Political system of UK
|Course:||United Kingdom: History and Political System|
|Book:||Political system of UK|
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|Date:||Tuesday, 5 December 2023, 10:09 PM|
Political system of UK
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a constitutional monarchy. That is, it is a country governed by a king or queen who accepts the advice of a parliament. Second, it is a unitary state, as it unites four different countries. Finally, it is also a parliamentary democracy. That is, it is a country whose government is controlled by a parliament elected by the people. In other words, the basic system is not so different from anywhere else in Europe. The highest positions in the government are filled by members of the directly elected parliament. In Britain, as in many European countries, the official head of state, whether a monarch or a president, has little real power.
Britain is almost alone among modern states in that it does not have a constitution. Of course, there are rules, regulations, principles and procedures for the running of the country, but there is no single written document which can be appealed to as the highest law of the land.
A monarch in the UK reigns, but does not rule. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the country as well as of fifteen other independent Commonwealth countries, which form British Commonwealth of Nations. The queen is the official head of executive, legislative and courts, army and Church.
The full royal title of the Queen is: Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. The monarchy is hereditary, the succession passing automatically to the oldest male child, or in the absence of males, to the oldest female offspring of the monarch.
Three roles of the monarch are often mentioned. First, the monarch is the personal embodiment of the government of the country and guarantees its stability. Second, it is argued that the monarch is a possible final check on a government that is becoming dictatorial. Third, the monarch has a very practical role to play. By being a figurehead and representative of the country, she or he can perform the ceremonial duties which heads of the state often have to spend their time on. This way, the real government has more time to get on with the actual job of running the country.
The real importance of the British monarchy is probably less to do with the system of government and more to do with social psychology and economics, as it attracts many tourists visiting the country. The monarchy also gives British people a symbol of continuity. On the other hand, the one aspect of the monarchy about which most people feel consistently negative is how much it costs. Concerning the future of the monarchy, most people are either vaguely in favour, or they just don´t care one way or another.
The royal family
Queen Elizabeth II was born in 1926 and became Queen in 1952. She is widely respected for the way in which she performs her duties and is generally popular. She quickly proved herself a dedicated successor and has become the most travelled monarch in British history, particularly passionate about her role as Head of State of the Commonwealth realms that grew from Britain’s vanished Empire. At home she undertakes 430 or so public engagements a year and she is patron of more than 600 charities and organisations. The survival of the monarchy has always been about adapting to the times and it will be for the future to judge the Queen’s reign in perspective.
Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, married Queen Elizabeth II. His outspoken opinions on certain matters have sometimes been embarrassing to the royal family.
Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales is, as the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, heir to the throne.
Princess Diana, The Princess of Wales, married Prince Charles in 1981. The couple separated in 1992 and later divorced. Diana died in a car accident in 1997. During her lifetime, she was a glamorous figure and the public loved her. They felt able to identify with her in a way that they could not with other ´royals´. She was, in fact, the first Englishwoman ever to marry an heir to the throne.
Camilla, The Duchess of Cornwall married Prince Charles in 2005. Her long relationship with Charles is widely believed to have been a major cause of his separation from Diana. For this reason, she is not very popular with the public.
Princess Anne, also known as The Princess Royal, is the Queen´s daughter. She separated from her husband after they had one son and one daughter. She married again. She is widely respected for her charity work.
Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, is the Queen´s second son. He is separated from his wife, Sarah Ferguson (Fergie). They have two daughters.
Prince Edward is the Queen´s youngest son. He and his wife are the Earl and Countess of Wessex.
Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, is the eldest son of Charles and Diana and therefore the next in line to the throne after his father. He is married to Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge. He and his brother Prince Henry of Wales, like Charles and Andrew before them, have both embarked on military careers.
The third in line to the throne is Prince George of Cambridge, the son of the Duke and Duchesse of Cambridge, followed by his sister, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, in fourth place.
Government refers to the most powerful of the ministers, namely, the Prime Minister and the other members of the cabinet, who exercise executive power. There are usually about twenty people in the cabinet. Most of them are the heads of the government departments. Members of the government are usually known as ministers. Unlike much of western Europe, Britain normally has ´single-party government´. That is, all members of the government belong to the same political party. Most heads of government departments have their title ´Secretary of State´, for example Secretary of State for the Environment. The cabinet meets once a week and takes decisions about new policies, the implementation of existing policies and the running of the various government departments.
The position of a British Prime Minister (PM) is in direct contrast to that of the monarch. While the Queen appears to have a lot of power but in reality has very little, the PM appears not to have much power but in reality has a very great deal. The traditional phrase describes the position of the PM within the cabinet as primus inter pares (Latin for ´first among equals´). But in fact the other ministers are not nearly as powerful. No. 10 Downing Street is the official residence of the Prime Minister.
The activities of Parliament in Britain are more or less the same as those of the parliament in any western democracy. It has legislative power, which means it makes laws, gives authority for the government to raise and spend money, keeps a close eye on government activities and discusses these activities.
