Government in Britain
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services
The System of Government
Britain is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch, Queen
Elizabeth II, as head of the State. The British constitution, unlike those
of most countries, is not set out in a single document. Instead it is made
up of a combination of laws and practices which are not legally enforceable,
but which are regarded as vital to the working of government.
The stablility of the British government owes much to the monarchy. Its
continuity has been interrupted only once (the republic of 1649-60) in over
a thousand years.
Today the Queen is not only the head of State, but also an important symbol
of national unity. Her complete official royal title is 'Elizabeth the Second,
by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth,
Defender of the Faith', but she is usually referred to as Her Royal Highness
or Queen Elizabeth.
According to the law the Queen is head of the executive branch of the government,
an integral part of the legislature, head of the judiciary, the commander-in-chief
of all the armed forces of the Crown and the 'supreme governor' of the established
Church of England. While that sounds like a lot of responsibility, the real
power of the monarchy has been steadily reduced over the years to the point
where the Queen is uninvolved in the day-to-day operation of the government.
She is impartial and acts only on the advice of her ministers.
The Queen, Prince Charles and the other members of the royal family take part in traditional ceremonies, visit different parts of Britain and many other countries and are closely involved in the work of many charities.
Parliament, Britain's legislature, is made up of the House
of Commons, the House of Lords and the Queen in her constitutional
The Commons has 651 elected Members of Parliament (MPs), who represent local
constituencies. The House of Lords is made up of 1,185 hereditary and life
peers and peeresses, and the two archbishops and the 24 most senior bishops
of the established Church of England.
The center of parliamentary power is the House of Commons. Limitations on
the power of the Lords (it rarely uses it power to delay passage of most
laws for a year) is based on the principle that the Lords, as a revising
chamber, should complement the Commons and not rival it. Once passed through
both Houses, legislation requires the Royal Assent to become law.
Parliament has a number of ways to exert control over the executive branch.
Parliamentary committees question ministers and civil servants before preparing
reports on matters of public policy and issues can be debated before decisions
are reached. However, ultimate power rests in the ability of the House of
Commons to force the government to resign by passing a resolution of 'no
confidence'. The government must also resign if the House rejects a proposal
so vital to its policy that it has made it a matter of confidence. The proceedings
of both Houses of Parliament are broadcast on television and radio, sometimes
live or more usually in recorded and edited form.
General elections to choose MPs must be held at least every five years.
Voting, which is not compulsory, is by secret ballot and is from the age
of 18. The simple majority system of voting is used. Candidates are elected
if they have more votes than any of the other candidates, although not necessarily
an absolute majority over all candidates.
Political Party System
The political party system is essential to the working of the constitution.
Although the parties are not registered or formally recognized in law, most
candidates for election belong to one of the main parties. Since 1945 eight
general elections have been won by the Conservative Party and six by the
Labour Party. A number of smaller parties have national and local organizations
outside Parliament, and are also represented in local government.
The Government is formed by the party with majority support in the Commons.
The Queen appoints its leader as Prime Minister. As head of the Government
the Prime Minister appoints about 100 ministers. About 20 ministers make
up the Cabinet, the senior group making the major policy decisions. Ministers are collectively responsible for government decisions and individually responsible for their own departments. The second largest party forms the official Opposition, with its own leader and 'shadow cabinet'. The Opposition has a duty to challenge government policies and to present an alternative program.
Policies are carried out by government departments and executive agencies
staffed by politically neutral civil servants. Over half the Civil Service, about 295,000 civil servants, work in over 75 executive agencies. Agencies
perform many of the executive functions of the government, such as the payment
of social security benefits and the issuing of passports and drivers' licences.
Agencies are headed by chief executives responsible for their performance
and who enjoy considerable freedom on financial, pay and personnel matters.
Britain's Legal System
England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have their own legal
systems, with minor differences in law, organization and practice.
Law enforcement is carried out by 52 locally based police departments with
about 160,000 police officers. The police are normally unarmed and there
are strict limits to police powers of arrest and detention. Firearms must
be licensed and their possession is regulated.
In British criminal trials the accused in presumed innocent until proven
guilty. Trials are in open court and the accused is represented by a lawyer.
Most cases are tried before lay justices sitting without a jury. The more
serious cases are tried in the higher courts before a jury of 12 (15 in
Scotland) which decides guilt or innocence.
The civil law of England, Wales and Northern Ireland covers business related
to the family, property, contracts and torts (non-contractual wrongful acts
suffered by one person at the hands of another). Actions brought to court
are usually tried without a jury. Higher courts deal with more complicated
civil cases. Most judgements are for sums of money, and the costs of an
action are generally paid by the losing party.
Administration of the Law
The Lord Chancellor is the head of the judiciary branch of government. The administration of
the law rests with him, the Home Secretary, the Attorney General and the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The courts of the United Kingdom are the Queen's Courts, the Crown being the historic source of all judicial power.
Judges are appointed from among practicing lawyers. Barristers or advocates
advise on legal problems and present cases in the lay justices' and jury
courts. Solictors represent individual and corporate clients and appear
in the lay justices' courts. Lay justices need no legal qualifications but
are trained to give them sufficient knowledge of the law.
A person in need of legal council may qualify for public funds assistance.
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