Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Politics of the United Kingdom
The Politics of the United Kingdom are based upon a unitary state and a democratic constitutional monarchy. Its system of government (often known as the Westminster system) has directly inspired the government of other countries, such as Canada, India, Australia and Jamaica.
The constitution is uncodified, and some is unwritten, being made up of constitutional conventions, and various elements of statutory law and common law which are collectively referred to as British constitutional law.
The head of state and ultimate source of power in the UK is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. In reality, the Queen has an essentially ceremonial role, restricted in exercise of power by convention and public opinion, though the monarch does exercise three essential rights: the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn. Governments and prime ministers have weekly confidential meetings with the monarch. The longer the monarch reigns the greater the degree of his or her experience and knowledge becomes, and so the meetings become more and more useful. In practical terms, the political head of the UK is the Prime Minister (Tony Blair since May 2, 1997), who must have the support of the House of Commons. In formal terms, the Crown in Parliament is sovereign.
The Government (formally, Her Majesty's Government) performs the Executive functions of the United Kingdom. The monarch appoints a Prime Minister, guided by the strict convention that the Prime Minister should be the member of the House of Commons most likely to be able to form a Government with the support of the House. The Prime Minister then selects the other Ministers which make up the Government and act as political heads of the various Government Departments. About twenty of the most senior government ministers make up the Cabinet.
The Government is drawn from and is answerable to parliament - a vote of no confidence can be called if any government-sponsored legislation is defeated in the House of Commons, and, if passed, will force a prime minister either to resign or to seek a parliamentary dissolution and a general election. In practice members of parliament of all major parties are strictly controlled by "whips" who try to ensure they vote according to party policy. If the government has a large majority, then they are very unlikely to lose any votes. Governments with a small majority, or coalition governments, are much more vulnerable, and sometimes have to resort to extreme measures, such as "wheeling in" sick MPs, to get the necessary majority.
Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997, for example, were swept into power with such large majorities that even allowing for dissent within their parties, they were assured of winning practically all parliamentary votes, and thus were able to implement radical programmes of legislative reform and innovation. On the other hand, Prime Ministers such as John Major who enjoy only slender majorities can easily lose votes if relatively small numbers of their backbench MPs reject the whip and vote against the Government's proposals. As such, Governments with small majorities find it extremely difficult to implement controversial legislation and tend to become bogged down cutting deals with factions within their party or seeking assistance from other political parties.
Main article: Parliament of the United Kingdom
Parliament is the centre of the political system in the United Kingdom. It is the supreme legislative body, and Government is drawn from and answerable to it. Parliament is bicameral, consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
House of Commons
Main article: British House of Commons
The UK is divided into parliamentary constituencies of broadly equal population (decided by the Boundaries Commission), each of which elects a Member of Parliament to the House of Commons. Most of these belong to a political party, although this is by no means a necessity and there is little recognition within the parliamentary constitution of parties.
There almost always is a party with an outright majority of MPs in the House. The leader of this party is invited by the monarch to form a government and becomes the Prime Minister. The leader of the second biggest party becomes the Leader of the Opposition.
There is usually a majority in Parliament, thanks to the First Past the Post electoral system (which without the element of proportionality can magnify swings and so make it difficult not to win a majority of seats), so coalitions are rare. The monarch normally asks a person commissioned to form a government simply whether it can survive in the House of Commons, something which minority governments can do. In exceptional circumstances the monarch asks someone to 'form a government' with a parliamentary majority,1 in the event of no party having a majority, that requires the formation of a coalition government. This option is only ever taken at a time of national emergency, such as war-time. It was given in 1916 to Andrew Bonar Law, and when he declined, to David Lloyd George. It is worth noting that a government is not formed by a vote of the House of Commons, merely a commission from the monarch. The House of Commons gets its first chance to indicate confidence in the new government when it votes on the Speech from the Throne, ie, the legislative programme proposed by the new government.
The House of Lords
Main article: House of Lords
The House of Lords was previously a hereditary, aristocratic chamber. Major reform is currently in progress, but it is currently a mixture of hereditary members and appointed members (life peers, with no hereditary right for their descendants to sit in the House). It currently acts to review legislation formed by the House of Commons, with the power to propose amendments, and delay legislation it doesn't approve of for about a year (see Parliament Act). Often governments will accept changes in legislation in order to avoid both the time delay, and the negative publicity of being seen to clash with the Lords.
