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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE
BRITISH POLITICAL SYSTEM
A VERY, VERY SHORT HISTORY
To understand fully any country's political system, one needs to understand something of its history. This is especially true of the United Kingdom because its history has been very different from most other nations and, as a result, its political system is very different from most other nations too.
Like its (unwritten) constitution, the British state evolved over time. We probably need to start in 1066 when William the Conqueror from Normandy invaded what we now call England, defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold and established a Norman dynasty. The Normans were not satisfied with conquering England and, over the next few centuries, tried to conquer Ireland, Wales and Scotland. They succeeded with the first two and failed with the last despite several wars over the centuries.
By one of those ironical twists of history, when Queen Elizabeth of England died in 1603, she was succeeded by her cousin James VI, King of Scots who promptly decamped from Edinburgh and settled in London as King James I of England while keeping his Scots title and running Scotland by remote control.
A century later the Scottish economic and political elite bankrupted themselves through something called the Darien Scheme and agreed to a Union between England and Scotland to make themselves solvent again and so Great Britain with one Parliament based in London came into being in 1707. The Irish parliament was abolished in 1801 with Ireland returning members to Westminster and the new political entity was called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Understandab;y the southern (Catholic) Irish never reconciled themselves to being ruled by the English and rebelled in 1916 and gained independence in 1922. The northern (Protestant) Irish did not want independence and so the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland arrived. Not a snappy name.
Meanwhile, although the Normans were the last to mount a successful invasion of the country, there were plenty of other plans to conquer the nation, notably the Spanish under King Philip II in 1588, the French under Napoleon in 1803-1805, and the Germans under Hitler in 1940. None succeeeded.
Furthermore, in recent centuries, Britain has not had a revolution of the kind experienced by so many other countries. Some might argue that the English Civil War (1642-1651) was the nation's revolution and - athough it was three and a half centuries ago - it did bring about a major shift in power, 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 (1688) 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.
HOW HISTORY HAS SHAPED THE POLITICAL SYSTEM
The single most important fact in understanding the nature of the British political system is the fundamental continuity of that system. For almost 1,000 years, Britain has not been invaded or occupied for any length of time or over any substantial territory as the last successful invasion of England was in 1066 by the Normans. Is this true of any other country in the world? I can only think of Sweden.
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.
- almost uniquely in the world, Britain has no written constitution (the only other such nations are Israel, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia)
- the political system is not neat or logical or always fully democratic or particularly efficient
- change has been very gradual and pragmatic and built on consensus
- British attitudes towards the rest of Europe have been insular, not just geographically but culturally, which was a major factor behind the Brexit decision of 23 June 2016.
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 template 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 for 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 65 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 nature of this (dis)United Kingdom took on a new form in the General Election of May 2015 when the Scottish National Party won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland.
The final important part of British political history is that, since 1973, the UK has been a member of what is now called the European Union (EU). This now has 28 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 [for a guide to the working of the EU click here]. However, in a referendum held on 23 June 2016, the British people narrowly voted that the country should leave the European Union (a decision dubbed Brexit), a process that was activated in March 2017 but will take two years and be very complex.
The year 2015 was a special year for the British Parliament as it was 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.
However, the period since the Brexit referendum of mid 2016 has exhibited a febrile and frenetic state of politics in Britain in which the unwritten constitutrion has come under unprecedented strain.
Traditionally Britain has seen no need for the legalistic idea of writing down its constitution in one place. Instead it has relied on the notion that its politicians know where the unwritten lines of the constitution lie and do not cross them. As expressed by academic and historian Professor Peter Hennessey: "The British constitution is a state of mind. It requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work." Rather quaintly, he calls this "the good chap theory of government".
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 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 or who stands the best chance of commanding a majority in a vote of confidence in the 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.
Traditionally the choice of monarch has been determined on the hereditary and primogeniture principles which means that the oldest male child of a monarch was the next in line to the throne. Under the terms of the Act of Settlement of 1701, the monarch and the monarch's spouse could not be Catholics because the UK monarch is also the Head of the Church of England. In 2015, the primogeniture principle was abolished, so that the next in line can now be a female eldest child, and the monarch can marry a Catholic but not himself or herself be one.
In classical political theory, there are three arms of the state:
In the political system of the United States, the constitution provides that there must be a strict division 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 where all Ministers in the government are members of the legislature and one individual, the Lord Chancellor, is actually a member of all three arms.
- The executive - the Ministers who run the country and propose new laws
- The legislature - the elected body that passes new laws
- The judiciary - the judges and the courts who ensure that everyone obeys the laws.
THE U.K. PARLIAMENT
The British Parliament - like that of most larger countries - is bicameral, that is there are two houses or chambers. One tends to find unicameral legislatures in smaller nations such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Israel and New Zealand, although China and Iran are two larger nations with a single legislative chamber (but neither of these countries is a democracy).
