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British politics

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The United Kingdom is a unitary state governed by 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 largely 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 theoretical 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 have three essential rights, the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn. The longer the monarch reigns, the greater the degree of his or her experience and knowledge, something all governments and prime ministers tap into in their weekly confidential meetings with the monarch. In practical terms, the political head of the country is the Prime Minister (currently Anthony C. L. (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.

Table of contents

Government

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 and Ministries. 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.

Parliament Main article: Parliament of the United Kingdom

Parliament is the very centre of the political system in the United Kingdom. It is the supreme legislative body, and Government is drawn from and answerable to it.

It is made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

House of Commons

Main article: British House of Commons

The country 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 is almost always 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 Oppositon.

There is usually a majority, 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. In 1940, it was given to Lord Halifax, and when he declined, Winston Churchill. 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

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.

Civil Service

The Civil Service is a politically neutral organisation which serves the Government in an administrative function. It is primarily organised into Departments of State,each with a Secretary of State (a senior Government Minister) as the political head. Most Government Departments have headquarters inand around Whitehall (a London street), hence "Whitehall" is often used as a synonym for the central core of the Civil Service.

Devolution and Regional Government

In addition to the House of Commons, Scotland and Wales now have regional parliaments, and Northern Ireland has the Northern Irish Assembly[?]. Some members of these bodies are elected by a form of proportional representation. Although these assemblies have some legislative and other powers, they do not have anywhere near the power of the national parliament. There are 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 regional government, they have no constitutional right to exist and can have their powers broadened, narrowed or changed utterly by simple Act of Parliament. Parliament can also by simple Act of parliament create more regional assemblies or abolish them all. 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.

Local Government

The country is divided into Local Authorities (often Councils), which are further subdivided (these subdivisions are often known as wards). In local elections (held at the same time throughout the country, but at a different time to parliamentary general elections), each of these small subdivisions elects a Councillor to represent them. The collection of Councillors together head the Local Authority.

Local Authorities are responsible for such matters as administering education, public transport, and the management of public spaces.

First Past the Post Electoral System The First Past the Post, is non-proportional. Of the candidates standing in a given constituency, the one who receives the highest number of votes is elected. In practise in the vast majority of constituencies there will be more then two parties standing candidates. As such, candidates do not have to receive 50 or more percent of the vote to win. (The present government, for instance, was formed on the basis of around 40% of the vote, nationally.) This lack of proportional representation means it does not give parties a parliamentary party size directly related to the percentage vote they received. Thus, large parties have an advantage at the expense of small parties, larger than their votes warrant.

For example, in the last election Labour won 60% of the seats with only 40% of the vote. The system also means that the party with the most seats in parliament may not have had the most votes. Supporters of the First Past the Post system like the direct link it provides between voters and their local MP, and also the fact that it tends to produce Governments able to act decisively. Some people say that by discouraging minority parties, the system acts as a defence against extremist parties such as the BNP; on the other hand, critics believe that the system unfairly discriminates against smaller parties and is undemocratic.

According to Duverger's law, a first-past-the-post voting system naturally leads to a two-party system. This certainly seems borne out in the history of British parliamentary politics. However, the British political culture is not a 'pure' two-party system as smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats have members at Westminster.

The three main parties

There are three main national political parties in the United Kingdom, although it is worth noting that in Northern Ireland, where politics is dominated by sectarianism[?], none of these three main parties have a strong following.

They are:

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.)

Other political parties and their leaders, who failed to win any seats, include:

Between them, the three main British political parties have, in one form or another, held power since 1678.

For a long time, the two main parties were the Tories (now the Conservative party) and the Whigs (now the Liberal Democrats).

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.

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 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 was used colloquially for decades beforehand.

In the 20th century the Labour Party was established, leading to the demise of the Whigs as the 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 movement, 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, and inheritor of the spirit of the Whig movement.

Apart from two brief spells in minority governments in 1924 and 1929, 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. And for most of the 1980s and 1990s under her successor John Major pursued radical policies of Privatisation, anti-trade-union legislation and Monetarism, otherwise known 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 was widely believed to have made Labour unelectable for a decade.

In response to the leftward shift of the Labour party, some moderate Labour party members in 1981 formed a breakaway group from the Labour Party, called the Social Democratic Party, it was formed as a centrist alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. It was widely accused of splitting the anti-Conservative vote and did not prosper, and eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats. Support for the new party has increased ever since, and the Liberal Democrats (often referred to as LibDems) in 1997 and 2001 won a record 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, who expelled the far left-wing Militant group, and moderated many of the parties policies. And 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 of a heart attack in 1994, and 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. The Labour Party consolidated its position in 2001, winning a second consecutive General Election - the first time ever achievement for the Labour Party.

This has 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 aging membership (average age: 65) and vote (3rd party among the under 45's) mean that avoiding extinction is a higher priority than winning an election.

British politics and the European Union

The United Kingdom is part of the European Union (EU). 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 leave the EU. A particularly divisive issue is whether the UK should adopt the Euro as its currency.

Such divisions run particularly deep in the Conservative Party, where opponents of greater European integration are known as "Eurosceptics".

Major issues in British national politics

Major issues in current British national politics, in very approximate order of voter concern (as of 2002), are:

  • The NHS
  • Education
  • Taxation
  • The state of the economy
  • Pensions and benefits
  • Law and order
  • European integration and the single currency
  • Immigration and racism
  • The Irish peace process
  • Policy on illegal drugs

There are also specific regional issues, not listed above, for which, see below.

The British mainland regional parties

Other, smaller, British political parties are generally regionally based, often advocating independence for their region. They include

Northern Irish politics

Northern Irish politics is particularly complex, due to the history of Northern Ireland, particularly The Troubles.

From the late 1960s until the mid-1990s, Northern Ireland was plagued by civil unrest and terrorism, known as The Troubles.

The current government of Northern Ireland was established as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, properly known as the Belfast Agreement.

The Northern Irish parties are:

The fringe parties

Other fringe political parties exist, but generally do not succeed in returning MPs to Parliament.

Only the main ones are listed here - there is a tendency on the far left and right for a proliferation of tiny groups (also known by the French term 'groupuscules'), usually characterized by extremely rigid ideologies and built around personalities, that are constantly splitting to create new groups.

However, in the European Parliament, the Green Party cannot be regarded as a fringe group.

Trans-national fringe parties:

British-specific fringe parties:

Independents

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:

  • Martin Bell[?] represented the Tatton[?] constituency in Cheshire between 1997 and 2002. 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 2002 election, on a platform opposing the closure of Kidderminster hospital.

Government bodies

Judicial

See Courts of the United Kingdom.

Miscellaneous

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

See Also

Footnotes

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.

External links:



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