Democratic Unionist Party for the loyalists).

Each political party chooses its leader in a different way, but all involve all the Members of Parliament of the party and all the individual members of that party. By convention, the leader of the political party with the largest number of members in the House of Commons becomes the Prime Minster (formally at the invitation of the Queen).

Political parties are an all-important feature of the British political system because:

Having said this, the influence of the three main political parties is not as dominant as it was in the 1940s and 1950s because:

In the past, class was a major determinant of voting intention in British politics, with most working class electors voting Labour and most middle class electors voting Conservative. These days, class is much less important because:

In the British political system, there is a broad consensus between the major parties on:

The main differences between the political parties concern:

THE U.K. GOVERNMENT

All Government Ministers have to be a member of either the House of Commons (most of them) or the House of Lords (the remainder of them) and every Government Department will have at least one Minister in the Lords, so that the Department can speak in either House as necessary. The number of Ministers varies from administration to administration, but typically there will be around 90, the 20 or so most senior being Cabinet Ministers. In addition, there are around 20 whips who are on the Government payroll.

Historically most British governments have been composed of ministers from a single political party which had an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons and the 'first-past-the-post' (FPTP) electoral system greatly facilitates and indeed promotes this outcome. However, occasionally there have been minority governments or coalition governments.

Currently the UK has its first coalition government in 65 years since, in May 2010, the Conservatives went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats because in the General Election they did not secure a majority of the seats. In this coalition, the Lib Dems have 17 ministers led by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

The Prime Minister

The UK does not have a President. Constitutionally the head of state is the monarch who is a hereditary member of the Royal Family. However, the monarch has very few formal powers and stays above party politics.

So, in practice, the most important person in the British political system is the Prime Minister. The first modern Prime Minister was Sir Robert Walpole who served from 1721-1742, so the current PM - David Cameron - is the 53rd (and, on first taking office, the youngest since 1812, a few months younger than when Tony Blair became PM in 1997). In theory, the Prime Minister simply choses the ministers who run Government departments and chairs the Cabinet – the collection of the most senior of those Ministers. In practice, however, the Prime Minister is a very powerful figure and increasingly has been behaving much like a president in other political systems, especially in the area of foreign policy.

The official residence of the Prime Minister is at 10 Downing Street.

One British Prime Minister has been assassinated: Spencer Perceval was shot dead in the House of Commons in 1812.

Link: Prime Minister click here

Government Departments

The most important political departments are called:

Many other UK Government Departments are similar to those in other countries and cover subjects such as education, health, transport, industry, and justice. However, there are also departments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

When talking about the British Government, the media will often use the term Whitehall because a number of Government Departments are located along a central London street very close to Parliament called Whitehall.

Government Ministers

All Government Departments are run by Ministers who are either Members of the House of Commons or Members of the House of Lords. We have three classes of Minister:

The Prime Minster and all the Secretaries of State together comprise an executive body of government called the Cabinet. The Cabinet meets usually once a week on Tuesday morning. Cabinet meetings are confidential and all members are bound by any decision that it takes in a practice called collective responsibility. An extensive system of Cabinet Committees considers matters either before they go to Cabinet or (more usually) instead of them going to Cabinet.

Although all Ministers are appointed by the Prime Minster and report to him, ultimately all Ministers are accountable to Parliament:

Link: full list of current ministers click here

The civil service

Each Secretary of State is able to appoint a couple of political advisers – formally known as Special Advisers – to serve him or her. I was a Special Adviser to Merlyn Rees in the Northern Ireland Office from 1974-1976 and in the Home Office from 1976-1978, while my son Richard was a Special Adviser to Ruth Kelly in the Department for Education & Skills in 2005 and a Special Adviser to Douglas Alexander at the Department for International Development in 2009-2010.

But Special Advisers are simply advisers. They have no line management responsibilities in respect of the staff of the Department. Besides these tiny number of Special Advisers, Government Departments are run by civil servants who are recruited in a totally open manner and serve governments of any political parties. The independence and professionalism of the British civil service are fundamental features of the British political system. My son Richard once worked as a civil servant in what was then the Department of Trade & Industry and my half-brother Chris was an official in the Treasury for five years.

DEVOLVED GOVERNMENT

The UK has a devolved system of government, but this is categorically not a system of federal government such as in the United States [click here] or Australia [click here], partly because less than a fifth of the citizens of the UK are covered the three bodies in question and partly because the three bodies themselves have different powers from one another.

The three devolved administrations are:

The Scottish Parliament

This came into operation in May 1999 and covers the 5M citizens of Scotland. It has 129 members elected by a system of proportional representation known as the mixed member system. As a result, 73 members represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the 'first past the post' system, with a further 56 members returned from eight additional member regions, each electing seven members. All members are elected for four-year terms.

The Scottish Parliament meets in Holyrood, Edinburgh. It has legislative powers over those matters not reserved to the UK Parliament and it has limited tax-raising powers.

In the election of May 2011, for the first time a single political party gained an overall majority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. That party is the Scottish National Party which will hold a referendum in 2014 seeking support for Scottish independence from the remainder of the UK.

Link: Scottish Parliament click here

The Welsh Assembly

This came into operation in May 1999 and covers the 3M citizens of Wales. It has 60 members elected by a system of proportional representation known as the mixed member system. As a result, 40 members represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the 'first past the post' system, with a further 20 members returned from five additional member regions, each electing four members. All members are elected for four-year terms.