The British Parliament is often called Westminster because it is housed in a distinguished building in central London called the Palace of Westminster which stands out because of the clock tower at the south end (this is the Elizabeth Tower and it houses Big Ben) and the tower with a flag at the other end (this is the Victoria Tower). Although this is a grand building, it is in an appalling state of repair and it is planned that in 2025 Parliament will move out of the building for a £3.5 billion refurbishment programme lasting an estinated six years. The House of Commons will move to Richmond House and the House of Lords will relocate to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre.
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 result of the last General Election was as follows:
- The House of Commons sits each week day for about half of the weeks of the year. The precise hours of sitting are:
- Monday 2.30 - 10.30 pm
- Tuesday 2.30 - 10.30 pm
- Wednesday 11.30 am - 7.30 pm
- Thursday 10.30 am - 6.30 pm
- Friday 9.30 am - 3 pm
- The Commons is chaired by the Speaker. Unlike the Speaker in the US House of Representatives, the post is non-political and indeed, by convention, the political parties do not contest the Parliamentary constituency held by the Speaker.
- The House of Commons currently comprises 650 Members of Parliament or MPs (the number varies slightly from time to time to reflect population change). This is a large legislature by international standards. For instance, the House of Representatives in the USA has 435 seats but, of course, each of the 50 US states has its own legislature. Before the General Election of 2010, the Conservative Party said that it wished to reduce the number of Commons seats by around 10% (65 seats) and the Liberal Democrats said that the Commons should be reduced by 150 MPs. The Coalition Government of 2010-2015 passed legislation to reduce the number from 650 to 600, as part of a wider change to the number and size of constituencies, but Parliament blocked the process of redrawing boundaries that is necessary before an General Election can be held with fewer seats.
- Rather oddly (but deliberately), there is insufficient seating capacity in the chamber of the House of Commons for all the MPs. Members do not sit at desks (like most legislatures) but on long, green-covered benches and there is only seating capacity for 437 MPs out of the total of 650. The origin of this strange arrangement is that the Commons first home was the medieval St Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster which could only fit around 400 Members.
- Equally odd is that Members vote (votes are called 'divisions') by physically walking through one of the two lobbies which run along the side of the Commons chamber. These lobbies are the 'aye' lobby and the 'nay' lobby. This archaic procedure means that votes take a long time to conduct and it is not unknown for a member accidentally to walk into the wrong lobby. The votes are counted by 'tellers' who then return to the chamber to announce the numbers to the Speaker.
- Each member in the House of Commons represents a geographical constituency. Typically a constituency would have around 60,000-80,000 voters, depending mainly on whether it is an urban or rural constituency. The largest constituency in the country is the Isle of Wight with around 110,000 electors, while the smallest is Na h-Eileanan an Iar (formerly known as the Western Isles) with an electorate of only arouind 22,000. The Coalition Government of 2010-2015 intended to make the size of constituencies more equal in terms of electors, but so far the legislation has not been implemented.
- Every citizen aged 18 or over can vote once in the constituency in which they live. Voting is not compulsory (as it is in Australia). In the last General Election of May 2015, 66.1% of the electorate actually voted. Most democratic countries use a method of election called proportional representation (PR) which means that there is a reasonable correlation between the percentage of votes cast for a particular political party and the number of seats or representatives won by that party. However, much of the Anglo-Saxon world - the USA, Canada, and the UK but not Australia or New Zealand - uses a method of election called the simple majority system or 'first past the post' (FPTP). In this system, the country is divided into a number of constituencies each with a single member and the party that wins the largest number of votes in each constituency wins that constituency regardless of the proportion of the vote secured. The simple majority system of election tends to under-represent less successful political parties and to maximise the chance of the most popular political party winning a majority of seats nationwide even if it does not win a majority of the votes nationwide.
- Until recently, in the UK (unlike many countries), there was not fixed term parliaments. A General Election - that is, a nationwide election for all 650 seats - was held when the Prime Minister called it, but the election could not be more than five years after the last one and it was usually around four years after the last one. I fought the General Elections of February 1974 and October 1974 as the Labour candidate for the north-east London constituency of Wanstead & Woodford. The Coalition Government of 2010-2015 passed legislation to provide for fixed five-year parliaments which meant that the next General Election was scheduled for May 2020. However, the Prime Minister Theresa May was able to call a snap General Election for 8 June 2017 by winning a Commons vote of more than two-thirds to activate provision for an early election in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
Note 1: In practice, the Speaker is not counted against any political party because he or she is required to be neutral and therefore traditionally he or she is not opposed by other parties in the election.
