Understanding the British Political System

by frankbeswick

The British system is based on the sovereignty of parliament under a constitutional monarch.

The political situation in the United Kingdom differs in some ways from the system that operates in the United States. Since the glorious Revolution of 1688 we have had a sovereign parliament under a constitutional monarch, which is a monarch whose powers are bound by law and limited. We have no written constitution, but a set of laws and parliamentary conventions that have arisen over the centuries. Some see this as an advantage, but others see it differently.

Picture courtesy of TheDigitalArtist

The Main Institutions.

At the head of the United Kingdom is a monarch, who has some residual powers, but whose main function is to advise and act as a symbol of the nation.  For instance she meets every newly appointed foreign ambassador, appoints judges,senior military officers and the prime minister, who must meet with her once  a week to account for the government's performance. She is head of the armed services, who swear their oaths to her. She must sign all acts of parliament into law. Her residual powers are the right to dissolve parliament or to dismiss the prime minister, but she has never exercised the latter and only dissolved parliament on request from the prime minister. She can negotiate treaties without government consent or even make war, but no monarch since 1688 has ever done either. The monarch is supreme governor of the Church of England. She is advised by a group known as the Privy Council, who are all senior ministers appointed to the privy council for life, but all that they do is advise.  

Below the monarch is parliament, which is democratically elected and has the power to do two things that the monarch cannot do: make laws and raise taxes. The elected house of parliament is the House of Commons, which has the final say in what laws are enacted. The upper house, the Lords, is a revising chamber, which can send matters back to the Commons up to two times,but if the commons insist on rejecting Lords'  amendments  the Commons gets its way. Lords are appointed by the monarch on advice from the Prime Minister, but while there are still hereditary lords they have no voting rights in that chamber. 

The Prime Minister is not directly elected  but is normally the leader of the largest party in parliament. The present incumbent got the job after the previous P.M resigned as party leader after losing the Brexit referendum. Five candidates stood, but four dropped out, leaving her to be elected leader unopposed. The monarch then had to ask her to be P.M. A thoroughly unsatisfactory way to appoint a P.M. The P.M heads the government and advises the monarch on appointments in the competence of the monarch, such  as judges and Church of England bishops. 

Below the level of parliament there are devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You might ask why not one for England, but when a  form of devolution was proposed for England the Scottish Nationalist Party objected, apparently happy that English enjoy fewer rights than other citizens of  the U.K. That is nothing other than discrimination. 

Below this level there are local councils. Some are county councils, others are metropolitan borough councils. There are town and parish councils below them. For example,my own town of Trafford has a metropolitan borough council, to which are responsible one town council in an outlying town and two parish councils in villages to small to be classed as towns. 

Political Parties

The largest party in parliament is the Conservative Party, known as the Tory Party. This is a right wing party traditionally friendly to business, and it is well supported financially by business interests. Its natural ally in the US is the Republican Party. The party is a coalition between  moderate, liberal  right and hard right capitalists along with many members of nationalistic disposition.It is the hard right of the Conservatives who have led the campaign for Brexit, as they want to create a Britain where workers can be exploited without redress, a capitalist heaven, though they do not admit to this, they would not dare. They are particularly keen that we are "free" from the European Court of Justice, which protects workers' rights. I need say no more. 

The Labour Party is a coalition between moderate left, such as Social Democrats and a minority of socialists that arose  to defend workers' rights. Currently the party is doing well in public opinion polls, exceeding the Conservatives, but its leader is a dedicated socialist who has probably reached the limit of his electoral appeal. 

The Scottish and Welsh Nationalists both are exclusively based in their countries. The Scots Nats are well represented, but probably past their peak as the responsibilities exercising office in Scotland turn them from a party of protest to a party that is to be held to account for its performance. Northern Ireland has its own parties, the Democratic Unionists, supported by the Protestant community, and Sinn Fein, the Irish Nationalist party. Sinn Fein complicates matters because its members of parliament refuse to take up their seats because to do so they would have to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, the monarch, which Irish nationalists will never do.    