The House of Lords is also the final court of appeal within the United Kingdom, although in practice only a small subset of the House of Lords, known as the Law Lords, hears judicial cases.
The Civil Service is a politically neutral organisation which supports Government Ministers in carrying out their executive duties. Its constitutional role is to support the Government of the day regardless of which political party is in power. Unlike in some other democracies, senior civil servants remain in post upon a change of Government.
The central core of the civil service is organised into a number of Departments of State. Each Department is led politically by a senior Minister, supported by a small team of junior Ministers. In most cases the senior Minister is known as a Secretary of State and is a member of the Cabinet. Adminstrative management of the Department is led by a head civil servant known in most Departments as a Permanent Secretary. The majority of the civil service staff in fact work in executive agencies, which are separate operational organisations reporting to Departments of State.
"Whitehall" is often used as a synonym for the central core of the Civil Service. This is because most Government Departments have headquarters in and around Whitehall (a London street).
In addition to the House of Commons, Scotland now has its own parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have national assemblies. Some members of these bodies are elected by a form of proportional representation. Although the new devolved governments have some legislative and other powers, they do not have anywhere near the power of the UK parliament. There are also fundamental differences between them. For example, the Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate, whereas the Welsh Assembly Government only has the power to spend the budget formerly allocated to a government department known as the Welsh Office. In addition, as devolved systems of government, they have no constitutional right to exist and can have their powers broadened, narrowed or changed by an Act of the UK Parliament.
Thus, the United Kingdom is said to have a unitary state with a devolved system of government. This contrasts with a federal system, in which sub-parliaments or state parliaments and assemblies have a clearly defined constitutional right to exist and a right to exercise certain constitutionally guaranteed and defined functions and cannot be unilaterally abolished by Acts of the central parliament.
The present policy of the UK Government is to increase national and regional devolution. The opportunity to elect a regional tier of elected government was to be offered to some of the regions of England, was accepted by referendum in London, but was rejected in a referendum in North East England and is now less likely to be offered elsewhere.
For further information on Scotland's political system, see the main article.
Main Article: Local Government in the United Kingdom
The UK is divided into Local Authorities, which are further subdivided in rural areas and some urban areas into parishes. The vast majority of Local Authorities are controlled by Councils, which are made up of democratically elected councillors, from roughly equally sized wards. In local elections (held in typically in May, with different authorities electing in different years), each of these wards elects councillors (some are single member wards, others are multiple member wards) to represent them. The collection of councillors, the Council, together head the Local Authority.
Local Authorities are responsible for such matters as administering education, public transport, and the management of public spaces. Local authorities are often engaged in community politics.
Parishes have councils too and some are known as city or town councils. These councils are either made up of elected parish councillors, or in very small parishes, they use direct democracy.
Main article Elections in the United Kingdom
Various electoral systems are used in the UK:
- The First Past the Post system is used for general elections, and also local government elections in England, Scotland and Wales.
- The Additional Member System was introduced after devolution in 1999 for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly.
- The Single Transferable Vote system is used to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland's local councils.
- The party list is used for European Parliament elections.
- The Supplementary Vote is used to elect directly-elected mayors, such as the Mayor of London.
In the last few elections, voter mandates for Westminster in the 40% ranges have been swung into 60% parliamentary majorities. No government has won a majority of the popular vote since the National Government of Stanley Baldwin in 1935. Twice since World War II the party with fewer popular votes actually came out with the larger number of seats (in 1951 and February 1974). One reason for all the quirks is that Britain has many political parties, making it possible to win individual constituencies on less than 50% of the vote due to the opposition votes being divided.
Electoral reform has been considered for general elections many times, but after the Jenkins Commission report in October 1998, which suggested the Additional Member System for general elections was effectively ignored by the government, there have been no further government proposals for reform. It is highly unlikely that electoral reform will happen unless there is a significant change in the balance of power and Labour loses its large majority.
Low turnout is a concern, as the percentage of the electorate who voted in the last general election was just 59%.
There are three main political parties in the United Kingdom, although it is worth noting that in Northern Ireland, where politics is dominated by the 'border question', none of these parties has a strong following and the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats do not stand candidates. Between them, the three main British political parties have, in one form or another, held power since 1678.