- Conservative Party: 318 seats (down 13) with 42.45% of the vote
- Labour Party: 262 seats (up 32) with 39.99% of the vote
- Scottish National Party: 35 seats (down 19) with 3.04% of the vote
- Liberal Democrat Party: 12 seats (up 4) with 7.4% of the vote
- Other parties: 22 seats (down 1) with 7.1% of the vote
- Total turnout nationwide was 69% - the highest since the election of 1997
Note 2: In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein - which won 7 constituencies in 2017 - does not take its seats.
House of Commons site click here
BBC live broadcasting of Commons proceedings 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. Furthermore, since 1945, there has been the Salisbury Convention that the House of Lords will not oppose a measure that was specifically mentioned in the last election manifesto of the political party forming the Government.
The House of Lords is an utterly bizarre institution that has no parallel anywhere in the democratic world. 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.
- There is no fixed number of members in the House of Lords and the number fluctuates because of deaths, retirements and new appointments, but currently there are almost 800 members - many more than in the House of Commons, more than the combined houses of the American Congress or the Indian Parliament (although both of these nations have a federal system), and the second biggest legislative body in the world (after the Chinese National People's Congress which is effectively a rubber-stamping body). The number was actually halved to 666 in the reforms of 1999 but, since then, succesive Prime Ministers (especially David Cameron) have been adding new life peers much faster than members are dying. Indeed the last (Coalition) Government added over 100. Ironically the size of the House of Lords continues to rise at the same time as the House of Commons has legislated to reduce its size (although the legislation has not been implemented).
- Historically most members of the House of Lords have been what we called hereditary peers. This meant that years ago a king or queen nominated a member of the aristocracy to be a member of the House and, since then, the right to sit in the House has passed through the family from generation to generation. Clearly this is totally undemocratic and the last Labour Government abolished the right of all but 92 of these hereditary peers to sit in the House.
- Almost all the other members of today's House of Lords are what we call life peers. This means that they have been chosen by the Queen, on the advice of the Government, to sit in the House for as long as they live, but afterwards no member of their family has the right to sit in the House. Almost 200 are former Members of Parliament. Others are distinguished figures in fields such as education, health and social policy.
- A small number of other members - 26 - are archbishops and bishops of the Church of England. The archbishops of Canterbury and York and the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester automatically take seats in the Lords, while the further 21 seats are allocated on the basis of length of service. Iran is the only other country in the world that provides automatic seats for senior religious figures in its legislature.
- There is no retirement age for peers and the average age is an incredible 69.
- Since the House of Lords is composed in a totally different manner from the House of Commons, the Government of the day - which usually has a majority in the Commons does not have a majority in the Lords. So, currently there is a Conservative Government in power, but only around 250 of the 800 members of the Lords (most appointed but some hereditary) take the Conservative whip.
There are approaching 200 Labour Lords and about 100 Liberal Democrats.
- There is nowhere near sufficient seating capacity in the chamber of the House of Lords for all the peers. Members do not sit at desks (like most legislatures) but on long, red-covered benches and there is only seating capacity for 230 peers out of the total of Aroind 800. Even on a 'whipped' vote, a couple of hundred peers will not turn up.
- House of Lords reform is unfinished business. The Parliament Act of 1911 first raised the prospect of an elected upper house but it has still not happened. There is a cross-party consensus that it should become a mainly elected body, although there is as yet no agreement on the details of the next stage of reform.
House of Lords site click here
BBC live broadcasting of Lords proceedings click here
Some distinguishing features of the British Parliamentary system
- Much of the work of Parliament is done in Committees rather than on the floor of the chamber. The House of Commons has two types of committee:
- Select Committees are appointed for the lifetime of a Parliament, 'shadow' the work of a particular Government Department, conduct investigations, receive written and oral evidence, and issue reports. Membership is made up only of backbenchers and reflects proportionately the balance of the parties in the Commons.
- General Committees (previously known as Standing Committees) are temporary bodies, most of them Public Bill Committees formed to examine the detail of a particular piece of proposed legislation and consider amendments to the Bill. Membership includes Government and Opposition spokepersons on the subject matter of the Bill and overall membership reflects proportionately the balance of the parties in the Commons.
The House of Lords only has Select Committees (it does not need Standing Committees because the details of Bills are considered on the floor of the chamber).
- Finally there are some Joint Committees of the Commons and the Lords.
- Discussion and debate involve quite a gladiatorial or confrontational approach. This is reflected in the physical shape of the chambers. Whereas most legislatures are semi-circular, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are rectangular with the Government party sitting on one side and the Opposition parties sitting on the other side. The House of Lords alone has cross-benches for independent peers. It is quite normal for speakers in debates to be interrupted by other members, especially of another party, and, in the Commons, cheering and jeering is a regular occurrence.
- In the Commons, there is a Prime Minister's Question (PMQ) Time for 30 minutes at 12 noon every Wednesday. Questions can be asked on any subject. This is frequently a heated affair with the Leader of the Opposition trying to embarrass the Prime Minister and it is the one part of the week's proceedings guaranteed to attract the interest of the media. In his book "A Journey", former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote: "PMQs was the most nerve-wracking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question."
