The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. This means that it has a king/queen as its Head of State. The monarch has very little power and can only reign with the support of Parliament. In reality, the House of Commons is the only one of the three which has a true power. Although a bill must be supported by all three bodies, the House of Lords only has limited powers, and the monarch has not refused to sign one since the modern political system began over 200 years ago.
The House of Commons is made up of 650 elected members, known as Member of Parliament (MP), each of whom represents an area (or constituency) of the United Kingdom. They are elected either at a general election, or at a by election following the death or retirement of an MP. Parliamentary elections must be held every five years at the latest, but the Prime Minister can decide on the exact date within those five years.
The party system
The British democratic system depends on political parties, and there has been a party system of some kind since the 17th century. The party which wins the majority of seats forms the Government and its leader usually becomes Prime Minister. The largest minority party becomes the Opposition.
The Prime Minister chooses about twenty MPs from his or her party to become Cabinet Minister. The leader of the Opposition also chooses MPs to take responsibility for opposing the Government in these areas. They are known as the ‘Shadow Cabinet’.
The parliamentary parties
The Conservative Party can broadly be described as the party of the middle and upper classes although it does receive some working-class support. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has always had strong links with the trade unions and receives financial support from them.
The House of Lords
The House of Lords has more than 1000 members, although only about 250 take an active part in the work of the House. There are 26 Anglican bishops, 950 hereditary peers, 11 judges and 185 life peers, and unlike MPs they do not receive a salary. The House of Lords is the only non-elected chamber among all the democracies in the world, and some people in Britain would like to abolish it.
Theoretically every act of government is done in the Queen’s name – every letter sent out by a government department is marked ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ – and she appoints all the Minister, including the Prime Minister.
The United Kingdom is divided into administrative areas known as ‘counties’ and each county has a ‘county town’ where the offices of the local government are located. Local government is responsible for organizing such services as education, libraries, police and fire services, road building and many others.