Here’s a dry subject for a Thursday morning: The British democratic system of government.
If we are to discuss the best model for democracy we should first look at the British system as it is the longest established. Questions arise however when you consider its relevancy to the modern world.
At a basic level it is understood that Prime Minister and his government ultimately run the country. Members’ of Parliament (MPs), are elected by the general public, usually once every four years, based on the policies of the three or four main political parties. Issues of particular interest could be employment, the state of the economy, health and defence. It is called democracy whereby the people get to vote on who they want to take the country forward.
The nuts and bolts of the British government are far more complicated and I will endeavour to explain them here.
A Constitution determines how the people are governed including powers to levy taxes, conscript or even imprison. The UK is said to have a democracy with power resting with the people but granted to their elected representatives but this only applies to the House of Commons. The other parts of the Constitution – the Crown and the House of Lords – are hereditary and appointed. The main elements can be summarised thus:
The Executive – under the authority of the Crown and headed by the Sovereign (the Queen) whose powers are invested in the government compromising of Ministers, headed by a Prime Minister and answerable to Parliament.
The Legislature – the law making body comprising both Houses of Parliament.
The Judiciary – politically independent but empowered by laws made by Parliament.
The Sovereign – the head of the Monarchy – is the Head of State. Though now longer directly involved in government but still has considerable theoretical powers in the nation’s affairs such as making key appointments of the British State but generally her role as seen as ceremonial. Her powers are transferred to the ministers in Her Majesty’s Government’ using the Royal Prerogative.
The Privy Council
All Cabinet Ministers and many other leading figures including leaders of the main opposition parties and senior judges are appointed by the Sovereign to be members of the Privy Council. Though it has no formal basis in the Constitution it still has considerable powers over and above the cabinet in issues such as declaring a state of emergency.
The Prime Minister
The office of the Prime Minister is the Sovereign’s first minister and has the formal title of First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service. The role is taken by the leader of the party who gained most seats in the previous general election.
Despite the Sovereign being the head of the armed forces for example, it is the Prime Minister who decides when and where to send the troops into action. The justification for delegation of power is that the Prime Minister is appointed through democratic means rather than the hereditary process.
The Cabinet consists of between 20 and 24 senior ministers of each department (Secretary of State) to formulate policy and decide on priorities. They are bound by what is called collective responsibility which means that once a decision has been made all Cabinet members are expected to support the decision or policy in public.
The Opposition leader sits on the opposite front bench as the leader of the second largest party. The importance of the Opposition in the Constitution is that there should always be seen to be a government in waiting’.
Civil servants are not political appointees and their job is to give advice to ministers and to carry out research, formulate policy and implement the decisions of ministers. They are supposed to be politically impartial and normally retain their position after a change in government.
Parliament: key features and processes
MPs retain their seats for the maximum term of a Parliament of five years with each Parliament divided into four or five sessions. Each session begins with the State Opening of parliament and the Sovereign reading a speech in the House of Lords explaining what the government intends to do in the forthcoming session. An election is usually called after the fourth anniversary of the previous election by the PM who asks the Sovereign for a dissolution of parliament who in turn consults the Privy Council before issuing the Royal Proclamation.
The House of Commons
The House of Commons (HoC) is still officially under the constitution the Lower House’ in the two part legislature of the UK with government and opposition sitting on opposite benches. The HoC has established itself as the House with greatest democratic legitimacy with all members elected by the adult population.
An MP is appointed to the Speaker’s role through an election of MPs and is the Chairperson of the Commons. It is the Speaker who decides on which MPs are to speak and in what order and will rule if their is a dispute on a point of procedure.
Backbenchers are MPs who are neither members of the government nor leading members of the main opposition party. They represent their constituents and their area and hold the executive to account by tabling questions.
The Whips are MPs who help organise the business of government and ensure their party’s MPs are available on important motions and legislation. Each week of Parliament MPs receive a document from the Whip’s Office detailing government business. Important votes are underlined once, twice or three times (three line whip) to show their importance to the government.
The Legislative Process
The majority of laws are introduced as Government (Public) Bills in the House of Commons. The process for passing a Bill is thus:
First Reading – a clerk will read out the Bill title which is then a White Paper is published to be read by the MPs.
Second Reading – the Bill is introduced by a relevant minister and is debated in the House.
Committee Stage – a committee is chosen to represent the whole House reflecting the balance of MPs in the House to discuss the Bill.
Report stage – the committee reports back to the House and suggests amendments.
Third reading – the House debates the final version and then votes whether to accept it or not.
The process is then repeated in the Upper House and after both Houses have passed a Bill it is given Royal Assent and becomes law on a specified date.
These were set up to enable parliamentarians from outside the executive the opportunity to examine the activities of a department or a particular aspect of government business. Proceedings are almost always open to the press and public. Select committee members can vote with their conscience and do not have to follow the party line.
House of Lords
The House of Lords comprises of hereditary peers, life peers and a number of Law Lords and Spiritual Lords such as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Upper House provides a constitutional check and can reform legislature from the House of Commons and also acts as the final and highest court of appeal in the UK in both civil and criminal cases.
Governing the economy
The Chancellor of the Exchequer makes a budget speak every year where he outlines the government’s financial plans which can be voted on before the new tax year starts in April. The government’s spending and taxation plans are formulated into a Finance Bill which has to be debated and voted on like any other expect that the House of Lords cannot block it.
Taxation is divided into two categories: direct taxation levied on income or earnings and indirect taxation such as VAT and fuel duty and it is the money which is used for running the country.
The election process
The electorate vote a single Member of Parliament using the First past the Post (FPTP) system to represent approximately 65,000 electors in a single defined geographical area. There are in effect 659 elections in a general election. Candidates must have the support of ten electors registered voters in their prospective constituency on their nomination form which is submitted to the (Acting Returning Officer. They must also find a deposit of 500 to stand which they will lose if the do not acquire five percent of the vote.
Alternative electoral systems
Most countries use a a system called Proportional Representation (PR) which more closely represents the proportion of votes cast. It is used as most electors are voting for a particular party rather than a specific candidate for a seat. Other alternatives include:
Additional Member System (AMS) – a proportion of candidates are elected using FPTP with a further block of seats elected based on proportional voting for parties.
Single Transferable Vote (STV) – electors list candidates in order of preference.
(Closed) Party List System – used mainly to elect MEPs
A pressure group tries to influence the policy making making of a political party, as it is through the latter that changes are made possible at central local and international level.
QUANGO stands for Quasi Autonomous Non Governmental Organisation and are basically bodies involved in carrying out work for Parliament but is not part of a government department. These include public bodies (Environment Agency), executive agencies (DVLA), regulatory bodies (utilities) and commissions and advisory bodies (English Heritage). By far the biggest QUANGO is the National Health Service.
The European Union
The UK joined the European Economic Community (ECC) or Common Market in 1973. The institutions of European Union include the Commission which proposes agreements, policies, directives and laws, the Council of the European Union or Council of Ministers (CM) and the European Parliament. This consists of 626 MEPs who meet in Brussels and Strasbourg with the role of scrutinizing and debating decisions of the Council of Ministers.
The main policy and spending areas of the EU include the Common Agricultural Policy, Common Fisheries policy and the Structural Fund.
The Houses of Parliament have long been known as ‘the mother of parliaments’ and historically form the basis for democratic government across the world. Much of the British system however is seen as outdated and reforms are being proposed to the House of Lords and the electoral process on a regular basis.
It remains to be seen if these will be implemented or what the long-term effects of any changes may be but it looks certain that British government will retain is place at the political top table for many years to come.