- The Government is normally assured of a majority in the House of Commons for any measure or vote. This is mainly because in the Commons there is a strong 'whipping' system in which political parties tell their members how to vote on every significant division though a weekly set of instructions. The importance of actually being present to vote in the manner instructed depends on whether the 'whip' is one-line, two-line or - the most serious - three-line. Even when there is a rebellion by members of the majority party, the Government usually obtains its wish because all Ministers and their Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) are required to vote for the Government or resign their Ministerial or PPS position. This is called 'the payroll vote' (although PPS are not actually paid to be a PPS) and currently around 120 MPs or 22% of the Commons make up this block vote.
- The official record of the proceedings of the Commons and the Lords is called Hansard. The press and broadcasters are present all the time and live audio and visual broadcasting can take place at any time.
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:
- First Reading - the Bill is introduced with simply a reading by a Minister of the long title of the Bill
- Second Reading - the general principles of the Bill are debated by all the members of the House and a formal vote is taken
- Committee Stage - each clause and schedule of the Bill, plus amendments to them and any new clauses or schedules, is examined in detail, in the Commons by a small, specially chosen group of members meeting as Public Bill Committee or in the Lords by the members as a whole on the floor of the House
- Report Stage - the changes made to the Bill in the Committee are reported to and debated by the whole House which is invited to consider the Bill as a whole, approve the changes by the Committee, and consider any further proposed changes that might be suggested
- Third Reading - the final version of the Bill is considered by the whole House in a short debate (in the Commons without the facility for further amendments)
- Royal Assent - the Crown gives assent to the Bill which then becomes an Act, the provisions becoming law either immediately or at a date specified in the Act or at a date specified by what is called a Commencement Order
This process of enacting legislation applies to what is called primary legislation which starts as a Bill and finally become an Act. Another type of legislation is called secondary (or delegated) legislation which is usually more detailed. The power to make specific pieces of secondary legislation comes from specific pieces of primary legislation. A piece of secondary legislation - formally called an Order-in-Council - is not even debated unless it is particularly controversial and then it cannot be amended but simply approved or opposed. In practice, the last time Parliament rejected a piece of secondary legislation was in 1979.
- Under normal circumstances, all these stages must be completed in both Houses in one session of Parliament; otherwise the process must begin all over again.
- Debates on most Bills are timetabled through a programme motion (when Government and Opposition agree) or an allocation of time motion which is popularly known as a 'guillotine' motion (when Government and Opposition do not agree).
- As well as almost all legislation coming from the Government, almost all successful amendments originate from the Government.
- Ultimately, exactly the same text of a Bill must be approved by both Houses of Parliament. If the House of Lords approves an amendment to a Bill from the House of Commons, then the Bill returns to the Commons for further consideration. Usually the Lords amendment is not accepted by the Commons which is, after all, the elected chamber with the the democratic mandate. If the Lords insists on passing the amendment - or something like it - again, then the process of the Bill passing back and forth between the two Houses is known colloquially as "ping-pong".
- The House of Lords has much more limited legislative powers than the House of Commons. Money Bills can only be initiated in the Commons and the Lords can only reject legislation from the Commons for one year. Furthermore there is a convention - called the Salisbury Convention - that the Lords does not block legislation in fulfillment of the election manifesto of the elected Government.
In recent years, the number of Bills passed by Parliament has remained broadly constant at around 50 a year. However, these Bills have become longer and, in the past few years, about 3,000 pages of primary legislation, as well as around 13,000 pages of secondary legislation, have been processed by Parliament. The reality, therefore, is that Parliament provides increasingly less scrutiny of a lot of legislation. This situation could become even worse as Parliament attempts to deal with all the legislation needed to take the UK out of the European Union (Brexit).
Link: Bill stages click here
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 four major political parties in the British parliamentary system. These are - with representation as a result of the General Election of 12 December 2019 - as follows:
In recent years, Britain has seen the rise and fall of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Brexit Party, both led by Nigel Farage. In the last General Election, it did not contest seats held by the Conservative Party and failed to win any of the seats which it did contest.
- The Conservative Party (frequently called the Tories) - the centre-Right party, currently led by Boris Johnson, which since 2010 has been in Government either in coalition (2010-2015) or alone (since 2015). The Conservatives won 365 seats (with 43.6% of the vote) – a gain of 47 seats and the party’s best result since 1987. This gives the party an overall majority of 80 in the Housae of Commons.
- The Labour Party - the centre-Left party, (temorarily) led by Jeremy Corbyn, which was last in Government from 1997 to 2010. Labour won 203 seats (with 32.2% of the votes) – a loss of 43 seats and the party’s worst result since 1935.
