A thematic guide to the UK
The 2017 general election
a move that caught everyone, including her own party, by surprise,
Theresa May called a snap general election in the UK for
May's aim was to increase the Conservatives' absolute majority in the
House of Commons. In the event, things did not go according to plan.
Instead of the "strong and stable" government she had been hoping for,
May emerged "weak and wobbly" as the Conservatives lost their absolute
majority, and had to go into an alliance witht the right-wing
Democratic Unionist Party, of Northern Ireland, in order to remain in
government. ► British general election 2017
of the British parliament
The "Palace of Westminster", London, home of the British Parliament
Nicknamed the "Mother of
Parliaments" , the British parliament is respected
as the most ancient parliament in today's world. Apart from a few brief
interruptions , it has carried out its business on the same spot,
Westminster, since the year 1265. It was in this year that
the Simon de Montfort - an Anglo-Norman baron - convened the first
elected parliament of England: the men met at Westminster, which was at
the time a village outside the medieval city of London. These elected
officials were, of course, lords and barons, not ordinary people, and
they were elected by their peers, not by universal suffrage; but each
one was there to represent
one of the counties or cities in the kingdom of England.
The idea of a "parliament" was not totally new. Before the Norman
Conquest in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kings ruled their kingdom with the
help of a council of elders called the Witan or Witenagemot ; like
early parliaments, the Witan was made up of nobles and men of
church. They chose the next king , and advised the sovereign, but had
no real power in terms of government. After the Norman Conquest ,
Conqueror and his successors relied on their system of
barons and territorial councils to govern the country; this was the
basis of the Anglo-Norman feudal system.
The English Parliament operated fairly steadily for four centuries,
acting as a counterweight to the power of the king, and it did so until
the seventeenth century. From the 14th century, Parliament consisted of
two chambers, the House
of Lords (the "upper" house) and the House of
Commons (the "lower" house) . But in the middle of the
17th century ,
King Charles 1st precipitated the English Civil War - the English
Revolution - by trying to rule without Parliament. The Civil War
opposed the Royalist forces and the Parliamentary forces, under the
command of Oliver
Cromwell; it ended in the victory of the
Parliamentarians . From then on, the English Parliament was firmly
established as an essential force in the running of the
In 1660 Parliament declared the
restoration of the monarchy
and established a system of parliamentary
monarchy. Parliament's power
was however quickly put to the test, and in 1688 Parliament deposed
King James II and invited Dutch prince William of Orange to take the
crown of England. The success of the "Glorious Revolution" confirmed
the role of the English Parliament, a role that was constitutionally
defined the following year by the signing of the Deed of Rights or Bill
of Rights , one of the major constitutional acts of the
(new law) formally established the role of parliament and the limits of
This was the beginning of the modern
parliament, with its system of political parties. In 1707 , following
the Act of Union
between England and Scotland, the English Parliament,
based in London, became the British Parliament.
During the 19th century, parliamentary power became increasingly
concentrated in the hands of the House of Commons; at the beginning of
the century, most Prime Ministers came from the House of Lords (Lords
Liverpool, the Duke of Wellington); but by the end of the century, the
government was largely in the hands of Prime Ministers chosen from
elected members of the House of Commons; these included Gladstone and
Disraeli. The last Government led by a Lord was that of the Marquis of
Salisbury from 1898 to 1902. Since then (1),
all Prime Ministers have sat
in the House of Commons .
In 1911, the Parliament
formally confirmed the supremacy of the House of Commons; from then on,
the Lords could not block bills made by the Government in the House
of Commons , and could not even delay budget and tax measures. The 1911
Act was amended in 1949.
Structure and Functioning of the British
is a parliamentary monarchy . The British Parliament is a bicameral
parliament , that is to say that it is made up of two chambers, or two
"Houses"; above the two Houses, but in an essentially formal role ,
there is the Sovereign - king or queen - also known as "the crown."
Role of the Sovereign
The British monarch has all authority, but no power. The Sovereign
appoints the Prime Minister, and every year opens the sessions of
parliament, in a historical and ritual ceremony called the State
Opening of Parliament . Historically, this ceremony used
to take place
in the Autumn; but since 2012, it has been brought forward to May. This
is the only regular time when the members of both Houses come together.
During the ceremony, the Sovereign reads out the government's intended
programme. The "Queen 's
Speech" is a summary of the programme "his" or
"her" government intends to implement in the next twelve months; but
the speech is prepared and written by the Prime Minister's office, not
by the Queen.
state opening of Parliament
The second major function of the
sovereign is to sign new laws passed by Parliament. A bill does not
or an Act of Parliament,
until it has "
received royal assent ", meaning that it has been
been signed by the Sovereign.
