Many Briton’s are apathetic towards politics; for this, they are scorned by the political class and those who consider politics their forte – I believe this newfound apathy is actually due to the lack of inculcation within schools on the subject of politics. In Britain, unless you choose to study politics – a skewed, syllabus version, at that – you are not enlightened, at all.
As this is the case, I am going to provide a series of articles, giving you – the reader – a background and an in-depth explanation of the British political system; from the monarchy, the various Wings, civil strife, Westminster, the political class and the media’s influence on politics.
Due to the political system within Britain evolving at such a slow, peaceful pace – because of an absence of revolutions or other violent protesting acts through history – it has not had to adapt like many other democratic governments in other countries, which have experienced negativity by the masses. This is actually one of the most important facts when it comes to understanding British politics: you must understand that the British political system is the fundamental continuity of that past. There has never been a revolution, at least, not of the kind like many other countries have had, nor have we been invaded or occupied for nearly one-thousand years. The German’s during WWII would be the only case of this happening, but as we all know, they were repelled.
You could argue that the Civil War between the years of 1642 and 1651 was our equivalent of a revolution; however, the Parliamentarians – under Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax – had no lengthy success. They won the final battle at Worcester and followed it up by executing King Charles I and exiling the heir to the throne, Charles II. Granted, the monarchy was abolished briefly, but it was restored in 1660 – and still to this day, it plays a role in society, although a very different one, of course. This brief dispute between Parliamentarians and Royalists cannot be compared to the French Revolution and American Revolution on a scale of effect, though.
So, rather than being invaded or colonised in the last thousand years, Britain instead, became the greatest coloniser in the history books – its influence spreading across the globe. Our lack of invasion and colonisation comes down to the following reasons:
– Britain, almost uniquely, has no written form of constitution – there is no body of fundamental principles or established precedents which govern the country.
– Our political system has never been fully democratic, and at times, has not been logical.
– The changes that have been seen within British politics have been very gradual and – in most cases – built on consensus, between both the general public and the Members of Parliament.
Simply put, Britain’s political history has been a power struggle, attempting to take political power and accountability from the monarch – who had all the power, because it was ‘God-given’ – and bestowing it upon a national Parliament that gradually became increasingly representative of the ordinary people within the country.
The Magna Carta, of course, is one of the key moments in the history of the British Monarchy versus political rule. In 1215 King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, resulting in the ruler having to give limited power to his Barons; this is classed as one of the first events that gave the average people rights in the world. The current British Parliament will – most likely – celebrate the eight-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta this year, alongside the seven-hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of the subsequent ‘de Montfort Parliament’ of 1265.
The first representative assembly was summoned by King Edward I in 1295 – it was the self-professed ‘Model Parliament’. The Model Parliament was in a position where they had to approve or decline the taxation plans of the working class, made by the King – if they said ‘no’, the new tax plans would not be implemented.
To this day, the monarchy has limited power, in every form. The Bill of Rights of 1689 laid down limits on the power of the crown and set out a list of rights of Parliament, also rules for freedom of speech in Parliament, the requirement to regular elections to Parliament, and the right to petition the monarch without fear of retribution – which the crown was known for doing so often, of course.
Another rather important feature of the British political system’s history is the four-way divide in the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own local administrations with a wide array of responsibilities, however, England – which is currently representing around eighty-five percent of the overall population (roughly sixty-four million) – does not have the same sense of regionalism, which you see with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Thus, the British political system is nothing near the equivalent to the federal system of the fifty states in the United States of America – like many of you no doubt believe it is.
The final important part of Britain’s political history – there is probably more but I would like to wrap this section up sooner, rather than later – is our involvement with, what is now known as, the ‘European Union’. Since 1973, Britain has been a member of the EU – it now comprises of twenty-seven Member States. Due to its involvement with the EU, Britain is rather limited when it comes to adjusting its own laws and policies, because of the EU’s continent-wide policies.
Three Arms of the State
As you no doubt are already aware, the British political system is headed by a monarchy; however, the powers that are bestowed upon our current head of state – Queen Elizabeth II – are predominantly ceremonial. The monarch’s most important practical power now, of course, is the ability to choose the Member of Parliament to form a government. Invariably the monarch follows the conventional method, i.e., this role is bestowed upon the leader of the political party that holds the majority vote, thus giving them the highest number of seats in the House of Commons.
Hereditary and primogeniture principles give the monarch the reign; this means that the oldest male child of a monarch will receive the position of ‘head of state’ – Prince Charles, currently, once Queen Elizabeth II leaves this awful world behind. The monarch and the monarch’s spouse are barred from following Catholicism, under the terms of the Act of Settlement of 1701 because the monarch is also the Head of the Church of England. Our current government is currently reviewing these rather archaic arrangements.
In the classical political theory, there are three arms of state:
The executive – the Ministers who run the country and propose new laws.
The legislature – the elected body that pass the new laws.
The judiciary – the judges and the courts who ensure that everyone obeys the laws.
The above, is not how the British system works, here are our arms of state:
All Ministers in the government are members of the legislature.
Some top-of-the-scale senior judges sit in the upper House of the Parliament.
The formal head of the judiciary is a senior minister.