- The Scottish National Party - the party supporting Scottish independence, which is led by Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP won 48 seats (with 3.9% of the vote) – a gain of 13 seats out of a total contested of 59.
- The Liberal Democrat Party (known as the Lib Dems) - the centrist, libertarian party, (temporarily) led by Jo Swinson, which was the junior member of the Coalition Government of 2010-2015. The Lib Dems won 11 seats (with 11.5% of the votes) – one seat down on 2017 and with the loss of the seat of its leader Jo Swinson.
In addition to these parties, there are some much smaller UK parties (notably the Green Party) and some parties which operate specifically in Wales (Plaid Cymru) or Northern Ireland (such as the Democratic Unionist Party for the loyalistsand Sinn Fein for the nationalists).
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, at least until the 2017 and 2019 general elections, the influence of the three main UK political parties has not been as dominant as it was in the 1940s and 1950s because:
- The three main UK political parties in the UK have existed for a century or more and have a strong and stable 'brand image'.
- It is virtually impossible for someone to be elected to the House of Commons without being a member of an established political party.
- All political parties strongly 'whip' their elected members which means that, on the vast majority of issues, Members of Parliament of the same party vote as a 'block'.
For decades, therefore, the combined share of the vote taken by Conservatives and Labour diminished as the two-party model fractured. The 2017 election dramatically reversed this trend as the two main parties took 82.4% of the votes. In the 2019 election, that figure dipped to 75.8%. The Liberal Democrats, the Greens and especially the Brexit Party all did poorly and now only have a mere 12 seats between them.
- The three parties have smaller memberships than they did, since voters are much less inclined to join a political party.
- The three parties secure a lower overall percentage of the total vote, since smaller parties between them now take a growing share of the vote.
- Voters are much less 'tribal', not supporting the same party at every election, and much more likely to 'float', voting for different parties at successive elections.
- The ideological differences between the parties are less than they were, with the parties adopting more 'pragmatic' positions on many issues.
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:
- Working class numbers have shrunk and now represent only 43% of the electorate.
- Except at the extremes of wealth, lifestyles are more similar.
- Class does not determine voting intention so much as values, trust, competence as wekk as (in Scotland) nationalism and (in 2019 in England & Wales) Brexit.
In the British political system, there is a broad consensus between the major parties on:
The main differences between the political parties concern:
- the rule of law
- the free market economy
- the National Health Service (NHS)
- membership of NATO and possession of a nuclear deterrent
- how to tackle poverty and inequality
- the levels and forms of taxation
- the extent of state intervention in the economy
- the balance between collective rights and individual rights
- the terms of the UK's departure from the European Union
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 120, the 20 or so most senior being Cabinet Ministers. The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act, passed in 1975, limits prime ministers to 109 ministerial salaries being paid at any one time with a maximum of 95 ministers in the House of Commons. All Ministers are subject to the Ministerial Code which sets out they should behave in fulfilment of their duties.
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, especially in recent years.
There was a minority Labour Government from February-October 1974 (when I was a Special Adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and fought the two General Elections of that year). Then there was Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) Pact of 1977-1978 (when I was a Special Adviser in the Home Office) during which time the Labour Government lost its majority but had the general support of the Liberals who did not actually join the government.
For five years, the UK had its first coalition government in 65 years when, 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 had 17 ministers led by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Then, at the General Election of May 2015, the Conservative Party won an overall majority and the normal arrangement resumed of all Ministers coming from the same party. However, at the General Election of June 2017, the Conservatives failed to win an overall majority resulting in what is called a 'hung parliament' and so the party is governing with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. This is not a formal coalition but a 'confidence and supply' agreement in which the DUP has undertaken - in return for a comprehensive package of measures and funding - to support the government on key votes.
Link: text of agreement between Conservative Government and the DUP click here
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. He or she receives a weekly oral report from the Prime Minister, a tradition which began with King George I in 1714 because this German had struggled to follow the English deliberations of his Cabinet.
Therefore, 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 Boris Johnson is the 55th.
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.
I have personally met four British Prime Ministers: Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The official residence of the Prime Minister is at 10 Downing Street in central London - a location I have visited about a dozen times - and the country residence of the Prime Minister is at Chequers in Buckinghamshire.
One British Prime Minister has been assassinated: Spencer Perceval was shot dead in the House of Commons in 1812.
Link: Prime Minister click here
The most important political departments are called:
- The Treasury - In most countries, this would be called the Ministry of Finance. It is responsible for the raising of all taxes and the control of all government expenditure plus the general management of the economy. The head of the Treasury is called the Chancellor of the Exchequer and is currently Sajid Javid.
Link: Treasury site click here
- The Home Office - In most countries, this would be called the Ministry of the Interior. It is responsible for criminal matters, policing, and immigration. The Head of the Home Office is called the Home Secretary and is currently Priti Patel.
