United Kingdom - Government

The United Kingdom is a monarchy in form but a parliamentary democracy in substance. The sovereign—Elizabeth II since 1952—is head of state and as such is head of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and temporal head of the established Church of England. In practice, however, gradually evolving restrictions have transmuted the sovereign's legal powers into instruments for effecting the popular will as expressed through parliament. In the British formulation, the sovereign reigns but does not rule, for the sovereign is under the law and not above it, ruling only by approval of parliament and acting only on the advice of her ministers.

The United Kingdom is governed, in the name of the sovereign, by Her Majesty's Government—a body of ministers who are the leading members of whichever political party the electorate has voted into office and who are responsible to parliament. Parliament itself, the supreme legislative authority in the realm, consists of the sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Northern Ireland had its own parliament (Stormont) subordinate to Westminster; however, because of civil strife in Ulster, the Stormont was prorogued on 30 March 1972, and direct rule was imposed from Westminster. After several abortive attempts over the next decade to devise a system of home-rule government acceptable to both Protestant and Catholic leaders, the 78-member Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1982, but it was dissolved in 1986. As a result of the 1998 "Good Friday Agreement," a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government came into being in 1999. It was suspended in October 2002, and direct rule from London returned.

In 1979, proposals for the establishment of elected legislatures in Wales and Scotland failed in the former and, though winning a bare plurality, fell short of the required margin for approval (40% of all eligible voters) in the latter. Regional parliaments for Scotland and Wales were ratified by referendum in 1997, however, and they began their first sessions in 1998.

The sovereign formally summons and dissolves parliament. The House of Lords, whose size has been greatly reduced, used to count about 1,200 peers, including hereditary peers, spiritual peers (archbishops and bishops of the Church of England), and life peers (eminent persons unwilling to accept a hereditary peerage). Over the centuries, its powers have gradually been reduced; today, its main function is to bring the wide experience of its members into the process of lawmaking. As of 2003, the House of Commons had 659 members. A general election must be held every five years but is often held sooner. All British subjects 18 years old and over may vote in national elections; women won equal franchise with men in 1922. Citizens of Ireland resident in Britain may also vote, as may British subjects abroad for a period of five years after leaving the United Kingdom.

Each parliament may during its lifetime make or unmake any law. Parliamentary bills may be introduced by either house, unless they deal with finance or representation; these are always introduced in the Commons, which has ultimate authority for lawmaking. The House of Lords may not alter a financial measure nor delay for longer than a year any bill passed by the Commons in two successive sessions. Bills passed by both houses receive the traditional royal assent and become law as acts of parliament; no bill has received a royal veto for more than 200 years. The Speaker of the Parliament is the chief officer of the House of Commons. The Speaker is nonpartisan and functions impartially. The first female Speaker was elected in 1992.

Executive power is vested in the prime minister, who, though nominally appointed by the sovereign, is traditionally the leader of the majority party in parliament. The prime minister is assisted by ministers, also nominally appointed by the sovereign, who are chosen from the majority party and mostly from the Commons, which must approve the government's general policy and the more important of its specific measures. The most senior ministers, about 20, compose the cabinet, which meets regularly to decide policy on major issues. Ministers are responsible collectively to parliament for all cabinet decisions; individual ministers are responsible to parliament for the work of their departments. There are around 30 major central government departments, each staffed by members of the permanent civil service.

The British constitution is made up of parliamentary statutes, common law, and traditional precepts and practices known as conventions, all evolved through the centuries. Largely unwritten, it has never been codified and is constantly evolving.

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