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The UK political system

by In Wales Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 11:00:05 AM EST

I've adapted a recent essay to give a bit of an overview of the UK's political structures and a look at the checks and balances on the power of government.  

Use of blockquotes is to aid reading. The rest constitutes bits I have added by way of additional explanation where needed.

The UK political system is an example of a centralised and unitary, majoritarian liberal democratic state which has evolved historically with a flexible constitution that is relatively easy to change and does not exist in any one form or one place (in contrast to the decentralised federal state and inflexible Constitution of the US).

Centralised and unitary refers to distribution of power in Governing the UK, more about that shortly.
Majoritarian refers to the legislature (ie parliament) and the executive (governing cabinet) which are fused rather than separate and have power over the judiciary - ie very different from the set up in the US which is federal and decentralised, the judiciary has power over the legislature and legislature and the executive are separate.  The UK uses a Parliamentary system as opposed to the Presidential systems of the US and France.

The UK state is not an authoritarian one and does not have absolute power.  It is necessary for the Government to "work with and through society" to achieve it's aims and it is dependent on other political actors such as local governments, pressure and interest groups, the electors, and international organisations such as the EU and the United Nations.

This very fact means that the Government cannot do whatever it wishes, there would be consequences in one form or another if so.  Through membership of the EU, the UK is subject to checks and balances in the form of EU law (which takes precedent over UK law) and the need to share certain sovereignties at the European level to deal with political and economic realities that go beyond the scope of a single nation state. Technically the UK could leave the EU if it wanted to but this would be politically unwise and would result in numerous negative consequences.

The state delegates some level of power to other actors to deliver services, although the UK Government retains legitimacy, law making powers and the resources of a state bureaucracy that are not available to others.   Although the UK Government retains dominance of power, the asymmetrical decentralisation process of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent regionalisation within England, has reduced the peripheral status of the nations and regions and provided closer links to the people, introducing the opportunity for closer scrutiny of the state.


There is an historical context behind the evolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate countries, being taken into the UK with England and losing independence and then towards more modern history, beginning to re-assert individual nation identities, leading to devolution of power to differing degrees.  It's played it's part in the debate around what constitutes a nation - these three most certainly are nations, although not nation-states. The nation-state (UK) has dominance and gets to prioritise the culture and language of a particular nation, although this hasn't led to homogenisation of the UK.  The centre (Westminster) exerts political, economic and cultural power over the periphery - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This centrality of England has fostered nationalist feelings in Scotland and Wales and the demands for autonomy are part of a backlash to being so peripheral, and devolution has been seen as an important step in the development of democratic processes - indeed bringing the state much closer to the people.

For example, the recent welfare reforms proposed by Whitehall have been publicly opposed by the the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government, both for the rhetoric used that stigmatises the unemployed and in criticism of a 'one size fits all approach'.  Such vocal opposition would be unlikely from an MP within the Labour party who felt obliged to maintain public loyalty for the Government. Devolution in Wales has provided the opportunity for the Welsh Assembly Government to respond quickly to the economic crisis through holding economic summits with key social partners, which provides a layer of checks and balances that would not be present at Westminster level.

I would say this brings greater accountability to the smaller nations, although not so much to England which carries on being far removed from the people.

Accountability is a crucial feature of a Government that has checks and balances built into it and this is underpinned by constitutional order.  One key feature of an accountable and democratic government is a democracy where citizens are provided with elective power.  The constitution defines the relationship between the state and society and needs to be supported by both.

In case it isn't clear, the constitution in the UK is all the legislation, as opposed to the US which has 'The Constitution' signed by the founding fathers and would require a very large majority in order to change or amend it.  UK legislation can be changed through parliament relatively easily compared to the US, and hence is known as a flexible constitution.

The executive, legislature and judiciary are the three key institutions of Government and the role and level of power that each part has, determines to an extent the formal checks and balances within Government.  Methods of accountability are also greatly influenced by the electoral system, in this case the single member plurality system (SMPS), and the party system.