Link: Home Office site click here
- The Foreign and Commonwealth Office - In most countries, this would be called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is responsible for all international relationships, especially membership of the European Union. The head of the Foreign Office is called the Foreign Secretary and is currently Dominic Raab.
Link: Foreign Office site click here
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 small departments for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and overseas aid.
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.
All Government Departments are run by Ministers who are either Members of the House of Commons or Members of the House of Lords. There are three classes of Minister:
- Secretary of State - This is usually the head of a Department.
- Minister of State - This is a middle-ranking minister.
- Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State - This is the most junior class 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:
- About once a month, they have to face questions in the House of Commons about the work of the Department.
- Each government department has a special committee of the House of Commons which watches the work of that Department.
- Any government initiative or important statement concerning a Department must be the subject of an appearance in the House of Commons by a minister from that Department.
The Cabinet Committee System
The business of modern government is complex and multi-dimensional, so most Governmental decisions are made by a system of Cabinet Committees which bring together (typically) around ten Ministers from all the Departments relevant to that policy area who meet (again typically) every few weeks. Only the most important decisions go before the full Cabinet which meets weekly.
In cases of emergency, a body with an ad hoc membership, (usually) chaired by the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary, is convened in the Cabinet Office in a location which is equivalent to the Situation Room in the White House. It has the exciting acronym COBRA but this simpy stands for Cabinet Office Board Room A.
The civil service
Each Secretary of State is able to appoint a couple of political advisers - formally known as Special Advisers (or SpAds) - 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 party. 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.
At the time that Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Prime Minister in 1979, the British civil service numbered almost 800,000, but successive governments have cut the service and it is now 427,000 which is 1.3% of the country's workforce. All civil servants are subject to the Civil Service Code, which states how they should behave, and have to sign the Official Secrets Act, which requires them to keep information confidential.
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 by the three bodies in question and partly because the three bodies themselves have different or asymmetrical powers from one another.
The three devolved administrations are:
The Scottish Parliament
This came into operation in May 1999 and covers the 5.3 million 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' (FPTP) 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 was the Scottish National Party and its victory enabled it to require the UK Government to permit the holding of a referendum on Scottish independence.
The referendum was held on 18 September 2014 and, on an astonishing turnout of 85%, the 'no' vote won a decisive victory by 55% to 45%. However, in the final week of the two-year referendum campaign, the three major parties in the UK Parliament agreed that, if the Scots voted 'no', there would be an early transfer of substantial extra powers to the Scottish Parliament. This is now the subject of fierce political debate because of the implications for the other nations in the UK and for the UK Parliament itself.
Scottish Parliament click here
BBC live broadcasting of Scottish Parliament proceedings click here
The Welsh Assembly
This came into operation in May 1999 and covers the 3 million 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' (FPTP) 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.
Welsh Assembly click here
BBC live broadcasting of Welsh Assembly proceedings click here
The Northern Ireland Assembly
The present version of the Assembly came into operation in May 2007 and covers the 1.8 million citizens of Northern Ireland. It has 90 members - five from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies - elected by a system of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote (STV).
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.
Following the collapse of agreement between the political parties, Northern Ireland did not have a local administration for the three years January 2017 - January 2020.
Northern Ireland Assembly click here
BBC live broadcasting of Northern Ireland Assembly proceedings 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. Currently Wales is slowly developing a fourth jurisdiction. Although bound by similar principles, these systems differ in form and the manner of 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 advises the head of the MoJ on the appointment of new judges. The Commission has 15 members, 12 lay members and three appointed by the judiciary.
The head of the judiciary is the Lord Chief Justice.
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. It consists of 12 Justices (currently three of them - including the President- female) and new appointments are recommended by an independent selection commission set up when vacancies arise. The court sits in the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square opposite Parliament.
The Supreme Court hears civil cases from all parts of the UK and criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so it is the ultimate court of appeal in all legal matters other than criminal cases in Scotland. The court also hears 'devolution' issues: matters which raise questions of constitutional importance about the exercise of devolved powers by the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In most cases, there is no automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court. Generally cases are appealed from a lower court where there is sufficient uncertainty about how the law should be applied and what precedent the lower courts should follow in future.
Each case is usually heard by a panel of five Justices, selected by the President and Deputy President of the court. This can be increased to seven or nine Justices depending on the importance or complexity of the case. Most exceptionally, in September 2019, the case concerning the constitutionality of an extended prorogation of Parliament was heard by 11 Justices. The court always has an an odd number sitting to ensure that a majority decision can be reached. Currently the Supreme Court is the only court in the UK where the proceedings are routinely filmed and available to watch live online.
Link: Supreme Court click here
The Supreme Court shares its building and administrative functions with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Judicial Committee is the highest court of appeal for civil and criminal cases for about 30 Commonwealth countries (such as Jamaica) and British overseas territories, the crown dependencies, and military sovereign base areas.
