UK Politics

This page is a great starting place for learning about UK Politics. It covers the basic concepts, a couple of useful definitions, gives an overview of UK Politics, and explains a number of key features of our special political system. 

 

Democracy

The word ‘Democracy’ is probably one of the most used words in politics, however it’s also a word that not many people understand the full meaning of. It is true that Britain can be considered a democracy but we also have some undemocratic features, and there are a number of different ways a democratic country can be run. In general, democracy refers to any society or political system in which people are able to make or influence decisions and where government is accountable to the people. Another commonly used definition of a democracy is a quote by President Abraham Lincoln in the closing remarks of his Gettysburg Address; “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

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Representative Democracy in action. Image Source – telegraph.co.uk

The main forms of a democracy are direct and representative democracy. The UK is a representative democracy; the people (i.e. whole population) don’t make most decisions themselves, they delegate that power to their representatives who they vote for in regular elections. These representatives are therefore required to vote in the best interests of their constituency. The idea of a representative democracy is that all sections of society and various political beliefs are represented by elected representatives. The decision making institution (the place where representatives are elected to) therefore aims to be a cross section of society. In reality however it is very difficult to achieve a completely representative institution and therefore some groups are over represented and others are under represented. Political parties also operate in this system and try to represent different political views, It is however common for some MP’s to vote the way their party tells them to, and not in the best interests of their constituency, which can be seen as a negative to a representative system. Representative democracy is in contrast to a direct democracy, where the people themselves make decisions usually through referendums. People are also regularly consulted on political decisions and the people themselves may take the initiative in creating political change. As you can see the UK is mainly a representative democracy with aspects of a direct democracy. A direct democracy is however hard to manage with a large population, and it is often believed that most people lack the skills or the time, to vote correctly on every law. It can also give rise to something called the ‘tyranny of the majority’ where minority groups can never influence decisions. This does not happen in a representative democracy, where special consideration is often given to minority groups.

The UK is seen specifically as a ‘Parliamentary Democracy’ where parliament or the elected assembly is the key institution. It means that Parliament is the source of political power, and is sovereign. It also means that parliament makes government accountable and government is part of parliament. It also indicates that Parliament is the main body for representation and government is drawn from parliament. More on Parliamentary sovereignty and the roles of parliament on the ‘Parliament’ page. 

 

Key definitions linked to democracy

 

Legitimacy – Refers to the right of a body, institution or person to govern, exercise power and to make laws. It is also concerned with how the regime or government is viewed and recognised by other political body’s abroad. The UK government is seen to be legitimate as the government is universally recognised and there are free and fair elections, with a quick and easy hand over of power after elections. Legitimacy is normally conveyed by an election result.

Citizenship – The status of being a citizen grants a person the enjoyment of certain rights, for example the right to vote, stand for office, and to be treated equally under the law. It does however imply certain duties or obligations that a citizen must perform or contribute to their country. These can include obeying the law and to pay taxes.

Referendum – In a referendum the people themselves are invited on a national, regional or local basis to vote on a key political issue. Referendums pose a simple question which requires a straight-forward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Referendums are often used as they are seen as a purer form of democracy. It also means that the people’s beliefs are not misrepresented by elected representatives (who may vote the way of their party, or own beliefs). Referendums can also be seen as a benefit as it helps to promote political participation and encourages and helps educate the population on a certain topic. Referendums can however bring some disadvantages. If used too often the population may become disinterested, and some people may lack the time or education to vote effectively or in their best interests. Referendums can also result in the ‘tyranny of the majority’ which was mentioned earlier.

Pluralist democracy – A form of a democracy where multiple political associations are allowed to operate. Different beliefs are tolerated and there are many sources of independent information and opinions in the media. Pluralist democracies are also said to have power dispersed among different individual bodies and institutions.

Liberal democracy – A liberal democracy has all the general features of a pluralist democracy listed above, but also includes the idea that personal liberties are respected and well protected against being taken away. There is also a strong constitution that limits the powers of government, and government experiences strong checks and balances. A liberal democracy is generally believed to be a response to the fears of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. To counteract this a liberal democracy normally incorporates a Bill of Rights to protect the interests of individuals and minorities.

 

Overview

The United Kingdom is a democracy governed by a constitutional monarchy. This means the Monarchy acts as head of state within the constitution and the Prime Minister is the head of the Government (highest member of UK parliament). Executive power is exercised by the Government, on behalf of and by the consent of the Monarch, as well as by the devolved Governments of Scotland and Wales, and the Northern Ireland Executive. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as in the Scottish parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Source – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_the_United_Kingdom

If this paragraph seems extremely confusion, then it’s probably your first time looking at UK Politics. Head over to the home page to learn how to get the most out of this site,  it also explains that this is the most complicated paragraph on the whole site, and is simply put in to show you the difference between your understanding now and after you have used this website. Oh and to also show you that Wikipedia is not a great place to start learning a new topic, but is absolutely fantastic when you already have some prior knowledge. 

 

Constitution

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A section of the Magna Carta. Signed in 1215 it is still seen as an important document of our constitution. source – Wikipedia

The constitution of the United Kingdom is the set of laws and principles that the UK is governed under. Many people seem to think that the UK has an “unwritten constitution” however this is not  entirely correct. Although our constitution is no one document (like America), it is actually many written documents, and some unwritten documents too. Therefore the UK Constitution is often described as ‘partly written and wholly uncodified’. Uncodified simply means that it is not written in a single document, it therefore has a number of sources, and the arrangement for passing the laws of the constitution are the same as those for passing other laws.

