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UK Parliament and Government

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy.

The sun rises over the Houses of Parliament in London, June 9th 2017.
The Houses of Parliament in London
The Magna Carta - the beginning of the British parliamentary system.

In 1215 at Runnymede by the River Thames, a group of barons forced King John to sign a document which limited his powers and protected their privileges. Their first priority was self-interest, but clauses benefitting others were also introduced. For example:

Clause 29.
NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.

(Translation into modern English:
No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or harmed in any way except by the lawful judgement of his equals under the law of the land. Justice will not be sold to any man nor will it be refused or delayed.)

This meant that the king was also subject to the country’s laws and could not arbitrarily punish any person.
King John and the kings which followed him did not always allow their power to be limited by the charter which was later called the Magna Carta. King John had the Pope annul the original document almost immediately. However, it was an important start to the historical development of a parliamentary system and to constitutional law in the English-speaking world.

Read more: Creation of the Magna Carta

You will find an easy version of the text here: UK, Parliament and Government - Text in Brief


UK Parliament. Photo.
The State Opening of Parliament marks the beginning of the parliamentary session. Its main purpose is for the monarch formally to open Parliament and in the Queen's Speech deliver an outline of the Government's proposed policies, legislation for the coming session and a review of the last session.
The Parliament in London consists of elected representatives from all the countries in the UK. The Scots and Welsh voted for devolution in a referendum in 1997. The system came into effect in 1999 and since then, the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments have had more control over their domestic affairs. The Scottish Government has responsibility for issues such as, health, education, justice, transport and rural affairs, but the Welsh Assembly Government has fewer powers.

The UK System in Brief

The Monarch (Queen or King)

Head of State, Head of the Commonwealth, Appoints the Prime Minister, Head of the Armed Forces.
Little real power and acts only on the advice of her ministers.

The Prime Minister

Leader of the government party.
Appoints ministers (about 100) and forms the Cabinet.

The Cabinet

The most important ministers in the government (about 20 members).

The House of Lords

About 753 members (January 2011) - hereditary peers and life peers, 2 archbishops and 24 bishops.
Can only revise and delay bills. Reforms have been proposed for restructuring the House of Lords.

House of Commons

650 Members of Parliament (MPs) (from 2010). Each represents one of the constituencies (district), into which the country is divided. Each belongs to a political party. Elected by the people. The UK Members of Parliament are elected by first-past-the-post system.

How Does the System Work?

In short, the Cabinet is like the leaders of the Government and the Government is like the management of the country. The Government proposes policies, which determine the running of the country. It makes the important decisions, for example about foreign policy, education, or health, but these decisions have to be approved by Parliament. If Parliament thinks that a particular Government policy is against the public interest, it can force the Government to change its mind. A proposal might then be altered, or perhaps withdrawn altogether. Therefore, in the end, the power of the Government depends on the support of the House of Commons, which, in turn, depends on the support of the voters.

  • Elections must be held at least every 5 years.
  • Two main political parties; Conservative and Labour.
  • Liberal Democrats are a third smaller party.
  • The party with the majority of votes in the election forms the Government.
  • The second largest party forms the Opposition.
  • Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have national political parties, the Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein. The SNP and Sinn Fein advocate secession from the UK.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Elections to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments are conducted by combining the first-past-the-post system and proportional representation. Members of the Parliaments are made up of a representative for each constituency and representatives from each of the regions used in the European Parliament elections. First the constituency Members are elected by the first-past-the-post system and then the regional Members are elected by a proportional representation system.

Devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly also occurred in 1999 and the Assembly has legislative authority for matters which have been transferred from the UK government.

The UK government retain responsibility for all matters of foreign policy.

In September 2014, there was a referendum on Scotland’s independence from the UK. The question people voted ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to was: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. The final result was 55,3% voted ‘no’ and 44,7% voted ‘yes’.

You can read more about devolution and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish parliaments at The Devolved Parliaments - Tasks.

Oddities from the British Political System

Many things about the British political system may seem odd and even ridiculous to a Norwegian. In Norwegian politics, the Constitution plays an important role, but the British have no written constitution. Instead, they use convention (and tradition) and make up laws or bills as they go along or when a problem arises.

Some people work as “Whips” in Parliament. One might think that this has to do with scandals among politicians in the UK, but their job is to “whip together the representatives” or simply to count and take note of missing members when it is time to vote on a new bill. They also explain the voting procedure to the parliamentarians. When a new Speaker in the House is elected he is carried to his chair by force, pretending to be kicking and screaming. This is an old tradition from the times when the Speaker of the House had the job of telling the King what decisions it had reached. Historically, six Speakers have been beheaded on the King’s orders. Then there is the Shadow Ministry. This sounds a bit creepy and sinister. It is actually the opposition that organises itself with shadow ministers as monitors of the governing ministers, partly so that they can quickly and easily take over in the event that the sitting government has to leave office.

Tasks and Activities

Comprehension

Make questions for the following answers:

  1. It is in London.
  2. The Scots and Welsh voted for devolution.
  3. Health, education, justice, transport and rural affairs.
  4. The leader of the political party which forms the government.
  5. There are about 20.
  6. He is elected by the people.
  7. Make the Government change its mind.
  8. At least every 5 years.
  9. Conservative Party and the Labour Party.
  10. It is formed by the second largest party.
  11. He counts the members who are present to vote on a new bill.
  12. So that it can quickly take over from the Government, if necessary.
Suggested solution
  1. Where is the UK Parliament?
  2. What happened in 1997?
  3. Which issues does the Scottish Parliament have responsibility for?
  4. Who becomes Prime Minister?
  5. How many ministers are in the Cabinet?
  6. How does a person become an MP?
  7. What can Parliament do?
  8. How often must an election be held?
  9. What are the names of the two major political parties?
  10. Who forms the Opposition?
  11. What does a Whip do?
  12. Why do the Opposition form a Shadow Ministry?

Quizzes

  1. UK Government Quiz
  2. CBBC Newsround Quiz
  3. This quiz is about strange procedures in the UK Parliament. BBC Parliament Quiz

Find Out

Use the table on the right in this link, The New UK Government 2010 , to find information about the government in the UK. Find out:

  • the name of the present Prime Minister in the UK and which party he represents
  • the name of the previous Prime MInister in the UK and which party he represented
  • which party got most seats in the election
  • how many seats did they get?
  • From 2010, the government in the UK is a coalition government between the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats. What does this mean?

Discussion

In Pairs: Take a virtual tour

At Online tours - UK Parliament, both students, first individually, take a virtual tour of the House of Commons. Each make 10 questions about what you see. Give them to your partner, who should try to find the answers, and then discuss what you have seen and learned. Give your opinion on the layout of the Chamber, the furnishings and parliamentary traditions.

Research

Make an overview of the Norwegian system of government and compare it to the British one.

Læringsressurser

Political and Educational Systems