THE FORMAL INSTITUTIONS
Government and politics in Britain takes place in the context
of mainly traditional institutions, laws and conventions,
which ensure the acceptance of electoral or Parliamentary
defeat, and peaceful and reasonably tolerant behaviour
between political rivals.
The institutional arrangements are a constitutional
monarchy, the House of Commons, the House of Lords,
the electoral system, the party system and pressure
groups, the judiciary, the police, the civil service,
local government, and the recent devolved administrations
of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together
with a large number of semi-independent agencies set
up by the government, nicknamed quangos,
and now officially called Non- Departmental Public
has a constitutional monarchy. Others exist in Denmark,
Under a constitutional monarchy, the powers of the
King or Queen are limited by either constitutional
law or convention.
the Queen or King must accept the decisions of the
Cabinet and Parliament. The monarch can express her
or his views on government matters privately to the
Prime Minister, for example at their weekly "audience",
but in all matters of government must follow the Prime
Minister's advice. The Queen or King can only, in
a famous phrase, "advise, warn, and encourage". There
would be a constitutional crisis if the monarch ever
spoke out publicly either for or against government
The present Queen has reigned since her father's death
in 1952. The heir to the throne is her oldest son,
the Prince of Wales. He has let his opinions be publicly
known on a range of environmental and other matters,
but when he becomes King he will be required to act
and speak only in a ceremonial manner. Today there
are some who argue that modern Britain
should become a republic, with an elected President.
However, despite public criticisms of some members of
the royal family, the monarchy still remains important
and popular among most people in Britain
today as a symbol of national unity. People distinguish
between the persons of the royal family and the institutions
The Queen is Head of State of the United Kingdom.
She is also monarch or head of state, in both a ceremonial
and symbolic sense, of most of the countries in the
Commonwealth. The Queen has important ceremonial roles
in this country, which include the opening and closing
of Parliament. Each year at the beginning of a new
parliamentary session she reads by tradition "the
Queen's speech" from a throne in the House of Lords,
stating the Government's policies for the next session.
Today, however, these are entirely the views of the
Prime Minister and the cabinet.
The monarch also gives the letters of appointment to
holders of high office within the Government, the
armed forces, and the Church of England, but always
on the Prime Minister's advice.
The House of Commons
The House of Commons is the centre of political debate
and the ultimate source of power. It shares the huge
Palace of Westminster
with the House of Lords. In medieval times, the House
of Lords was the more powerful, and so you will still
hear some commentators call the Commons, the Lower
House, and the Lords, the Upper House. Today the Commons
can always overrule the Lords who can only delay the
passage of new laws.
The MP5 who sit in the House of Commons are elected from
645 constituencies throughout the UK. They have a number of different
responsibilities. They represent everyone in their
constituency, they help create and shape new laws,
they scrutinise and comment
on what the Government is doing, and they provide
a forum for debate on important national issues. If
you visit the House of Commons you may find few MP5
in the main debating chamber. That is because most
work is done in committees - scrutinising
legislation, investigating administration, or preparing
a report on some important issue.
There are public galleries from which the public may
listen to debates in both Houses of Parliament and
many committees. You can write to your local MP to
ask for tickets. There is no charge, but MP5 only
have a small allocation of tickets, so requests should
be made well in advance. Otherwise, on the day, you
can join a queue at the public entrance, but a waiting
time of one or two hours is common for important debates.
Getting into the House of Lords is usually easier.
Ask the police officer at the same entrance where
to go. Further details are on UK Parliament website,
The Speaker of the House of Commons is an ordinary MP,
respected on all sides, and elected by fellow MP5.
He or she has the important role of keeping order
during political debates in a fair and impartial way;
of representing the House of Commons on ceremonial
occasions; and of ensuring the smooth running of the
business of the House.
The Whips are small group of MP5, appointed by their
party leaders, to ensure discipline and attendance
of MP5 at voting time in the House of Commons. The
Chief Whip commonly attends Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet
meetings and will negotiate with the Speaker over
the timetable and the order of business.
The House of Lords
The House of Lords is in the middle of big changes. Until
relatively recently, the members were all peers of
the realm; that is hereditary aristocrats, or people
who had been rewarded for their public service - for example in war, the Empire or government. They had
no special duty to attend the House of Lords, and
many did not do so.
In 1957 a new law was passed, enabling the Prime Minister
to appoint peers just for their own lifetime. These
Life Peers, as they were known, were to be working
peers, and were encouraged to attend debates in the
House of Lords on a regular basis. Today those appointed
as life peers have normally had a distinguished career
in politics, business, law, or some other profession.
