The political system in the UK is a parliamentary democracy – the people vote for Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent their interests.
The Head of State and the Prime Minister
In additional to being a parliamentary democracy, the UK is also a constitutional monarchy with the ruling monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, also being the head of state. The role of the monarch as head of state is now largely ceremonial but remains substantial and high profile. The monarch must not express a preference for any political party.
The monarch is kept involved with the day-to-day running of government – regularly meeting with the Prime Minister and being consulted on matters of national significance. The monarch also opens and closes each session of parliament, appoints many members of the establishment and gives royal assent before new legislation is introduced.
Today in the UK the real power lies with the Prime Minister – an elected MP who sits in the House of Commons. Together with his cabinet of specially selected senior ministers he has ultimate authority over running the country. The Prime Minister’s power derives from the support he enjoys amongst MPs in the House of Commons. If the Prime Minister loses the support of the House of Commons he may receive a vote of no confidence and consequently lose his power to make decisions.
The House of Commons and the House of Lords
The UK parliamentary system consists of two “Houses”: the elected, lower House – the House of Commons; and the appointed or hereditary, upper House – the House of Lords. The Houses are collectively known as the Houses of Parliament and are located at Westminster in London. The name Westminster is sometimes used as shorthand for the government or parliament.
The House of Commons is made up of 646 elected MPs from around the UK. The House of Lords consists of Lords who may have been appointed as such due to senior positions held in their profession – including the law and the clergy – as well as in honour of their services to an aspect of life in the UK. Some Lords have a hereditary right to sit in the House of Lords, although there are fewer of these than previously.
New laws are debated and agreed by both Houses before being implemented and may be amended several times before being finalised. All legislation requires the royal assent from the monarch before it comes into force – in modern times this will be a formality.
The Main UK Political Parties
There are three main political parties in the UK: the right-wing Conservative party, sometimes popularly known as Tories; the left-wing Labour party, who may be referred to as socialists; and, the Liberal Democrats whose views tend to fall between those of the other two main parties.
The Conservative and Labour Parties are by far the largest parties and government has been held by one or the other of them since 1945. There are many other parties in the UK representing a number of different views and interests. In addition some MPs are independent, not being affiliated to any political party.
Voting in the UK
In order to vote in UK elections individuals must be UK or EU citizens and their names must be included on the Electoral Register. Registration is not automatic and must be renewed annually. Citizens may register to vote once they reach the age of 16 but may only actually vote once they have reached the age of 18. In General Elections, when a new government and Prime Minister may be elected EU citizens may not vote.
The Role of Local Councils
In addition to centralised government based in Westminster, governments or councils around the UK are also elected to run local services. Local elections may have a slightly different structure to general elections and may also occur more frequently. Since 2000 residents of London also now elect members of the London Assembly which has powers in relation to Greater London area and is headed by an elected Mayor of London.
Regional Governments Around the UK
In 1999 separate parliaments were established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the Scottish Parliament; the National Assembly for Wales; and, the Northern Ireland Assembly. Some of the powers previously exercised by the main government in respect of the UK have now been passed, or devolved, to these regional parliaments. The regional parliaments only have powers to decide policies and services in relation to the country they represent. The same policies relating to England are still decided by the central government based in London.