United Kingdom - Political background

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government. The gradual development of parliamentary democracy has resulted in the diminished power and role of the monarch in political affairs. Today, the monarch acts as a unifying institution and a symbol of national identity. The monarch is the head of state, discharging primarily ceremonial functions. These ceremonial duties, however, are part of the unwritten British Constitution and represent the continuity of the British political tradition. The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952). Her eldest son Charles, the Prince of Wales, is next in line to the throne.

Parliament, composed of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, is invested with supreme legislative authority. The House of Lords, comprised of nonelected peers, has a limited role in the legislative process. Precluded from vetoing any "money bills," it can only delay other bills for up to one year. The House of Lords, however, is in a unique position to scrutinize, debate, amend, and legitimize governmental legislation without answering to any specific constituency. While both chambers are required for bills to become enacted into law, the real legislative power rests in the House of Commons. The 651 members of the House of Commons are directly elected from single member districts to five year terms, subject to dissolution. Normally, the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons is designated prime minister. The prime minister, who is the head of government, appoints ministers to head the various departments. While cabinet ministers are responsible for the functioning of their departments, the prime minister determines the direction and goals of government policies.

The two major parties in the United Kingdom are the Labour Party, led by the present prime minister, Tony Blair, and the Conservative Party, led by Iain Duncan Smith. Until Blair's administration, the Conservative Party had been in government since 1979, under Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990) and John Major (1990–1997). In the last two decades the Conservative Party has pursued policies of fiscal discipline, private ownership, free enterprise, deregulation, law and order, and has been skeptical of the European monetary union. While the Labour Party has traditionally been concerned with nationalization of industries, full employment, workers' rights, and social welfare, these demands have been moderated gradually during the past decade. In response, Labour has attempted to "modernize" the party and to broaden its electoral base of support. The latest election platforms reflect a narrowing of the ideological distance between the two major parties. While the single-member, "winner-take-all" electoral system tends to produce majorities in the House of Commons, and thus, favors the two major parties, the Liberal-Democrats (formed through the merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party in 1988), have been gradually gaining electoral strength. Their current leader is Charles Kennedy.

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