Recently hereditary peers had their general right
to attend the House of Lords removed, but were allowed
to elect a small number of themselves to continue
Life peers continue to be appointed by the Prime Minister
although, by convention, always include people nominated
by the leaders of the other parties. Senior Bishops
of the Church of England are automatically members
of the House of Lords, as are most senior judges.
Life peers also include members of other Christian
denominations and of other faiths --Jewish, Moslem,
Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist, as well non-believers and
Today the main role of the House of Lords is to examine
in detail and at greater leisure new laws proposed
by the House of Commons, and to suggest amendments
or changes. In this way the Lords may delay - but not prevent - the passage of new legislation.
The House of Lords also frequently debates issues which
the Commons pass over or can find no time for. House
of Lords' committees also, from time to time, report
on a particular social problem or scrutinise some aspect of the workings of government.
To prevent a government from staying in power without
holding an election, the
House of Lords has the absolute right to reject any proposed
law that would extend the life of a Parliament beyond
the statutory five year period. However, if this were
ever to happen, the House of Commons could first abolish
the House of Lords, who could only delay such an act!
This is very unlikely but illustrates how constitutional
restraints in the United Kingdom
depends more on conventions than on strict law.
The electoral system
Members of the House of Commons (MP5) are elected by
a "first past the post" system. The candidate in a
constituency who gains more votes than any other is
elected, even if he or she does not have a majority
of the total votes cast. In the House of Commons,
the government is formed by the party gaining the
majority of the seats, even if more votes were cast
in total for the Opposition.
Under this system, the number of seats going to the winner
is always proportionately greater than their total
vote. For this reason, some people argue that the
system should be changed to one or other form of proportional
representation, as in Ireland
and most parts of continental Europe.
However, neither of the main UK
parties favours this, saying
that large majorities in the House of Commons guarantee
strong and stable government, and that PR (proportional
representation) would lead to coalitions and instability.
However, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly
were both set up with different systems of PR to ensure
that they were not completely dominated by a single
party, as can happen under a "first past the post"
system. Similarly, the use of PR for elections to
the Northern Ireland Assembly is intended to stop
the Unionist (mainly Protestant) majority of voters
from taking all the posts of government, and ensure
"power sharing" with the irish
nationalist (overwhelmingly Catholic) parties. In
elections for the European Parliament yet another
form of PR was adopted to conform more closely to
European Union practice.
The party system and pressure groups
The British political system is essentially a
party system in the way that decisions are made and
elections conducted. There is only a handful of independent
MP5 or MP5 from smaller parties
The main political parties have membership branches in
every constituency throughout Britain.
Local party organisations
select candidates, discuss policy, and canvas the
voters in national, local, and European elections.
Annual national party conferences are carefully managed
and well publicised events, where general party policy is debated,
and where local parties can have a significant effect
on the Parliamentary leadership.
Public opinion polls have also become very important
to the leadership of each party. Party leaders know
that they have to persuade and carry large numbers
of the electorate, who are not party members, and
who in recent years have become less fixed and predictable
in their voting habits.
Political party membership in Britain has been declining
rapidly in the last few years, perhaps as a consequence
of greater consensus between the parties on the main
questions of economic management, both seeking the
middle ground so that differences of policy and principle
are more difficult to perceive; or perhaps because
people now, working longer hours and harder, and enjoying
for the most part a greater standard of living, can
or will give less time to public service.
No one knows if this is a temporary or a long-term change.
This, combined with falling turn-out in elections,
especially among 18-25 year olds, has become a matter
of general concern and is widely discussed in the
press and in the broadcasting media.
Pressure groups are organisations
that try to influence government policy, either directly
or indirectly. There are many such groups in Britain
today, and they are an increasingly important part
of political life. Generally speaking, ordinary citizens
today are more likely to support pressure groups than
join a political party. Sometimes people distinguish
between "pressure groups" and "lobbies". Lobbies or
"interest groups" are seen not as voluntary bodies
of ordinary citizens but as the voice of commercial,
financial, industrial, trade, or professional organisations.
Since medieval times,
prided themselves on being independent of the Crown.
Under the British system, judges can never challenge
the legality of laws passed by Parliament, but they
do interpret legislation and if a law contravenes
our human rights, judges can declare it incompatible.
The law must then be changed.