The last major function
of the sovereign - in the parliamentary context - is his or her weekly
meeting with the Prime Minister. By tradition, the latter informs the
Sovereign, who is head of state, about important affairs of
and government business, and asks the sovereign for his or her opinion.
With over 60 years of experience, the current Queen Elizabeth II has
acquired great experience in managing affairs of state, and an
unparalleled experience of international relations, and now acts as an
experienced adviser, well liked by her Prime Ministers, of all
political persuasions .
The House of Lords
is the "Upper House"
of the British Parliament . It consists of about
750 members (a variable number ) most of whom are Life Peers (i.e.
hereditary lords), or people who have been ennobled for services
rendered to the nation. These Life Peers are mostly former members of
the House of Commons, or former senior officials, judges, or former
business leaders or trade union leaders: each government and opposition
party has the right, each year, to propose new Life peers .
The other members of the House of Lords are 96 hereditary Lords
the "nobility" of the United Kingdom, and 26 Bishops of the
As mentioned above, the House of Lords can not
block bills proposed by the Government in the House of Commons, and can
only delay some bills . It is rare that the House of Lords use of this
prerogative, other than in exceptional cases; for the Lords to act
the wishes of an elected government would be constitutionally
unacceptable. Thus, almost all the bills from the House of Commons are
approved quickly by the Lords, and returned for a "second reading" with
some proposals for modifications or improvements. It is up to the House
of Commons to accept or reject these proposals.
essential role of the House of Lords is to discuss non controversial
subjects, or examine in detail projects for which the House of Commons
does not have time. Given its experience of the Life Peers who sit in
the House of Lords, the Upper House is an assembly of well experienced
former politicians , and is well suited to its parliamentary duties,
even if its members are not elected representatives.
2012, the Cameron Government proposed to change the status of the House
of Lords, making it into a largely elected chamber : but the proposal
does not terribly interest the British public, and this change is
unlikely to happen in the near future.
The House of Commons
House of Commons is the main House of the British Parliament in terms
of legislative power.
It is a chamber composed of 650 members
of Parliament or MPs
) elected by universal
suffrage. The life of a
Parliament is five years.
According to an ancient
tradition, MPs are elected by universal suffrage under a system of
majority, in one round of voting. This means that the
candidate with the most votes in an election is elected, whether or not
he or she has an absolute majority of votes. This system favors the
major political parties, and stable governments - at the expense of
Elected Members of Parliament do
not have a deputy, so in the event of the death, resignation or removal
of an MP, a "by-election"
must be called in order to elect a new MP.
Each MP represents a territory, or constituency:
the link between an MP
and his or her constituency is symbolically and historically very
important , and in the House of Commons, Members are not called by
their name, but by the name of the constituency from which they
have been elected ( or, if they are government ministers, by their
Since 1902 , the British Prime Minister has always been a serving
Member of Parliament, elected to the House of Commons; and most
ministers - often all ministers - are members of the House of Commons
too. The Government is formed by the party (or from 2010
to 2015, for example, by the
of parties) that has a majority of seats in the House of
Commons. Members of the Government sit in the front row of benches in
the House of Commons (called the Front
Bench ), directly opposite the
leaders of the Opposition
The chairman of the
House of Commons is known as the "Speaker",
and he or she presides over
each parliamentary session, deciding who can speak.
A significant aspect of the House of Commons is the importance given to
the Parliamentary Opposition . It is structured with an official Leader
(The Leader of the
Opposition ) and a "shadow
cabinet ", consisting of spokesmen for the Opposition each
with an official portfolio
corresponding to that of a government minister.
Most of the time the debates
in the House of Commons are devoted to
projects of government legislation . Most bills are put formard by the
government ministers. However, some time is given to bills tabled by
individual MPs (known as Private
Members' bills), or to bills tabled by
the opposition (known as Opposition
motions) . In each session of
Parliament, the opposition has 20 days during which it may propose
legislation and determine the agenda of the House.
Private Members Bills Bills and Opposition motions may be adopted by
the House of Commons, but they must also be approved by the Government,
given that the Government has a majority of votes. Thus, new laws can
effectively be proposed by the Opposition, and can be accepted by
Parliament. This can happen especially if the motion concerns
consensual or non-controversial political project, or even a
question for which MPs' will vote according to their "moral
convictions", rather than the politics of their party. In such cases,
governments traditionally allows members the freedom to vote according
to their conscience. Two important examples of Private Members Bills
have been passed by Parliament are the law to abolish the death penalty
of 1965 ), and the law authorizing abortion (1967).
British Parliament is both Parliament of England and Parliament of the
United Kingdom. It is sovereign (see Constitution).
delegated some of its powers to the regional parliaments or assemblies
of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales .
1. In 1963, the Conservatives
appointed to the post of Prime Minister a member of the House of Lords,
Earl Home. Home immediately renounced his title, and was elected in a
to the House of Commons.
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