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The British Political System

The British political system

In this article we are going to learn about the structure of the British political system.

We all know about the parliamentary monarchy in the United Kingdom but it leaves us with numerous questions about the political system surrounding the monarchy.

The late Queen Elizabeth II was one of the best known monarchs of our time. But what is the monarch's role? What does the Prime Minister do, and which other institutions are important?

The monarch

Representative role:

  • Head of State in the United Kingdom

  • ceremonial Head of State (for the Commonwealth countries like Canada)

  • Head of the Church of England

  • as well as Commander in Chief of the British Armed Forces

Ceremonial functions:

  • state visits overseas/in other countries

  • in support of charities

  • formal meetings with foreign Heads of State when they visit the UK

  • various ceremonial duties on holidays and days of celebration

  • gives knighthoods (= zum Ritter schlagen) and other honours on recommendation of the Prime Minister

Political functions:

  • in charge of summoning and dissolving the Parliament

  • gives a speech at the opening of Parliament each year

  • has to sign bills passed in the Parliament

  • meets up regularly with the Prime Minister to talk about current events and to give advice

  • appoints governors, bishops and judges

  • officially appoints the Cabinet as well as the Prime Minister

The Prime Minister

Their powers and duties:

  • decision making for governing the country, together with the Cabinet

  • can appoint and dismiss members of the Cabinet

  • in control of the Cabinet agenda meetings and committees

  • leader of the political party they belong to

  • informs Parliament of governmental activities

  • advises monarch/Queen about public appointments

  • informs monarch/Queen of government policies

The Cabinet

The role of the Cabinet

  • all members are heads of a government department

  • the total number of senior MPs, who are either Ministers or Secretaries of State, varies and is decided by the Prime Minister (ca. 20). This decision depends on how important the Prime Minister thinks a Secretary/Minister of a certain department is

  • responsible for making decisions with the Prime Minister

House of Commons and House of Lords

House of Commons

  • consists of 650 "Members of Parliament" (MPs)

  • elected by all British people who are eligible to vote

  • each member represents an area/part of the population, ensuring proportionate representation

  • main functions: pass laws, debate political issues, control government policy and administration

  • seating arrangements (pictured below): The Prime Minister and Cabinet sit on the front bench and are facing the Leader of the Opposition and its so-called Shadow Cabinet. MPs who are not members of the Cabinet sit on the back benches.

The House of Commons

House of Lords

  • membership is either inherited, appointed or official function; it consists of:

    • Lords Spiritual (26 archbishops and bishops of the Church of England)

    • Lords Temporal (life peers and hereditary peers)

  • there are about 1200 members but there is no fixed number

  • It used to be able to reject any legislation (up until 1949) but is now only able to delay the passing of a new law

  • highest and final Court of Appeal for the British Law Courts

Law making

There are a few steps involved in the making and passing (or denyal) of a new law. Concerning the British political system, this involves the following 6 steps:

  1. Suggestion of a new law: by politicians, special interest groups, government departments or individuals

  2. The Cabinet agrees on the so-called bill (= the text of a law)

  3. The bill is discussed in the House of Commons. They vote on whether it should become a law.

  4. It is further discussed in the House of Lords. They can then make changes but cannot decline it altogether.

  5. A final vote is taken in the House of Commons

  6. The monarch/Queen signs the bill and by that it becomes a new law.

The proceedings are usually taking place publicly and speeches are published daily. Some parliamentary debates and other parts of it are recorded for radio and television.

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