There are smaller parties. The ecologically conscious Greens have one seat in parliament, while the party for whom I stood as a candidate in the 1992 general election [unsuccessfully] the Liberal Democrats have ten. The Lib Dems as they are known are a centre party committed to avoiding the errors of both right and left, we are also totally committed to membership of the European Union, but we are not doing well in the polls. It is more than twenty years since I stood for election and will not do so again. I am sixty eight and there are many keen young people wanting to make the step into politics, so I have informed the local party that I want a backroom,supportive role. 


There are major problems facing the United Kingdom, mainly self-inflicted. Brexit is turning out to be a major disaster. The hard right who fought for Brexit wanted to free themselves from the influence of the European Court of Justice, primarily because they were the ones most likely to be hauled before it, but they presented their case to the people as  liberation,in which we take back control of our own laws and resources.But the costs to industry of leaving the European single market and customs union will be enormous.Already business investment has slowed down and certain big companies are making plans to pull out of the U.K; and still the Leavers plough on, imagining that we are still a superpower, stating that we should take a firm line with the Europeans, one of us versus twenty seven of them! To make matters worse in the referendum the hard right campaigned  against immigration, not realizing that we needed immigrants to do many agricultural jobs. As the anti-immigrant atmosphere worsened and the pound fell in value against the dollar and the Euro [after the referendum] many immigrants simply packed up and went home, and now  farmers are short of labour and fearing worse things to come.

There are internal problems due entirely to government policy. The government has a policy of financial austerity, which has meant underpaying public sector workers and cutting numbers. We are now desperately short of police officers and violent crime is rising. Health service recruitment is under pressure, with many jobs unfilled as nurses simply leave to  get jobs that pay them enough to live on. These problems are at their worst in London. Even in the 1980s I could not afford to move to London because of house prices, and the situation has grown steadily worse.

The trouble with the United Kingdom is that the wrong people are running it and have been for many years.Major political reform is needed, starting with the electoral system, which is an international embarrassment. A simplistic first past the post system it constantly over-represents parties with large blocks of support at the expense of parties whose support is more  widely spread. The Conservative and Labour Parties have both conspired to maintain this defective system as they are the main beneficiaries of the injustice of it. 

Yet the civil  service is a well-functioning unit that manages public administration; and the armed service still persevere in their high standards;  and the British judicial system is still well-run. The truth seems  to be that in areas not dominated by politicians and which keep politicians at arms length or restrict their role Britain is doing well. But we would benefit by losing many of the political figures who are so detrimental to the country's well being. 

Updated: 07/20/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 05/19/2024

Stretford.ninsup port a minority party, the Liberal Democrats. We are small, but we attract thoughtful people.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/18/2024

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

Well, voters not voting for you disappoints me.

Which of the 652 constituencies made the mistake of not electing you?

frankbeswick on 05/18/2024

Most government ministers are chosen from members of parliament. The country is divided into 652 constituencies, each of which elects a member of parliament the one who commands the largest support in parliament is asked by the monarch to become prime minister and form a government. I stood once for election, but was defeated.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/17/2024

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

Parliamentary dissolution brings about all-new House of Commons members, correct? How is it decided who will run for all those positions?

frankbeswick on 05/17/2024

Andissolutionnis ended by the election of a new parliament, which must take place withinmmfour weeks.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/16/2024

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

What has to happen for a parliamentary dissolution to end?

frankbeswick on 05/16/2024

The dissolutionnaffects mainly the House of Commons, but during a dissolution the Lords does not sit.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/15/2024

Thank you!

The first paragraph to the first subheading, The main institutions, alerts us to monarchical residual power to dissolve parliament.

Does dissolving parliament affect both the House of Commons and the House of Lords?

frankbeswick on 05/15/2024


DerdriuMarriner on 05/14/2024

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

Queen Elizabeth II perhaps faced a time just before dying in which she perhaps had duties yet to discharge.

The task for discharging any unfinished duties therefore would have been then-Prince Charles (now King Charles III), correct?

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