The British political system
1 THE POLITICAL SYSTEM 2
1.1 THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT 2
1.2 THE GOVERNMENT 2
1.3 THE PRIME MINISTER 3
1.4 THE CABINET 3
1.5 DEVOLUTION 3
2 THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM 4
3 PARTIES 4
3.1 LABOUR PARTY 4
3.2 CONSERVATIVE PARTY 4
3.3 OTHERS 5
4. VOCABULARY 5
1 The political system
Britain is a constitutional monarchy. This means that the political power of the King is
limited. He or she (nowadays Queen Mary II) has no official right to support or disagree
with any particular policy. All political decisions are made by the Parliament and the
1.1 The British Parliament
The British Parliament has two houses, namely the House of Commons and the House of
Lords, which are located in Westminster Palace, London.
House of Commons: makes laws and decides how to spend the taxpayers’ money. It is
made up of two “sides”: the Membership Parliament belonging to the party in power,
and those belonging to the Opposition.
House of Lords: has over a thousand members. Some have inherited their seat, others are
made life peers by the monarch. Life peers are created members of the peerage, which is
a system of titles of nobility, whose titles are therefore not inherited. The House of Lords
has experienced some reform on recent years. A first phase saw a reduction in the
number of hereditary peers from 750 to 92. Further reforms could lead to the complete
removal of these peers from the House. It might even becomes necessary for hereditary
peers to stand for election in order become a member of the House.
1.2 The Government
The leader of the winning party in a general election becomes Prime Minister. He/she
names a cabinet of ministers or secretaries of state responsible for the various government
departments. The party with the second biggest majority forms the opposition with its own
1.3 The Prime Minister
The Prime Minister is the official leader of the country as well as leader of his/her
party. The cabinet is proposed by the Prime Minister. Today Tony Blair (Labour Party) is
1.4 The cabinet
The Prime Minister chooses his cabinet from the elected members of his party and
occasionally from the House of Lords. The cabinet can be “reshuffled” whenever the Prime
Minister wishes. The ministers are responsible for their departments of government and
collectively make decisions in cabinet. The cabinet of Tony Blair consists of 19 members.
The United Kingdom consists of four parts: England, Wales (Cymru), Scotland and
Northern Ireland. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland go for liberty and for self-
determination, namely devolution, which means the transfer of political, of parliamentary
power. The end of the 1990’s saw the devolution from Westminster to the new Scottish
Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. Only the Scottish Parliament
has power to legislate or make “Acts of Parliament”, which means a law adopted by
Parliament. The Welsh Assembly has secondary legislative powers which allow it to
interpret laws made for Wales by Westminster. A New Northern Ireland Assembly
promotes links with the Irish Government.
1.6 The Royal Family
Does Britain still need the monarchy? That’s a difficult question. It’s often suggested that
the Royal Family is outdated and that monarchy is a wasteful, inefficient and demeaning
system. However, there are also people who think that true patriots want to keep the
monarchy and that the Queen is a mighty symbol for Britains and the people of the
Common Wealth. Today the Royals have not much power, but still people pay for the
Royal Family’s life, their castles and their butlers.
2 The electoral system
The system used at general elections is the first-past-the-post system. Voters in each of the
659 constituencies vote for their preferred candidate. The person with most votes wins the
seat and becomes the Member of Parliament (MP). All other votes are wasted. Thus the
number of seats a party wins does not reflect the total number of votes it receives. Under
this system, minority parties like the Green Party cannot hope to win a seat in a parliament,
as was the case in the 1989 European Elections, despite receiving two million votes.
Proposals for electoral reforms point towards proportional representation. The 1999
elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly used the Additional Member
system (a two-vote system like that in Germany: voters cast one vote for a constituency MP
and one for a party list).
For many years, the two leading parties in Britain have been the Conservative Party and
the Labour Party. Furthermore, the voting arrangements have always led to a two-
party system with these two parties taking turns in government. Because of this system
smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats have never come to power. They would
naturally welcome a change to proportional representation, the system used in Austria, as it
might give them the chance to form part of a coalition like the Greens did in Germany in
1998. However, the two-party system is one of Britain’s firmest traditions.
3.1 Labour Party
The Labour Party –now called New Labour Party- was traditionally in favour of labour
reforms and had strong links to trade unions. Since the mid-nineties Labour has broken these
links and moved to left of centre. At the last election in May 2005 the Labour Party lost 5, 4
% of the votes.
3.2 Conservative Party
At the right of centre, the Conservative Party (Tories) is seen as the party of big business.
The longest term in office held the so-called “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher in the 20th
century, namely from 1979 to 1990. She was the first female prime minister in history.
Since losing the election in 1997 to Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Conservatives have
been in opposition. The Conservative Party stands for liberalism, scepticism about the
purposes of the European Union and the restriction of the rights of homosexuals. At the last
election the Conservatives won 0, 6 percentage points.
The biggest of the minority parties are the Liberal Democrats. There is also a Green Party but
it is not represented in parliament. The two nationalist parties Plaid Cymru (Welsh
Nationals) and the Scottish National Party have become more important following the
devolution of power to Cardiff and Edinburgh respectively. In Northern Ireland, the parties
are divided along sectarian lines: The Social Democratic Labour Party and Sinn Féin, the
political arm of the IRA, favour a united Ireland; the Ulster Unionist Party and the
Democratic Unionist Party wants to remain in the United Kingdom. Moreover, there also
exist the British National Party, the National Front Party, the Legalise Cannabis Party, the
Respect Party and many more. All parties which ran for the election 2005 are listed after
Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, UK Independence, Scottish National Party, Green
Democratic Unionist, British National, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionist,
Social Democratic & Labour, Respect, Scottish Socialist Party, Veritas, Alliance (NI), Scottish -
Green Party, Socialist Labour, Liberal, Health Concern, English Democrats, Socialist Alternative,
National Front, Legalise Cannabis, Community Action, Monster Raving Loony, Christian Vote,
Mebyon Kernow, Forward Wales, Christian Peoples, Rainbow Dream Ticket, Community Group,
Ashfield Independents, Alliance for Green Socialism, Residents' Association of London, Workers
Party, Socialist Environmental, Scottish Unionist, Workers' Revolutionary, New England Party,
Communist, The Community (London Borough of Hounslow), Peace and Progress, Scottish Senior
Citizens, Your Party.
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