In a parliamentary system such as the UK, the Prime Minister is not directly elected by the people but instead by the legislature - a representative elected assembly made up from Members of Parliament who are elected by their constituencies, although the impact of the SMPS means that a seat can be won without having a majority of the vote.  Correspondingly, the percentage share of the vote for a party does not reflect the percentage share of the seats they gain in the House of Commons.  This is one factor that arguably leads to disengagement of the public and lower voting turnouts since people may feel that the vote they cast makes no difference. However, this does not necessarily mean that citizens are not politically active and may instead be involved with interest or pressure groups or campaigns, policy networks, opinion polls and focus groups which aim to influence Government or to make Government aware of disapproval of their decisions.

I'd refer back to de gondi's diaries about the Italian protests around the education reforms, and the existence of ET and the blogosphere itself as evidence of peopel being politically engaged.  The book did cover in more detail the trends in voting by level of education, class, topical issues, and other issues affecting participation.  'Maintaining elections' tend to be won by whichever party has the largest number of 'party identifiers' whereas a 'deviating election' would be determined by the non party identifiers getting the vote out eg Labour's landslide win in 1997 after a run of Tory wins, and probably Obamas election fits the criteria here. But that is just a model.

People may vote to register dissent by voting for fringe parties or single issue/protest parties.  Higher eduation levels creates a greater likelihood of an individual voting, except in NI where lower eduation produces higher participation.

The SMPS encourages single party government rather than multi-party or coalition governments.  This reduces the opportunity for checks and balances that would arise as a result of opposition parties having more combined power in relation to the Governing party.  Instead, the electoral system in the UK ensures that one party holds all executive power (provided it has a reliable majority in the House of Commons) and as such is able to dominate parliament.

It is worth noting here that Wales has a SMPS for 40 AMs and the remaining 20 are selected from party lists by proportional representation.  Twice, the Welsh Assembly Government has existed of a coalition.

As leader of the party, the House of Commons and the Government, the Prime Minister has a great deal of power.   However, the Prime Minister is limited by events and the economy and by the need to keep people onside - such as Cabinet colleagues (potential rivals) and party MPs, the media and the electorate.  A "Prime Minister who can carry his colleagues with him could be in a very powerful position, but he or she is only as strong as they let him or her be". Such peer pressure and fear of public opinion and the need to maintain a high level of political capital acts as a check on how the Prime Minister exercises his or her power.

Unlike the President of the US, whose executive is separate and cannot be potential rivals for office and cannot remove the President from power (except by impeachment), the UK Prime Minister can be removed as party leader and therefore can no longer be the Prime Minister.  So keeping in the good favour of the cabinet is important, just as much as the cabinet and other MPs may wish to remain in the Prime Minister's favour.

The role of the judiciary is to interpret the meaning of the law. It cannot make or change law and nor can it regulate the constitutionality of decisions taken by the legislature, and as such is limited in the checks that it can offer on the actions of parliament - unlike a consensus democracy where laws are subject to judicial review.  The legislature itself consists of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with the power of the Lords having been significantly reduced over time to an asymmetrically unicameral legislature.

Bicameral means that there are two Houses, and asymmetric refers to the imbalance of power - this is in contrast to the US where both Houses are of equal power.

If the Lords oppose measures that the House of Commons may wish to take, it is unable to veto this although it can delay it by a year.  As such this is a limited form of checks and balance since the House of Lords may introduce amendments to Bills and is open to being lobbied by pressure groups and thus can have some influence to change the final outcome.

On the really big issues, it is usual to see pressure groups and campaigners also lobby the Lords, even though they have much less influence. I suppose it is about keeping the issue high profile and creating as much resistance as possible.

The House of Commons has two conflicting functions. One is to provide and support the Government and the second is to oversee the work of Government ie to scrutinise it.  This is a formal means of checking and balancing the power of the Government but in practice, it is not substantive and probably would not command much public confidence. The partisan nature of UK parliament usually ensures a majority for the Governing party in the House of Commons and as such this affects the scrutiny role of the House.  Backbench loyalty, and fear of various forms of sanction for disobeying whips, leads MPs to support their party line even if they personally disagree.

It is the highly partisan nature of British politics that I have my problems with.  In the House of Commons, the opposition usually vote against the Governing party, even if some MP's may personally agree with the measures, it just is not done to be seen to be in agreement with the opposition.  Within the Governing party, disobeying the line set by the whips can bring serious consequences for MPs, preventing them from being anything but a backbencher so long as their disloyalty is remembered.  This also means that in a situation such as the one we are in now where the leadership won't admit mistakes or take action to change policy direction, it then is not listening to the backbenchers who may have a more sensible suggestion to put forward.  It means that 'good' people often can't progress in a party because they won't stick to the line where they believe it to be wrong ie they will not play the game.

