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:
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:
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.
Note 2: In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein 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.
House of Lords site click here
BBC live broadcasting of Lords proceedings 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:
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
WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATES
Outside of debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords and outside of the legislative process, in recent years the Westminster system has had something called Westminster Hall debates. In fact, these debates do not take place in Westminster hall itself (the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster) but in the Grand Committee Room which just off the Hall.
Westminster Hall debates give Members of Parliament an opportunity to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a Government minister. Any MP can take part in a Westminster Hall debate and any member of the general public can attend. The quorum for a Westminster Hall sitting is merely three, including the Chair. The scheduling of debates reflects the rota of availability of Departmental Ministers.
Debates in Westminster Hall take place on ‘general debate' motions expressed in neutral terms. These motions are worded ‘That this House has considered [a specific matter]'. Amendments to such motions cannot be tabled. Divisions (votes) cannot take place. If the question is challenged, the Chair reports to the House of Commons. This could lead to a vote in the main chamber of the House.
Compared to debates in the main chamber of the Commons, Westminster Hall debates have the huge advantage that they have more time available to delve into an issue in more detail than is normally possible elsewhere. They are also less combative in tone compared to debates in the main chamber, allowing a more nuanced debate to take place.
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 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 loyalists and 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:
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 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 was governed with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. This was not a formal coalition but a 'confidence and supply' agreement in which the DUP undertook - in return for a comprehensive package of measures and funding - to support the government on key votes.
Normal service was resumed in December 2019 when, in the General Election, the Conservatives won a comfortable overall majority.
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. Currently the monarch is King Charles III.
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 Rishi Sunak is the 57th (and the first of Asian origin).
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:
Link: Treasury site click here
Link: Home Office site click here
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:
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:
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 a little over 450,000. 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 it 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 Parliament
This came into operation in May 1999 as an Assembly and in May 2020 was renamed aa a Parliament and it 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 had powers to legislate in some areas, though still subject to the veto of the Westminster Parliament. The Assembly originally had no tax-varying powers but the renamed Parliament does. The Welsh Parliament still has less power in some respects 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 Parliament click here
BBC live broadcasting of Welsh Parliament 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 only two of them 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 changes on the agenda of that Coalition Government were as follows:
"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."However, this Commission was never created and the approach in the manifesto was abandoned. A year after the General Election, the Lord Chancellor told a Parliamentary Committee that, rather than opting for what he referred to as a ‘Royal Variety-style’ process, where the different elements of the constitution would be examined by one entity, this work would instead be done by a series of separate, more limited and focused panels.
Last modified on 10 August 2023
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For a comparison of the American and British political systems click here
For guides to the political systems of other nations click here