The main parties outside Northern Ireland are:
- The Labour Party
- The Conservative Party (officially the Conservative and Unionist Party)
- The Liberal Democrats
The last General Election for the House of Commons was held on June 7, 2001. The results were as follows: (note - the party leaders mentioned are the current party leaders, not those who led the party in the general election. Also note numerous other political parties received votes but failed to win any seats.)
- Labour 40.7% (413 seats, 6 fewer than in 1997) - led by Tony Blair
- The Conservative and Unionist Party 31.7% (166 seats, 1 more than in 1997) - now led by Michael Howard, led by William Hague at the time of the election.
- The Liberal Democrats 18.3% (52 seats, 6 more than in 1997) - led by Charles Kennedy
- Other 9.3% (28 seats, 1 less than in 1997)
- Ulster Unionist Party (6 seats) - led by David Trimble
- Democratic Unionist Party (5 seats) - led by Rev. Ian Paisley
- Scottish National Party (5 seats) - led by Alex Salmond
- Plaid Cymru (4 seats) - led by Dafydd Iwan
- Sinn Féin (4 seats) - led by Gerry Adams. Sinn Féin's elected members of parliament refuse to take their seats, citing the requirement to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch.
- Social Democratic and Labour Party (3 seats) - led by Mark Durkan
- Independent (1 seat) (Richard Taylor, running under a "Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern" ticket, won the seat of Wyre Forest)
Two parties have no seats in Parliament, but multiple seats in the European Parliament
History of political parties
UK political parties originated in 1662 in the aftermath of the English Civil War, with the creation of the Court Party and the Country Party, soon becoming known as the Tories (now the Conservative party, still commonly referred to as 'the Tories') and the Whigs (now the Liberal Democrats, though the term 'Whig' has become obsolete). The two remained the main political parties until the 20th century.
The term 'Tory' originates from the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678-1681 - the Whigs were those who supported the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Duke of York from the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland, and the Tories were those who opposed it. Both names were originally insults: a "whiggamor" was a cattle driver, and a "tory" was an Irish term for an outlaw.
Generally, the Tories were associated with lesser gentry and the Church of England, while Whigs were more associated with trade, money, larger land holders (or "land magnates"), expansion and tolerance. Both were still committed to the political system in place at that time. Neither group could be considered a true political party in the modern sense.
The Rochdale Radicals were a group of more extreme reformists who were also heavily involved in the Cooperative movement. They sought to bring about a more equal society, and are considered by modern standards to be left-wing.
After becoming associated with repression of popular discontent in the years after 1815, the Tories underwent a fundamental transformation under the influence of Robert Peel, himself an industrialist rather than a landowner, who in his 1835 "Tamworth manifesto" outlined a new "Conservative" philosophy of reforming ills while conserving the good.
Though Peel's supporters subsequently split from their colleagues over the issue of free trade in 1846, ultimately joining the Whigs and the Radicals to form what would become the Liberal Party, Peel's version of the party's underlying outlook was retained by the remaining Tories, who adopted his label of Conservative as the official name of their party.
The term 'Liberal Party' was first used officially in 1868, though it had been in use colloquially for decades beforehand. The Liberal Party formed a government in 1870 and then alternated with the Conservative Party as the party of government throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century.
In 1900, the Labour Representation Committee was established and it changed its name to The Labour Party in 1906. After the First World War, this led to the demise of the Liberal Party as the main liberal force in British politics. The existence of the Labour Party on the left of British politics led to a slow waning of energy from the Liberal Party, ending with it taking third place in national politics. After performing poorly in the elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924, the Liberal Party was superseded by the Labour Party as the party of the left.
Following two brief spells in minority governments in 1924 and 1929-1931, the Labour Party had its first true victory after World War II in the 1945 "khaki election". Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, Labour governments alternated with Conservative governments. The Conservatives were in power for most of the time, with the Labour Party suffering the "wilderness years" of 1951-1964 (three straight General Election defeats) and 1979-1997 (four straight General Election defeats).
During this second period, Margaret Thatcher, who became leader of the Conservative party in 1975, made a fundamental change to Conservative policies, turning the Conservative Party into a right-wing radical party. In the General Election of 1979 she defeated James Callaghan's troubled Labour government after the winter of discontent.
For most of the 1980s, and the 1990s under her successor John Major, Conservative governments pursued radical policies of privatisation, anti-trade-union legislation and Monetarism, now known collectively as Thatcherism.
The Labour Party elected staunch left-winger Michael Foot as their leader after their 1979 election defeat, and he responded to Margaret Thatcher's government by moving the party further to the left, a move which split the party and is widely believed to have made Labour unelectable for a decade.