Although the electors can't directly regulate the actions of the Government, they can retrospectively judge it's decisions by the way they vote in future elections, and often do so on economic matters, potentially removing a party from Government.  As such, public opinion prevents Government from acting in any way that they may wish, and the emergence of 'designer politics' comes from the Government's desire to develop policies that are palatable to the public.  This goes hand in hand with courting the media in an attempt to ensure favourable coverage of a party's policies and record, and although the influence of the media to alter voting choices is debatable, the mass media plays a significant role in setting the agenda and directing public discourse on some issues.

In theory, parliament may do whatever it likes since all parliamentary acts are constitutional and there is no higher constitutional standard since parliament regulates itself.  In practice, parliament is restrained by EU membership (although they could relinquish this), what MPs allow, and what networking governance influences and what the electorate will deem acceptable. The consequences of losing political capital, power and office is probably a more significant means of providing checks and balance on the Government than the formal structural checks.

A very brief introduction - feel free to expand, question or correct...
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Jan 18th, 2009 at 04:35:12 PM EST
Just a quick PN: "unicameral" means one chamber, not two. The British system is asymmetric, but bicameral - since there are two chambers of unequal power.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jan 18th, 2009 at 04:50:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Damn, that is what I meant to write... I'll correct it. Thank you.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Jan 18th, 2009 at 05:13:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is that why it disappeared ?

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sun Jan 18th, 2009 at 05:41:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How did you get that comment in there?  It had to be disappeared due to my essay not having yet been marked.  A bit of an oversight on my part - usually I wait until they've been marked before I adapt and post them.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 11:01:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I replied to your comment in "recent comments". And I guess that subthread can be hidden now...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 11:37:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, In Wales, for an informative survey of SMPS dynamics and limitations. Would you comment on the House of Lords?

How does membership represent or project a national identity of constituents -- Scotland, Wales, N Ireland?

How are seats vacated? In what way(s) do members participate in a party system within that chamber?

In what way(s) do members "work through society" to introduce legislation or inform partisan consensus in the House of Commons?

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 03:41:08 PM EST
I'll grab my textbook and respond in more detail when I can but historically the Lords are not elected but given peerage (or whatever the word is) by Prime Ministers or are hereditary peers when peerage is passed down the family line - ongoing reform of the Lords means that people cannot be hereditary peers anymore.  I don't have the detail of reform of the Lords in my head right now so I'll get back with more.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 04:59:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... it is, after all, the QUEEN that someone become a "peer" of, a "peer of the realm" ... not some nasty, scummy common little politician like the PM.

It just so happens to be on the advice of the Prime Minister.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 05:18:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Right you are. The Queen says, with all that power invested in the throne or the tiara or um, something.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 05:24:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... and its gotta be the tiara, a magic throne would possibly take you somewhere or float or something, but the power to change people from one thing to another, that'll be a ring or something else circular. So I reckon its the magic tiara.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 06:40:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ok, thanks! The request was a bit of a mouthful. I'm interested how practices there compare to (informal) US senate-house coalitions to regulate "radical" bills --this reported as bipartisan teamwork, e.g. Dodd-Shelby.

The tendency for constituents in the US to accept inheritable vacancies is worth a book or two -- Beyond Adams and Biden.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 05:19:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... instant run-off majority election for MP's have? In Australia its been the basis for a quite long running coalition arrangement between the rural conservative party, the Nats, and the urban conservative party, the Libs.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 04:25:40 PM EST
I may be completely off base here, but it seems to me - by the nature of the system  - the monarchy has a quite a bit of latent power that a politically savvy heir could weld.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 06:01:54 PM EST
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 06:13:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... getting the latent power stripped and the monarchy kicked to the curb, so a politically savvy monarch will be very careful never to actually use those latent powers.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 06:41:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
After the last 8 years I'm a bit paranoid about unitary executive powers.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 07:23:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is ceremonial only. The Prime Minister is said to rule in loco regis (or regino). which is to say that, after Cromwell's kerfuffle with Charles I, Parliament is the supreme decision making body in the UK even if it is using the queeen's power.

That's what the whole pantomime about closing the doors on the sovereign and Black Rod is about during the State opening of parliament. It's to remind the Crown that there are places she may not go.