A good way to think about the constitution is that its the rules of the game, if politics is the game. Just like a game of football where different teams compete to win the trophy, different political parties compete to be in government. The constitution therefore outlines how the country will be run, by detailing how the government is chosen, and the limits of government power (More on the total roles of the constitution below). The only difference with the rules of politics in the UK is that once a party is in government (and therefore has a majority in the House of Commons) they can actually change the rules of the game. It is as if Manchester Utd have just won the Premier League, and can now decide that they only will now be allowed to play with more players than the other team. There are however many checks and balances to ensure the ruling party does not abuse their power too much. There is also another important point to note about the constitution. The constitution does not include all laws passed by the government, such as changes to fines on illegal parking, only laws that alter how the country is run are included in the constitution.

 

Roles of the Constitution

  • Establish the distribution of power within a political system
  • Establish the relationship between political institutions, and individuals
  • Specify the rights of individual citizens and how they are to be protected
  • Define the limits of government power
  • Define the nature of citizenship, and how people obtain citizenship
  • Establish the territory which comes under the jurisdiction of the government
  • Establish the arrangements for amending the constitution.

 

Sources of the UK Constitution

  • Parliamentary statutes – a formal written document to command or prohibit something or declare policy. Simply they are laws passed by Parliament which have a constitutional effect.
  • Conventions – rules that are not legally enforceable but which are considered binding and are so virtually laws. e.g. Salisbury convention, that the Lords won’t obstruct a proposal contained in the governing party’s last election manifesto.
  • Common law – unwritten laws, but unlike conventions can be enforced by the courts. e.g. The use of prerogative powers by the Prime Minister. They have a range of powers transferred from the Monarchy, but are not sanctioned by Parliament, which is why they are unwritten.
  • European Union treaties – the UK has signed a number of treaties which alter how the UK is run. Most transfer power and sovereignty from the UK to the EU.
  • Traditions – customs and practices that have grown up over a long period of time, they are not legal but tend to persist. e.g. Queens speech.
  • Works of authority – this is the most difficult to specify and understand. They are writings of constitutional experts which describe constitutional practice. They have so much authority that they tend to become part of the constitution. e.g. O’Donnell’s rules 2010 written by the Cabinet Secretary as a guide of how to form a government with a hung Parliament.

 

Main features of the UK Constitution

  • It is not codified, which means it is very flexible and easy to change, which means it can also be called unentrenched (they are not specially protected against change, like in the USA)
  • Parliament is sovereign, this means that ultimately, the constitution and its rules are in the control of Parliament. Parliament can amend the constitution at will because it is unentrenched.
  • There is a constitutional monarchy. The queen is head of state but is constitutionally limited so that her powers are held in reserve and are not expected to be used.
  • The UK constitution is described as being unitary. This means that sovereignty, ultimate political power, lies with the UK Parliament. Therefore the government draws its power from Parliament and is ultimately accountable to Parliament.
  • There is a lack of separation of powers unlike the USA. This means that the executive and legislative branches are not separated from each other and that the executive (government) dominates the legislative (parliament).
  • There is a strong executive. The UK constitution gives rise to a relatively strong executive (government) branch. This is due to the lack of separation of powers as mentioned above, and the first past the post voting system which usually returns a majority in the House of Commons (though this was not the case in 2010).

 

Monarchy of the United Kingdom

The monarchy of the United Kingdom (commonly referred to as the British monarchy) is the constitutional Royal family of the United Kingdom. In a monarchy, a king or queen is Head of State, however the British monarchy is known as a constitutional monarchy. This means that, while The Sovereign is Head of State, the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected Parliament. Although the British Sovereign no longer has a political or executive role, he or she continues to play an important part in the life of the nation.

The Monarch used to have some executive authority know as the Royal Prerogative. This includes powers to appoint and dismiss ministers, regulate the civil service, issue passports, declare war, make peace, direct the actions of the military, and negotiate and ratify treaties, alliances, and international agreements. However In practice, prerogative powers are exercised only by the Prime Minister as he/she has the most control.

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Buckingham Palace, the residence and principal workplace of the monarchy of the United Kingdom. Source – Wikipedia

The British Sovereign can now be seen as having two roles: Head of State, and ‘Head of the Nation’.

As Head of State the Queen undertakes various constitutional roles which have developed over hundreds of years. The Monarch is, required to summon Parliament to start session, and the new parliamentary session is marked by the State opening of Parliament, during which the Sovereign reads the speech from the throne in the Chamber of the House of Lords, outlining the government’s legislative agenda. Although the monarch reads the speech, the content is provided by the government.The monarch also has weekly meetings with the Prime Minister where he or she may express views, but as a constitutional ruler, must ultimately accept the decisions of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Finally the head of state, has to approve all new laws – called the Royal Assent – but this is a formality as in practice it is not withheld. Royal Assent was last withheld in 1708 when Queen Anne refused a Bill to settle the Militia in Scotland. There are also many duties abroad which must be performed by the Head of State. The Queen represents Britain to the rest of the world. For example, The Queen receives foreign ambassadors and high commissioners, entertains visiting Heads of State, and makes State visits overseas to other countries, in support of diplomatic and economic relations.

As Head of Nation, the Monarch’s role is much less formal. These include: providing a focus for national identity, unity and pride; giving a sense of stability and continuity; recognising success, achievement and excellence; and supporting service to others, particularly through public service and the voluntary sector.