In response to Labour's leftward shift, some moderate members formed a breakaway group in 1981, called the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party which contested the 1983 and 1987 general elections as a centrist alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. After some initial success, the SDP did not prosper, and was accused by some of splitting the anti-Conservative vote.
The SDP eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Support for the new party has increased since then, and the Liberal Democrats (often referred to as LibDems) in 1997 and 2001 gained an increased number of seats in the House of Commons.
Labour were badly defeated by the Conservatives in the general election of 1983 and Michael Foot was replaced by the more moderate Neil Kinnock as leader of the Labour Party. Kinnock expelled the far left-wing Militant Tendency group, and moderated many of the party's policies. He was replaced by John Smith after Labour's narrow defeat in the 1992 general election.
Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party after John Smith's sudden death from a heart attack in 1994. He continued to move the Labour Party back towards the centre (his critics would say to the centre-right, but most of them said the same about Kinnock and Smith) by loosening links with the unions and dropping policies such as unilateral nuclear disarmament. This, coupled with the professionalising of the party machine's approach to the media, helped Labour win the 1997 General Election with a historic landslide result. The Labour Party has moved from being a social democratic party to a radical socialist party, to being a social democratic party again.
Political landscape today
The Labour Party consolidated its position in 2001, winning a full second term - a first-time achievement for the Labour Party.
This led to a crisis of confidence in the Conservative Party, which had become complacent with its position as the 'natural party of government' after its 18 years of power. The party's drift to the right lost it nearly all its working-class voters, and its ageing membership (average age 65) and vote (third party among the under 45s) mean that avoiding extinction became a higher priority than winning an election. However, with Labour's recent drop in popularity in 2003-2004 coinciding with Michael Howard's becoming leader, the Conservatives appeared to have begun to recover their position as serious challengers to the Labour government. But recent opinion polls, which have pointed to a Labour lead of between five and eight per cent, if accurate would be sufficient to secure Tony Blair's party a three-figure majority for the third time.
"Regional" parties in Great Britain
Other, smaller, British political parties are generally "regionally" based, often advocating independence for their country or region. They include
- Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall)
- Cornish Nationalist Party
- Scottish National Party (advocating independent Scottish statehood within the EU)
- Scottish Socialist Party (campaigning for a socialist Scottish republic)
- Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist Party)
The fringe parties
Other political parties exist, but generally do not succeed in returning MPs to Parliament. There is a tendency on the far left and right for a proliferation of tiny groups (also known by the French term 'groupuscules'), sometimes characterized by extremely rigid ideologies and built around personalities, that are constantly splitting to create new groups.
There are also a few independent politicians with no party allegiance. This normally occurs only when an MP decides to break with his party in mid-session. Since the Second World War only two MPs have been elected as independents, though others have been elected after breaking away from their party:
- Martin Bell represented the Tatton constituency in Cheshire between 1997 and 2001. He was elected following a "sleaze" scandal involving the sitting Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton -- Bell, a BBC journalist, stood as an anticorruption independent candidate, and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties withdrew their candidates from the election.
- Dr. Richard Taylor MP was elected for the Wyre Forest constituency in the 2001 election, on a platform opposing the closure of Kidderminster hospital.
Major issues in British national politics
Major issues in current British national politics, in descending order of voter concern (as of MORI poll April 2004), are:
- Defence / Terrorism
- Race relations / immigration
- The NHS
- Law and order
- Pensions and benefits
- The state of the economy
- European integration and the single currency
- Housing and house prices
There are also specific regional issues, not listed above, for which, see below.
British politics and the European Union
The United Kingdom is part of the European Union (EU). As such, UK citizens elect Members of the European Parliament to represent them in the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg. The UK elects 78 MEPs.
In recent years, there have been divisions in both major parties as to whether the UK should form greater ties within the EU, leave things as they are, or reduce the EU's supranational powers. Opponents of greater European integration are known as Eurosceptics, supporters Pro-Europeans. Divisions over Europe run deep in both major parties, and though the Conservative Party was seen to split over this issue whilst in Government up to 1997, it is the Labour Party which now faces conflicting views within Cabinet over UK involvement in the Euro and the new European Constitution.
The strong showing of the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has shifted the debate over UK relations with the EU, with perhaps a third of the electorate supportive of leaving the EU.