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 (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The last Labour Government incorporated the provisions of the European Convention into UK domestic law in 2000, so that citizens can now seek to have the provisions enforced in domestic courts.
Finally, so long as the UK remains a members of the European Union, in respect of the application of European Union law in the UK, matters are subject to appeal to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which is located in Luxembourg.
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 the domestic law so that it can be enforced in the domestic courts as well as in the European Court of Human Rights.
Independent judiciary - British 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 or her 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 - Britain has 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 - Britain has 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 distinctly limited.
- During the period - just ended - of (Conservative MP) John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons, there were many more occasions of the use of the Urgent Question (UQ). This is a device which allows any Member of Parliament on any sitting day to petition the Speaker to demand that a Government Department supplies a Minister to make a statement on some issue or matter that has arisen very suddenly.
- Eight weeks before the May 2010 General Election, the House of Commons embraced the election of the Deputy Speakers, the whole House election of Select Committee Chairs, the whole party caucus election of Select Committee members, and the creation of a House Backbench Business Committee.
- In November 2013, the then Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow announced the formation of a novel type of inquiry, a Speaker’s Commission, to examine the whole issue of Digital Democracy. This exercise started in early 2014 and reported in early 2015.
The changes on the agenda of that Coalition Government were as follows:
Candidates for further change would include the following proposals:
- Fixed term parliaments - In the past, elections to the House of Commons had to be held within five years of the previous General Election but the Prime Minister had complete discretion over the actual date which was often the subject of considerable speculation and frequently a year or more before an election was legally necessary. The coalition parties agreed to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments and the necessary legislation was enacted in the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011. Therefore, subject to either a vote of no confidence in the Government (following which there is 14 days to attempt to form a government that does have the confidence of the House) or a two-thirds majority vote (which effectively means both major parties supporting the motion), each General Election is now supposed to be held on the first Thursday of May five years after the previous election. In practice, snap elections were held in 2017 and 2019 and the current Government has committed to repealing the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
- A new electoral system for the House of Commons - Britain is unusual in Europe in having an electoral system which is 'first-past-the-post' (FPTP) and there are advocates for a system of proportional representation (PR), versions of which are already used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly and for British elections to the European Parliament. As a vital component of the coalition agreement, legislation was carried to enable a referendum to be held on an electoral system called the alternative vote (AV) which enables the voter to number candidates in order of preference and requires a winning candidate to secure more than 50% of the votes which, if not achieved on the first count, is achieved through successive withdrawal of the lowest-polling candidate and redistribution of that candidate's preferences. The referendum - only the second UK-wide referendum in its history - was held on 5 May 2011, but the current electoral system was supported by a margin of more than two to one (I voted for a move to AV). The current Government has committed to maintaining the current electoral system.
- Fewer and more equal sized constituencies - Currently the House of Commons has 650 seats; the Coalition Government intended to cut this to 600. Currently the number of electors in each Parliamentary constituency varies quite considerably; the Coalition Government legislated that no constituency should be more than 5% either larger or smaller than a national average of around 76,000 electors (which would have eliminated some 40 Labour-held seats). The Government included these measures in the Referendum Bill on electoral reform and it was intended that the new constituencies would come into effect at the General Election in 2015. However, although the Bill is now on the statute book, the new constituencies did not become operative at the General Election following a Commons vote of 334 to 292 against early implementation when the Liberal Democrats joined with Labour to block implementation in retaliation for Conservative MPs failing to support the reform of the House of Lords strongly favoured by the Lib Dems. The current Government has committed to - in the words of its election manifesto - "updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries".
- Election of the House of Lords - At present, no member of the upper house is actually elected; most are appointed on the nomination of party leaders with a small number remaining from the originally much larger group of hereditary peers. The Queen's Speech of May 2012 announced that there would be a Bill on Lords reform in that session of Parliament. The latest proposal for reform comes from a Joint Committee of the two houses which recommended a 450-seat chamber with peers elected for 15 years in elections to be held every five years. Of these, 80% would be elected by a form of proportional representation with 20% appointed by an independent body. In fact, neither the Commons (especially the Conservative Party) nor the Lords is keen on reform for very different reasons (MPs do not want the Lords to gain more legitimacy and nominated peers do not want to be replaced by elected representatives). In the summer of 2012, the Prime Minister announced that he could not deliver Conservative support for a reform measure which was therefore withdrawn to the intense anger of the Liberal Democrats who very much support reform. The current Government has committed to - in the words of its election manifesto - "look at ... the role of the House of Lords".