It meets in the Senedd, Cardiff. When first created, the Assembly had no powers to initiate primary legislation. However, since 2006, the Assembly has powers to legislate in some areas, though still subject to the veto of the Westminster Parliament. The Assembly has no tax-varying powers. The Welsh Assembly, therefore, has less power than either the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly because - unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland - Wales does not have a separate legal system from England.

Link: Welsh Assembly click here

The Northern Ireland Assembly

The present version of the Assembly came into operation in May 2007 and covers the 1.5M citizens of Northern Ireland. It has 108 members - six from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies - elected by a system of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote.

It meets in the Parliament Building, Belfast. It has legislative powers over those matters not reserved to the UK Parliament, but it has no tax-raising powers.

A First Minister and a Deputy First Minister are elected to lead the Executive Committee of Ministers. As a result of the sectarian division in Northern Ireland, the two must stand for election jointly and to be elected they must have cross-community support by the parallel consent formula, which means that a majority of both the Members who have designated themselves Nationalists and those who have designated themselves Unionists and a majority of the whole Assembly, must vote in favour. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister head the Executive Committee of Ministers and, acting jointly, determine the total number of Ministers in the Executive.

Link: Northern Ireland Assembly click here

THE U.K. JUDICIARY

The British judicial branch is extremely complex. Unlike most countries which operate a single system of law, the UK operates three separate legal systems: one for England and Wales, one for Scotland, and one for Northern Ireland. Although bound by similar principles, these systems differ in form and the manner of operation.

Currently a process of reform is in operation.

The Lord Chancellor's office - which for 1,400 years maintained the judiciary - has now been replaced by the Ministry for Justice which administers the court system. A Judical Appointments Commission has been set up to advise the head of the MoJ on the appointment of new judges.

The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords - previously the highest court in the land - was, by way of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, replaced by the Supreme Court in October 2009 to allow the judiciary to operate in total independence from the Government. The Supreme Court is now the ultimate court of appeal in all legal matters other than criminal cases in Scotland. It consists of 12 judges and sits in the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square.

The UK does not have its own Bill of Rights. However, since 1951 it has been a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (part of the Council of Europe) and since 1966 it has allowed its citizens the right of individual petition enabling them to take the government to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Blair Government incorporated the provisions of the European Convention in UK domestic law in 2000, so that citizens can now seek to have the provisions enforced in domestic courts.

CIVIL SOCIETY

One cannot explain a liberal democracy such as the United Kingdom simply by talking about the formal political and governmental institutions, any more than one can understand fish without talking about water.

Democratic government cannot operate without a strong civil society to support it and hold political and governmental bodies to account. The special history of the UK - involving gradual changes over long periods - has created a subtle but effective civil society that outsiders often find a little difficult to understand. So it is useful to list some of the more important elements of such a civil society:

Bill of Rights - Although Britain does not have a written constitution, it does have a Bill of Rights because it is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights which was drawn up by a body called the Council of Europe. The European Convention is part of our domestic law so that it can be enforced in our domestic courts as well as in the European Court of Human Rights.

Independent judiciary - Our judges are appointed through an independent process and operate totally independently of government. They can find that a Government Minister has acted against a law of the UK Parliament or a Directive of the European Union or against the European Convention and require the Minister to change his actions.

A free media - As long as they are not being libelous, newspapers, radio and television can say what they want about the Parliament, the Government and politicians. An important new development is the Internet. Web sites and blogs can say what they want about politicians and political issues. I have a web site and a blog and I often write about political issues. There is no need in the UK to register a newspaper or web site or to obtain permission to run it.

Freedom of information legislation – We have a Freedom of Information Act which is a piece of legislation that obliges national government, local government and most public bodies to provide any information requested by an citizen. The only exceptions are things like information which concern national security, commercial confidentiality or the private matters of citizens.

Trade unions - About a quarter of workers in Britain are members of trade unions representing different occupational groups or industries. These trade unions are totally independent of government and employers. I was a national trade union official for 24 years and believe strongly in independent trade unions.

Pressure groups - We have lots and lots of organisations that campaign publicly on political issues such as poverty, pensions, and the environment. They perform an invaluable role in putting forward ideas and holding politicians to account.

Charities and voluntary groups - Similarly we have lots and lots of organisations that do some of the things that government does as well such as running schools and hospitals, looking after the poor and old, and cleaning up the environment.

CONSTITUTIONAL AND POLITICAL REFORM

Compared to many other democracies, institutional and procedural reform in the British political system has been very slow, gradual and piecemeal. However, there has been a growing movement for more reform, starting with the actual running of the House of Commons:

The appetite for constitutional change became much stronger in the aftermath of the May 2009 scandal over the expenses of Members of Parliament. Then the formation in May 2010 of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government opened up new possibilities for change with a number of specific measures set out in the agreement between the parties establishing the new government. However, actual progress has been limited.

The proposed changes on the agenda of the current Coalition Government are as follows:

Candidates for further change would include the following proposals: So, at the time of the last General Election, the scene seemed set for more change than for many decades but, in reality, most of the measures discussed at the time of the Coalition Agreement have floundered.

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 22 April 2014

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