That said, the Armed Forces swear allegiance to the Crown. Because we do not trust parliament enough to not use them for political purposes. So the queen technically can countermand parliament in this respect. But won't.

the Queen has power she cannot use, but that makes her a great head of state; purely symbolic.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Jan 22nd, 2009 at 01:42:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps this is something I have missed in the open threads, Dr. In Wales, buy what has brought your recent academic interest in political science?  What ever it is, I am grateful.  I only had one course, U.S. Pol. Sci, in 1960, and while I have studied the history of the United Kingdom and was aware of the informal, or legislation based constitution, I have never encountered such a cogent exposition of its nature.  Thanks.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Jan 19th, 2009 at 07:51:04 PM EST
I'm glad this has been useful to you.  Despite finishing my PhD last year, I left science a fair while ago since it is so inaccessible for me.  I've been working in the trade union/equalities movement for a few years so I started social policy as a way of enhancing my understanding of politics.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 20th, 2009 at 03:03:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Patterns of Democracy by Arend Lijpart?

Nah, looks like you already read that one. So you know it's a comparison of democratic forms in 36 countries, rating them on the majoritarian-to-consensus scale already.

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Tue Jan 20th, 2009 at 10:16:30 AM EST
Your terminology may be a bit loose here because even most Northern Unionists don't claim that N.I. is a country or a nation in itself.  Northern Unionists refer to themselves as British, Northern Nationalists as Irish, and those who don't want to take sides, as Northern Irish.

Neither is Northern Ireland a province, as Ulster has 9 counties and Northern Ireland only 6 - Donegal, Monaghan, and Cavan being part of the Republic of Ireland.

Of course calling NI anything is politically charged.  The former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, used to refer to it as "that failed entity" something not designed to endear him to Unionists.

Prior to 1922 NI did not exist at all, but was created as part of a Treaty between Britain and Ireland which also led to the foundation of the Irish "Free State" which comprised the other 26 counties of Ireland.  The actual Border was not settled until some time later after (what the Irish claimed was a thoroughly biased gerrymandering of population statistics to imply that all six counties with NI had a Unionist majority.

The current posit6ion is the that Ireland recognioses NI as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that that status shall so remain until a majority of its inhabitants decide otherwise.

So technically, NI is part of the UK, but not part of "Briton".  Only Fifa - the world soccer Governing body, recognise NI as an entity in its own right - NI competes in international soccer - whereas in Rugby, Northern Ireland competes as part of Ireland - something which is anomolous but practical because it allows players from NI to compete on relatively level terms with Rugby players from all over the world.

In sports such as Athletics, where Northern Irelaqnd Athletes compete as part of the UK, they rarely get selected because they are such a small part of the UK as a whole.  Often in fact they opt to compete for the Republic instead - much to the annoyance of NI Unionists.

So its all rather complicated, especially after the Good Friday agreement institutionalised the principles of "equality of esteem" of both the Nationalist and Unionist traditions in NI - which means that many there are entitled to Irish passports, can stand in Irish elections, and can represent themselves as Irish (and not British) if they so desire.

Put it down the the ingenuity of the human race in trying to deal with intractable differences.  Those who look for logic and consistency in politics are studying the wrong field.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 20th, 2009 at 10:45:06 AM EST
The UK state is not an authoritarian one and does not have absolute power.  It is necessary for the Government to "work with and through society" to achieve it's aims and it is dependent on other political actors such as local governments, pressure and interest groups, the electors, and international organisations such as the EU and the United Nations.

I disagree. It does have absolute power, even 30 years ago Lord Hailsham (who was a very influential judge) was railing against what he called "Elective Dictatorship". He was wrong simply because he was complaining about the govt ramming through a law he didn't like, which was just partisan sour grapes. But he was also right in that he perfectly described how govt really works.

In this your book describes a UK govt of what our cousins would describe as comity and bi-partisanship. that is, it's what we all want, but we'll never get cos politics is not a labour of high aspiration and unselfish detachment, but a grubby work of low cunning and dirty deeds. I suspect that is why there is a preference for debating late into the night, for tis better that the dark cloak their knavish machinations.

So, this is a description of how we're supposed to want it. But it's far from how it is.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Jan 22nd, 2009 at 01:50:09 PM EST

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