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Parliament of the United Kingdom

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In the politics of the United Kingdom, legislative authority (that is, the power to make laws) is vested in Parliament, which is a bicameral or two chamber assembly made up of an upper house, the House of Lords and a lower house, the House of Commons. Both Houses meet in the Palace of Westminster, sometimes called the Houses of Parliament. While the House of Commons is directly elected by British subjects[?] on average every four to five years, the House of Lords is made up largely of appointed members, along with Bishops of the Church of England and a small number of hereditary peers elected by members of the hereditary peerage. All hereditary peers used to have seats in the House of Lords by right. That right was removed at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Further reform of the membership of the House of Lords is pending.

Parliamentary functions

The United Kingdom possesses an unwritten constitution, that is no single constitutional document. Instead Britain's constitution consists of important Acts of Parliament, constitutional conventions and traditions. Many of these govern parliament and the relationship between the parliament, as the legislature, and the executive, Her Majesty's Government.

Parliament fulfils a number of functions.

  • It passes laws. Laws, in draft form known as Bills, may be introduced by any member of either house, a Member of Parliament or MP in the House of Commons, or Peer of the Realm[?] with a seat in the House of Lords. Each Bill goes through a number of stages in whichever House it originated in, before being sent to the other House. Both Houses need to pass the Bill, but in the event a disagreement, under a series of Parliament Acts the House of Commons after a set period of time can deem a Bill to have gone through the Lords. The final stage involves the Bill being sent to the Queen of the United Kingdom to receive the Royal Assent. Without the Royal Assent, a Bill cannot become a law. However no monarch since Queen Anne at the beginning of the eighteenth century had refused to give the Royal Assent (ie, vetoed a Bill). When the Queen signifies her Assent, a Bill becomes an Act of Parliament.

  • While any MP or peer can introduce a Bill, in reality most Bills are introduced by Ministers of the Crown[?] (ie members of the cabinet), they introducing Bills covering in areas that are responsibility of their government department.

  • The British government is answerable to the lower house, the House of Commons. However neither the prime minister nor members of the government are elected by the House of Commons. Instead, the Queen asks the MP whose party controls a majority in the House of Commons after every general election to form a government. Parliament in effect gets to vote confidence in the government (known officially as Her Majesty's Government) by voting through (passing) or voting down (rejecting) the new government's policy agenda, as outlined in the Queen's Speech[?], also known as the Speech from the Throne, in which the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament[?] formally reads a speech written by the government outlining its policies and what Bills it proposes to introduce into parliament. Once the speech has been delivered it is then debated in the House of Commons, allowing the MPs to approve or reject it. Where it is rejected, the Prime Minister must either (a) resign, or (b) seek a parliamentary dissolution and call a new general election. Where a prime minister has ceased to retain a majority in that vote and requests a dissolution, the Queen can in theory reject his request, forcing his resignation and allowing the Leader of the Opposition to be asked to form a new government. This power however is very rarely used, and is only used in emergencies. The conditions that should be met to allow such a refusal are known as the Lascelles Principles[?].

  • Parliament controls the executive by passing or rejecting its Bills and by forcing Ministers of the Crown to answer to parliament for their actions (known as Question Timeor Parliamentary Questions - known as PQs: questions to the Prime Minister are called PMQs or to answer questions in a parliamentary committee) or in extreme cases by forcing a government to resign or call a general election (the option of which route to take if defeated rests in the first instance with the Prime Minister). The House of Commons can force a government down this route by
In any one of these cases, a resignation or a general election must follow.

Origins of Parliamentary Democracy

Parliamentary supremacy arises primarily from the English Civil War in the seventeenth century when Oliver Cromwell leader of the Parliamentary forces defeated the forces of King Charles I and founded the Commonwealth (not to be confused with the modern Commonwealth, which is a club largely though not exclusively made up of ex-UK colonies). Once defeated, in 1649 King Charles I was beheaded (an act known as Regicide) and a form of republican rule instituted over Oliver Cromwell, who ruled as Lord Protector. The Monarchy was reinstated under Charles II in 1660, with Parliament remaining as a full-time part of the system of governance. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament deposed the Roman Catholic King James II/VII [1] and his infant heir and gave the throne to his protestant daughter and her husband, William of Orange. They reigned jointly as Mary II and William III. Parliament excluded all catholic descendants of James II/VII from the throne. Since then the monarch has been generally subservient to parliament. But full parliamentary control of the executive did not occur until the Great Reform Act[?] of 1832, that broadened the voting franchise and so made parliament the full representative of public opinion. Since then, parliament had been dominant, though the monarch still remains an important player in government, with government governing through the Royal Prerogative[?] (ie, powers of the monarch) and with the monarch's formal approval still being required for Acts of Parliament and Orders-in-Council (executive orders).

Since the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain that unified the crowns of England and Scotland in 1707, parliament has been sovereign (known as the supremacy of parliament), with the power to make or repeal any law. That dominance continued in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (formed in 1801 when the crowns of Great Britain and Ireland were merged) and the modern United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (formed in December 1922 when twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties left to form the Irish Free State. However parliament is no longer sovereign. On a national level, the European Union, since Britain's accession to the European Economic Community in 1973, has the power to make laws which must be enforced in each member state, including Britain. On a regional level, a series of sub-parliaments or devolved adminstrations took over the day to day governance of certain regions, specificially Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, whereas it cannot block european legislation from the European Union (to which at a governmental level it can contribute and help shape) it can vary the powers of the devolved parliaments or even abolish them by a simple Act of Parliament.

A Parliament of sorts (consisting of the Barons, without any commoners) has existed for a very long time; the Barons first started stripping the King's powers away with the Magna Carta in 1215 but Parliament in a more recognisable form did not arise until many centuries later. Also, unlike now, Parliament only convened for short periods of time, and was then disbanded until the King called it again. Kings disliked calling Parliament, because the Members of Parliament were not under their control and so could cause problems. However, Parliament held the purse strings, so the King could not always ignore them, or bribe them, given that parliaments were not representative of public opinion, with many MPs elected from Rotten Boroughs[?] (corrupt constituencies where often only a handful of electors lived and could be bribed to elect a supporter or opponent of the King). These origins are reflected in the modern role of the monarch. It is she who formally summons, prorogues and dissolves parliament. At the moment that the latter royal order is made, all the MPs cease to hold office, with the resultant vacancies being filled by a general election. However this is always done on the advice (instruction) of Her Majesty's Government, which as it is answerable to parliament does parliament's wishes, or at least does not ignore the view of parliament, though parliament itself is not consulted.

See also:


[1] James II/VII's two ordinals denote his position as King James II of England and King James VII of Scotland. After England and Scotland were joined by the 1707 Act of Union British monarchs ceased to use Scottish ordinals. Were they still doing so, the modern Queen Elizabeth II would be Queen Elizabeth II/I, reflecting the fact that there never was a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland. In fact GPO letter boxes in Scotland do not have EIIR for the insignia for this very reason. They use ER for the insignia unlike English, Welsh and Northern Irish letter boxes.

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