The British Parliament works in a large building called the Palace of Westminster (popularly known as the Houses of Parliament). This contains offices, committee rooms, restaurants, bars, libraries, and even some places of residence. It also contains two larger rooms. One of these is where the House of Lords holds its meetings. The other is where the House of Commons holds its meetings. The British Parliament is divided into these two ´houses´, or chambers, it means it is bicameral and its members belong to one or other of them. However, only members of the Commons are known as MPs (Members of Parliament). The Commons is by far the more important of the two.
House of Commons
Seating arrangements in the House of Commons tell us a lot about what is distinctive about the British Parliament. There are just two rows of benches facing each other. There are the government benches on the left, where the MPs of the governing party is. On the right, there are the opposition benches. This physical division is emphasized by the table on the floor of the House between the two rows of benches. The Speakers Chair is also here. The Commons has no special place for people to stand when they are speaking. MPs simply stand up and speak from wherever they are sitting. Moreover, there are no desks. This makes it easy for the MPs to drift in and drift out of the room. The room itself is very small. In fact, there isn´t enough room for all the MPs. There are about 650 of them, but there is seating for fewer than 400. The ancient habits are preserved today in the many detailed rules and customs of procedure which all new MPs have to learn. The most noteceable of these is the rule that forbids MPs to adress one another by name.
The Speaker is the person who chairs and controls discussion in the House, decides which MP is going to speak next and makes sure that the rules of procedure are followed. It is a very important position. In fact, the Speaker is, officially, the second most important ´commoner´ (non-aristocrat) in the kingdom after the Prime Minister. Hundreds of years ago, it was the Speaker´s job to communicate the decisions of the Commons to the king (that is where the title Speaker comes from). Because the king was often very displeased with what the Commons had decided, this was not a pleasant task. As a result, nobody wanted the job. They had to be forced to take it. These days, the position is a much safer one, but the tradition of dragging an unwilling Speaker to the chair has remained. MPs in the House always address the Speaker as ´Mr Speaker´ or ´Madame Speaker´. Once a new speaker has been appointed, he or she agrees to give up all party politics and normally remains in the job for as long as he or she wants it.
House of Lords
The second British chamber is called the House of Lords, which has no real power and only limited influence. Although the Lords can delay a bill, they cannot stop it becoming law, even if they continue to refuse it. Its role, therefore, is a consultative one. In the Lords, bills can be discussed in more detail than the busy Commons have time for, and in this way irregularities and inconsistencies in these proposals can be avoided before they become law. The Lords can also act as a check on any governments which are becoming too dictatorial.
The House of Lords' chamber is similar to that of the Commons, but at the end of the chamber there is the royal throne from which the Queen reads her speech at the Opening of Parliament. The members of the Lords are aristocrats. In fact, only a very small proportion of them are there by hereditary right. In 1958, a law was passed which made it possible to award life peerages. These gave people entitlement to sit in the Lords, but not the children of these people. By the end of the twentieth century, so many life peers had been appointed that it was common for them to form a majority over the hereditary peers. In 1999, the number of aristocrats with the right to sit in the Lords was limited to 92 (about 15% of the total members). The value of the Lords lies in the fact that its members do not depend on party politics for their positions. Because they are there for life, they do not have to worry about losing their positions. This means they can take decisions independently. The House was presided over by the Lord Chancellor, but with the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the post of Lord Speaker was created, a position to which a peer is elected by the House and subsequently appointed by the Crown. The two main types of lords are The Lord Temporal (life peers and hereditary peers) and The Lord Spiritual (26 most senior bishops of the Church of England).
Britain is normally described as having a ´two-party system´. This is because members of just two parties normally occupy more than 85% of all of the seats in the House of Commons and one of them controls the government.
During the eighteenth century, MPs tended to divide into two camps, those who actually supported the government of the time and those who actually did not. During the nineteenth century, it became the habit that the party which did not control the government presented itself as an alternative government. This idea of an alternative government has received legal recognition. The leader of the second biggest party in Parliament recieves the title ´Leader of Her Majesty´s Opposition´, and even gets an extra salary for this role. He or she chooses a ´shadow cabinet´, thereby presenting the image of a team ready to fill the shoes of the government at a moment´s notice.
Conservative party developed from the group of MPs known as the Tories in the early nineteenth century and is still often known informally by that name. It is a party of right of centre and it stands for hierarchical authority and minimal government interference in the economy, it likes to reduce income tax and gives high priority to national defence and internal law and order.
Labour party was formed at the beginning of the twentieth century from an alliance of trade unionists and intellectuals. They are of left of centre and they stand for equality of opportunities, for the weaker people in society and more government involvement in the economy; they are more concerned to provide full social services that to keep income tax low.
Liberal Democrats were formed in the late 1980s from a union of the Liberals, who developed from the Whigs in the early nineteenth century, and from the Social Democrats. They can be regarded as centre or slightly left of centre. They put more emphasis on the environment than other parties, they believe in giving greater powers to local government and in reform of the electoral system.
There exist some smaller parties, but it is very difficult for them to challenge the dominance of the bigger ones. If any of them seem to have some good ideas, these are adopted by one of the big parties, who try to appeal to as large a section of the population as possible.
General elections are called by the monarch when the prime minister so advises. The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 require that a new election must be called within five years of the previous general election.