Politics in Northern Ireland
Politics in Northern Ireland is particularly complex, due to the history of Northern Ireland, particularly 'The Troubles'. Until the 1960s the three main parties in Great Britain were mirrored in Northern Ireland, with the Ulster Unionist Party serving as the regional wing of the Conservative Party whilst the Ulster Liberal Party served a similar role for the Liberal Party. The Northern Ireland Labour Party was not as strongly tied to the UK Labour Party but the differences were not obvious. Also in existence were the Nationalist Party and Sinn Féin, both of whom were committed to the political unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
From the late 1960s until the mid-1990s, Northern Ireland was plagued by civil unrest and paramilitarism, known as The Troubles. In the process the political parties were greatly disrupted. The Ulster Unionist Party discontinued its links with the Conservative Party in protest at the Sunningdale Agreement. The Ulster Liberal Party remained a part of the now Liberal Democratic Party but faced with marginal support it chose to form a sibling relationship with the Alliance Party. The Northern Ireland Labour Party folded amidst a widespread realignment of political parties; with the British party in theory entering into an alliance, through the Socialist International with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and retaining its policy (until recently) of refusing Northern Ireland residents membership of the party. Many other political parties have sprung up representing different strands of Unionism, nationalism or cross community politics, but few have lasted any substantial period of time.
More recently there have been calls for the mainstream British parties to organise and stand in elections in Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party has done so since the late 1980s but its support has been minimal whilst the Liberal Democrats have continued to endorse Alliance candidates.
The collapse of the assembly created by the GFA accelerated the polarisation of Northern Ireland's politics, with the SDLP's eclipse by Sinn Fein (both of which are in favour of the agreement) in 2001 being mirrored by the anti-GFA DUP overtaking the UUP in the November 2003 poll for a new Assembly (which has yet to meet).
The main parties in Northern Ireland are:
- Alliance Party (a liberal, non-sectarian party)
- Democratic Unionist Party (a hard-line Unionist party)
- Progressive Unionist Party (a centre-left Unionist party with links to loyalist paramilitaries)
- Sinn Féin (an Irish Republican party with links to the Provisional Irish Republican Army)
- Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) (a social democratic nationalist party)
- UK Unionist Party (a tiny party that serves as a vehicle for Robert McCartney, a Unionist)
- Ulster Unionist Party (a conservative unionist party)
- Conservative Unionist Party (part of the UK Conservative Party)
There are many smaller parties both past and present, reflecting the turbulent changes in Northern Ireland politics. Most can be identified as either Unionist or nationalist, though a few seek to eschew any position on the "Border Question" (and invariably receive much less support). As a result the question of left-wing or right-wing politics is not as pertinent; although existing parties can be defined at some point on the political spectrum, few seek to promote a left or right wing agenda.
Political pressure groups
International organization participation
AfDB, AsDB, Australia Group, BIS, The Commonwealth, CCC , CDB (non-regional), CE, CERN, EAPC, EBRD, ECA (associate), ECE, ECLAC, EIB, ESA, ESCAP, European Union, FAO, G-5, G-6, G-7, G-8, G-10, IADB, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICC, ICFTU, ICRM, IDA, IEA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, IHO, ILO, IMF, International Maritime Organization, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Interpol, IOC, IOM (observer), ISO, ITU, MONUC, NAM (guest), NATO, NEA, NSG, OAS (observer), OECD, OPCW, OSCE, PCA, SPC, UN, UN Security Council, UNAMSIL, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNFICYP, UNHCR, UNIDO, UNIKOM, UNMIBH, UNMIK, UNOMIG, UNRWA, UNTAET, UNU, UPU, WCL, WEU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTrO, Zangger Committee
- British political scandals
- Duverger's law
- European Union
- History of England
- History of Ireland
- History of Scotland
- History of Wales
- Law of the United Kingdom
- List of British political defections
- List of British Governments
- List of Parliaments of the United Kingdom
- Political parties of the world
- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
- United Kingdom general elections
- Westminster system
- Political campaigning
1 The formal request from the monarch is either to (a) form a government capable of surviving in the House of Commons (which by implication does not require a majority behind it, given that skilled minority governments can and do survive for long periods); or (b) form a government capable of commanding a majority in the Commons, which by implication requires a majority behind it.
- British Government and Politics on the Internet from the Keele University School of Politics
- British Political History Links from BUBL
- Rupert Myers' politcal blog
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