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The political system of the UK

2016.10.21

THe Political System of the UK

 

The United Kingdom is a unitary state governed within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, in which the Monarch is the head of state and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of government. Executive power is exercised by Her Majesty's Government, on behalf of and by the consent of the Monarch, as well as by the devolved Governments of Scotland and Wales, and the Northern Ireland Executive. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as in the Scottish parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

The UK political system is a multi-party system. Since the 1920s, the two largest political participation have been the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Before the Labour Party rose in British politics, the Liberal Party was the other major political party along with the Conservatives. Though coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties, though each has in the past century relied upon a third party such as the Liberal Democrats to deliver a working majority in Parliament. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government held office from 2010 until 2015, the first coalition since 1945.[1] The coalition ended following Parliamentary elections on May 7, 2015, in which the Conservative Party won an outright majority of 330 seats in the House of Commons, while their coalition partners lost all but eight seats.[2]

With the partition of Ireland, Northern Ireland received home rule in 1920, though civil unrest meant direct rule was restored in 1972. Support for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales led to proposals for devolution in the 1970s though only in the 1990s did devolution actually happen. Today, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each possess a legislature and executive, with devolution in Northern Ireland being conditional on participation in certain all-Ireland institutions. The United Kingdom remains responsible for non-devolved matters and, in the case of Northern Ireland, co-operates with the Republic of Ireland.

It is a matter of dispute as to whether increased autonomy and devolution of executive and legislative powers has contributed to the increase in support for independence. The principal pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party, became a minority government in 2007 and then went on to win an overall majority of MSPs at the 2011 Scottish parliament elections and forms the Scottish Government administration. A 2014 referendum on independence led to a rejection of the proposal, but with 45% voting to secede. In Northern Ireland, the largest Pro-Belfast Agreement party, Sinn Féin, not only advocates Northern Ireland's unification with the Republic of Ireland, but also abstains from taking their elected seats in the Westminster government, as this would entail taking a pledge of allegiance to the British monarch.

The constitution of the United Kingdom is uncodified, being made up of constitutional conventions, statutes and other elements such as EU law. This system of government, known as the Westminster system, has been adopted by other countries, especially those that were formerly parts of the British Empire.

The United Kingdom is also responsible for several dependencies, which fall into two categories: the Crown dependencies, in the immediate vicinity of the UK, and British Overseas Territories, which originated as colonies of the British Empire.

 

Parliament, ( from Old French: parlement; Latin: parliamentum) the original legislative assembly of England, Scotland, or Ireland and successively of Great Britain and the United Kingdom; legislatures in some countries that were once British colonies are also known as parliaments.

The British Parliament, often referred to as the “Mother of Parliaments,” consists of the sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Originally meaning a talk, the word was used in the 13th century to describe after-dinner discussions between monks in their cloisters. In 1239 the English Benedictine monk Matthew Paris of the Abbey of St. Albans applied the term to a council meeting between prelates, earls, and barons, and it was also used in 1245 to refer to the meeting called by Pope Innocent IV in Lyon, France, which resulted in the excommunication and deposition of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.

 

Historical development

Modern parliaments trace their history to the 13th century, when the sheriffs of English counties sent knights to the king to provide advice on financial matters. Kings, however, generally desired the knights’ assent to new taxation, not their advice. Later in the 13th century, King Edward I (1272–1307) called joint meetings of two governmental institutions: the Magnum Concilium, or Great Council, comprising lay and ecclesiastical magnates, and the Curia Regis, or King’s Court, a much smaller body of semiprofessional advisers. At those meetings of the Curia Regis that came to be called concilium regis in parliamento (“the king’s council in parliament”), judicial problems might be settled that had proved beyond the scope of the ordinary law courts dating from the 12th century. The members of the Curia Regis were preeminent and often remained to complete business after the magnates had been sent home; the proceedings of Parliament were not formally ended until they had accomplished their tasks. To about one in seven of these meetings Edward, following precedents from his father’s time, summoned knights from the shires and burgesses from the towns to appear with the magnates.

 

Historical consideration of London’s Houses of Parliament.