As a rule, judges in court normally apply the law in
the same way as they have done in the past. This ensures
that similar cases are dealt with in a consistent
way. However there are times when the circumstances
of a case have not arisen before, or when senior judges
decide that existing judgements do not reflect modern society.
In these situations, by their decisions, judges can create
or change the law.Judges
in Britain are appointed by a Government minister,
the Lord Chancellor, from nominations put forward
by existing judges. The names proposed are those of
senior lawyers who are believed to have the ability
and judgement to do the
In the last few years, however, there have been demands
- to which the government is responding - that this process should become more transparent, and
clearer to members of the press and public. It is
also felt that judges should be more representative
of the public at large. Many argue that the judges
are drawn from too narrow a section of society and
that women and members of
ethnic minorities are not sufficiently represented.
The police are organised on
a local basis, usually with one force for each county.
The largest force is the Metropolitan Police, with
its headquarters at New Scotland Yard, which serves
London. The police have
"operational independence" - the
Government cannot instruct them to arrest or proceed
against any individual. But their administration is
controlled by police authorities of elected local
councillors and magistrates, and by the role of the Home Secretary.
An independent authority investigates serious complaints
against the police.
The Civil Service
The Government is serviced by a large number of independent
managers and administrators, who have the job of carrying
out Government policy. They are known as civil servants.
The key features of the civil service are political neutrality
and professionalism. Before the mid-nineteenth century
civil servants were appointed by ministers and had
to be supporters of the party in power. Civil service
reform began in the early 19th century, when the East
India Company governed India.
To prevent corruption and favouritism,
candidates were required to pass competitive examinations.
In the 1860s this system was extended to the Home
Civil Service and continues with many modifications
Members of the British civil service today are permanent
servants of the state, working for whatever party
is in power. This neutrality is very important, but
is sometimes a difficult balance to strike. Civil
servants must warn ministers if they think a policy
is impractical or even against the public interest;
but must ultimately find a way of putting into practice
the policies of the elected Government.
Political party officials tend to do everything they
can to put Government policy in a favourable
light. Civil servants may find themselves in a dilemma
if they think that a minister is being too optimistic
about the outcome of a particular policy, or asking
them to do things specifically to discredit the Opposition.
In the past, commentators suspected that civil servants
too easily imposed their departmental policies on
new ministers; but now the suspicion is often that
civil servants can on occasion be pushed into open
support for party policies they think to be either
impractical or incompatible with other policies.
A major restraint on civil servants from becoming too
politically involved is the knowledge that, if a general
election brings another party to power, they will
have to work with a new Government - and an entirely different set of aims and policies. When
a General Election is pending or taking place, top
civil servants study closely the Opposition's policies
so that they are ready to serve a new government loyally.
and rural areas in Britain
are administered by a system of local government or
councils, usually referred to as local authorities.
Many areas have both district and county councils,
although large towns and cities tend to be administered
by a single authority, called a borough, metropolitan
district, or city council.
Local authorities are responsible for providing a range
of community services in their area such as education,
planning, environmental health, passenger transport,
the fire service, social services, refuse collection,
libraries, and housing. Today local authorities in
England and Wales have considerably less control
over the organisation of
these services than they did in the past.
What local government is required to do is called "mandatory
services", as decided by central government. Citizens
can take them to court if they do not perform them:
But there are also "permissive services", though less
than in the past: what they may do if they want to
and can afford to do. In England
and Wales local authorities
may only offer permissive services if empowered to
do so by government legislation. However in Scotland, under devolution, local
authorities can do anything they are not explicitly
forbidden to do. This is a simpler system to understand
and operate, but financial constraints make the two
systems more similar than might be supposed.
Most of the money for local authority services comes
from the Government, provided through taxation. Only
about 20 per cent is funded locally through the collection
of council tax. There are strict systems of accountability,
which determine how local authorities spend their
money, and the Government is now beginning to explore
how much some local services can be delivered by voluntary
community groups. Some see this as diminishing the
powers of local government but others see it as a
way of involving more ordinary citizens in how their
area is run.
Elections for local government councillors
are held in May each year. Many - but
not all - candidates stand as members of a political party. A few
cities in Britain,
also have their own elected mayors, with increased
rowers to manage local affairs. Serving on the local
council is still frequently the first step (but less
so than in the past) to getting the local party to
nominate someone as a candidate for election to the
national Parliament or Assembly or to the European
Parliament in Strasbourg.
This material is
based on "Life in the United
Journey to Citizenship" book and produced with the
permission of Controller of HMSO. No part of this
material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system or transmitted without the written permission
of HMSO's copyright unit.