- Reduction in size of the House of Lords - While any moves to create an elected Lords are deadlocked, it is possible that change could be made to the size of the Lords, while retaining the current method of appointment. In late 2017, a cross-party committee of the Lords proposed a reduction from the present 800 or so members (excluding bishops) to no more than 600 with new peers limited to a term of 15 years. The mechanism for achieving this would have been a "two out, one in" policy followed by all parties and the timetable for achieving this would have been 2027. The committee also recommended a fairer distribution of members with new members shared between parties based on an average of the vote share at the last general election and the total number of Commons seats won at that election. In practice, Prime Ministers have continued to appoint more and more peers so that the appointed House of Lords remains much larger than the elected House of Commons.
- The power to force a by-election - In the past, a by-election occurred only when an MP died or resigned or was sentenced to more than one year in prison. Under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, it was made easier to recall an errant MP. The new Act requires that, if an MP is convicted of an offence and sentenced to a custodial sentence of 12 months or less or if the Commons orders the MP's suspension for at least 28 sitting days (or 28 calendar days), then the MP's constituents will have the opportunity to sign a recall petition calling for a by-election. This petition must be signed by at least 10% of constituents for a by-election to be held. The process was successfully instituted for the first time in 2019 in respect of the Labour MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya who had been found guilty of lying to avoid a speeding ticket.
- More devolution nationally and locally - The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly all have devolved powers and all of them want more, while many local authorities feel that, over past decades, their powers have been eroded by the national parliament. Some believe that a revitalisation of the British political system requires more devolution of power. The main political parties in the UK Parliament had already agreed to the implementation of the Calman Commission proposals on further Scottish devolution and the offer of a referendum on further Welsh devolution. However, in the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, the three major parties in the UK Parliament agreed that, if the Scots voted 'no' (as they did), there would be an early transfer of substantial extra powers to the Scottish Parliament. This is now the subject of fierce political debate because of the implications for the other nations, regions and cities in the UK and for the UK Parliament itself. Meanwhile the planned exit of the UK from the European Union has further complicated the devolution debate, since there is fierce argument about whether the powers to be repatriated from the EU to the UK should be held by the government at Westminster or devolved to the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed the current Scottish SNP Government is adamant that it wants to hold a second referendum on independence for Scotland, but the current British Conservative Government is totally opposed to this.
So, at the time of the General Election of May 2010, 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 floundered. Nevertheless, as a consequence of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and the 2016 referendum on UK withdrawal from the European Union, there is now a more fundamental debate about the British constitution than at any other time in living memory. Indeed, in the General Election of December 2019, the winning Conservative Party devoted a whole page of its manifesto to political, legal and constitutional reform. The final paragraph stated:
- A wider franchise - At present, every citizen over 18 can vote but it has been suggested that the voting age should be lowered to 16. In the Coalition Government, the Liberal Democrats supported such an extension to the franchise but the Conservatives opposed it. Meanwhile the Scottish Nationalist Government allowed 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The current Government has committed to maintaining the current voting age.
- A wider process for selecting Parliamentary candidates - Today candidates are selected by meetings of members of the political party that the candidate will represent in a future election, but it has been proposed that the process could be opened up to anyone in the relevant constituency who has declared themselves a supporter of that party, a process something like the primaries in the United States.
- A more modern culture for the Commons - Many of the traditions and much of the language of the Commons date back centuries and reformers argue that it is time for change to make the proceedings more accessible and acceptable to the public and electorate. The sort of changes mooted are no ceremonial dress for Commons staff, reform of terms such as "My right honourable friend", and a less gladiatorial version of Prime Minister's Questions.
- Limits on the Royal Prerogative - At the moment, the Prime Minister alone can exercise powers which once used to belong to the monarch, such as the right to apppoint certain judges and bishops, the signing of international treaties, and the declaring of war, but this could be changed so that Parliament has to decide such matters.
- A domestic Bill of Rights - The UK has a Bill of Rights but it is the European Convention on Human Rights which, since 2000, has been part of the domestic law and therefore enforcable in national courts as well as the European Court. Some people believe that Britain should draft its own specific Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights Commission, chaired by Sir Leigh Lewis, met for 18 months to consider this matter and reported in December 2012 when it was utterly unable to reach any sort of consensus. The current Conservative Government was elected on a manifesto which promised to "update the Human Rights Act ... to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals ... and effective government".
- Disestablishment of the Church of England - It is argued that the UK population is no longer largely devoted to the Anglican faith and that, in multicultural Britain, it is wrong for one religious denomination to be privileged over others with automatic seats in the House of Lords for instance. Therefore church and state should be totally separated. Note: the opposite position is called "antidisestablishmentarianism' which is one of the longest non-scientific words in the English language.
- A written constitution - For historical reasons, the UK is one of only four countries in the world not to have a written constitution (the others are Israel, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia). The most radical proposal for constitutional change - supported especially by the Liberal Democrat Party - is that the country should now have a formal written constitution, presumably following some sort of constitutional convention and possibly a referendum.
"After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays. In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates."
Last modified on 13 January 2020
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