The parliament called in 1295, known as the Model Parliament and widely regarded as the first representative parliament, included the lower clergy for the first time as well as two knights from each county, two burgesses from each borough, and two citizens from each city. Early in the 14th century the practice developed of conducting debates between the lords spiritual and temporal in one chamber, or “house,” and between the knights and burgesses in another. Strictly speaking, there were, and still are, three houses: the king and his council, the lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons. But in the 15th century the kings of the House of Lancaster were usually forced to take all their councillors from among the lords, and later under the House of Tudor, it became the practice to find seats in the commons for privy councillors who were not lords. Meanwhile, the greater cohesion of the Privy Council achieved in the 14th century separated it in practice from Parliament, and the decline of Parliament’s judicial function led to an increase in its legislative activity, originating now not only from royal initiative but by petitions, or “bills,” framed by groups within Parliament itself. Bills, if assented to by the king, became acts of Parliament; eventually, under King Henry VI (reigned 1422–61; 1470–71), the assent of both the House of Lords—a body now based largely on heredity—and the House of Commons was also required. Under the Tudors, though it was still possible to make law by royal proclamation, the monarchs rarely resorted to such an unpopular measure, and all major political changes were effected by acts of Parliament.

In 1430 Parliament divided electoral constituencies to the House of Commons into counties and boroughs. Males who owned freehold property worth at least 40 shillings could vote in these elections. Members of the House of Commons were wealthy, as they were not paid and were required to have an annual income of at least £600 for county seats and £300 for borough seats. In most boroughs, very few individuals could vote, and some members were elected by less than a dozen electors. These “rotten” boroughs were eventually eliminated by the Reform Bill of 1832. As parliamentary sessions became more regular from the 15th to 17th centuries (legislation in 1694 eventually required that Parliament meet at least once every three years), a class of professional parliamentarians developed, some of whom were used by the king to secure assent to his measures; others would sometimes disagree with his measures and encourage the Commons to reject them, though the firm idea of an organized “opposition” did not develop until much later.

In the 17th century Parliament became a revolutionary body and the centre of resistance to the king during the English Civil Wars (1642–51). The Restoration period (1660–88) saw the development of the Whig and Tory factions, ancestors of the later political parties. The modern parliamentary system, as well as the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, quickly developed after the Glorious Revolution (1688–89). William III (1689–1702) selected his ministers from among the political parties in Parliament, though they were not subject to control by either house. While the convention that governments would automatically resign if they lost election had not yet developed, monarchs began to adjust the composition of the Privy Council according to that of Parliament. Later, cabinet officials were appointed from among the party commanding a majority in the House of Commons.

 

 

 

The modern British cabinet

In Great Britain today, the cabinet consists of about 15 to 25 members, or ministers, appointed by the prime minister, who in turn has been appointed by the monarch on the basis of his ability to command a majority of votes in the Commons. Though formerly empowered to select the cabinet, the sovereign is now restricted to the mere formal act of inviting the head of Parliament’s majority party to form a government. The prime minister must put together a cabinet that represents and balances the various factions within his own party (or within a coalition of parties). Cabinet members must all be members of Parliament, as must the prime minister himself. The members of a cabinet head the principal government departments, or ministries, such as Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and the Exchequer (treasury). Other ministers may serve without portfolio or hold sinecure offices and are included in the cabinet on account of the value of their counsel or debating skills. The cabinet does much of its work through committees headed by individual ministers, and its overall functioning is coordinated by the Secretariat, which consists of career civil servants. The cabinet usually meets in the prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street in London.

Cabinet ministers are responsible for their departments, but the cabinet as a whole is accountable to Parliament for its actions, and its individual members must be willing and able to publicly defend the cabinet’s policies. Cabinet members can freely disagree with each other within the secrecy of cabinet meetings, but once a decision has been reached, all are obligated to support the cabinet’s policies, both in the Commons and before the general public. The loss of a vote of confidence or the defeat of a major legislative bill in the Commons can mean a cabinet’s fall from power and the collective resignation of its members. Only rarely are individual ministers disavowed by their colleagues and forced to accept sole responsibility for their policy initiatives; such was the case with Sir Samuel Hoare’s resignation in 1935 over his proposed appeasement of Fascist Italy. Despite the need for consensus and collective action within a cabinet, ultimate decision-making power rests in the prime minister as the leader of his party. Various other member countries of the Commonwealth, notably India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, maintain cabinet systems of government that are closely related to that developed in Great Britain.