The British Political System

Britain does not have a formal written constitution but some historic documents: Magna Carta, 1215; the Petition of Rights, 1628; the Bill of Rights, 1689 and the Act of Settlement, 1701, which gradually established the supremacy of Parliament over the Monarch. The organization of political life also rests on Acts of Parliament and on the common law, as well as on EU law. As is the case for all EU members, the laws voted by Westminster must come within the requirements of European legislation and European laws must be enforced. The constitution is flexible because it can be changed by any Act of Parliament. The elected government has enormous powers.

Parliament is the final law-making body: it may draw up, change or abolish any law. Parliament, i.e. the House of Commons and the House of Lords, make the law.

There is no strict separation of powers since the government sits in Parliament and the law Lords sit in the House of Lords and belong to the judiciary.

British politics rest on a two-party system: only Labour and the Conservatives, can be expected to form a government. Yet, smaller parties have gained political clout. The Liberal Democrats is the third largest political party. Smaller parties are under-represented and, due to the domination of the two major parties, an estimated 25% of the population is not represented. Minor parties indeed can only hope to influence the two main parties.

There as 659 MPs, each coming from a constituency. All constituencies are equal in size. General elections are held at least every 5 years. By-elections, sometimes organized in only one constituency if its MP has resigned for example, are an indication of the government’s popularity. The Prime Minister can choose the time of the elections, which may be a handicap for the opposition.

MP are affiliated to political parties and are expected to follow the lines dictated by the leader of the party and the whip who enforce party discipline.

The House of Commons is democratically elected. It initiates legislation, authorizes the raising of taxes and votes the budget. The government generally has a majority in the House of Commons and most MPs generally approve the government’s policy. The House of Commons debates current issues; standing committees examine legislation and select committees investigate special matters. The Speaker of the House of Commons ceases to be a political representative when he is elected and becomes neutral. He/She presides over the House, keeps orders in the debates, maintains a balance between frontbenchers and backbenchers, and may suspend an unruly MP.

The House of Lords is composed by the Lords Spiritual (archbishops and bishops), and the Lords Temporal (hereditary peers, life peers given the title by the Soverign). The Lord Chancellor, appointed by the PM, presides over the House of Lords. The House of Lords is a revising body: it considers all the bills examined by the House of Commons. The law lords represent the last court of appeal. The House of Lords cannot scrutinize budget or taxation. As it is more independent from the parties than the Commons, the House of Lords is a safeguard against the increasing powers of government and the Prime Minister. It is generally conservative. The Labour party has started reforming the House of Lords by reducing the number of hereditary peers who have the right to vote.