Politics of the United Kingdom
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The United Kingdom is a unitary state governed within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, in which the Monarch is the head of state and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of government. Executive power is exercised by Her Majesty's Government, on behalf of and by the consent of the Monarch, as well as by the devolved Governments of Scotland and Wales, and the Northern Ireland Executive. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as in the Scottish parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
The UK political system is a multi-party system. Since the 1920s, the two largest political participation have been the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Before the Labour Party rose in British politics, the Liberal Party was the other major political party along with the Conservatives. Though coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties, though each has in the past century relied upon a third party such as the Liberal Democrats to deliver a working majority in Parliament. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government held office from 2010 until 2015, the first coalition since 1945. The coalition ended following Parliamentary elections on May 7, 2015, in which the Conservative Party won an outright majority of 330 seats in the House of Commons, while their coalition partners lost all but eight seats.
With the partition of Ireland, Northern Ireland received home rule in 1920, though civil unrest meant direct rule was restored in 1972. Support for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales led to proposals for devolution in the 1970s though only in the 1990s did devolution actually happen. Today, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each possess a legislature and executive, with devolution in Northern Ireland being conditional on participation in certain all-Ireland institutions. The United Kingdom remains responsible for non-devolved matters and, in the case of Northern Ireland, co-operates with the Republic of Ireland.
It is a matter of dispute as to whether increased autonomy and devolution of executive and legislative powers has contributed to the increase in support for independence. The principal pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party, became a minority government in 2007 and then went on to win an overall majority of MSPs at the 2011 Scottish parliament elections and forms the Scottish Government administration. A 2014 referendum on independence led to a rejection of the proposal, but with 45% voting to secede. In Northern Ireland, the largest Pro-Belfast Agreement party, Sinn Féin, not only advocates Northern Ireland's unification with the Republic of Ireland, but also abstains from taking their elected seats in the Westminster government, as this would entail taking a pledge of allegiance to the British monarch.
The constitution of the United Kingdom is uncodified, being made up of constitutional conventions, statutes and other elements such as EU law. This system of government, known as the Westminster system, has been adopted by other countries, especially those that were formerly parts of the British Empire.
The United Kingdom is also responsible for several dependencies, which fall into two categories: the Crown dependencies, in the immediate vicinity of the UK, and British Overseas Territories, which originated as colonies of the British Empire.
The British Monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is the Chief of State of the United Kingdom. Though she takes little direct part in government, the Crown remains the fount in which ultimate executive power over Government lies. These powers are known as Royal Prerogative and can be used for a vast amount of things, such as the issue or withdrawal of passports, to the dismissal of the Prime Minister or even the Declaration of War. The powers are delegated from the Monarch personally, in the name of the Crown, and can be handed to various ministers, or other Officers of the Crown, and can purposely bypass the consent of Parliament.
According to the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, the monarch has the following powers:
- The power to dismiss and appoint a Prime Minister
- The power to dismiss and appoint other ministers
- The power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament
- The power to grant or refuse Royal Assent to bills (making them valid and law)
- The power to commission officers in the Armed Forces
- The power to command the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom
- The power to appoint members to the Queen's Counsel
- The power to issue and withdraw passports
- The power to grant Prerogative of mercy (though Capital Punishment is abolished, this power is still used to remedy errors in sentence calculation)
- The power to grant honours
- The power to create corporations via Royal Charter
- The power to ratify and make treaties
- The power to declare War and Peace
- The power to deploy the Armed Forces overseas
- The power to recognize states
- The power to credit and receive diplomats
Executive power in the United Kingdom is exercised by the Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, via Her Majesty's Government and the devolved national authorities - the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
The United Kingdom Government
The monarch appoints a Prime Minister as the head of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, guided by the strict convention that the Prime Minister should be the member of the House of Commons most likely to be able to form a Government with the support of that House. In practice, this means that the leader of the political party with an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons is chosen to be the Prime Minister. If no party has an absolute majority, the leader of the largest party is given the first opportunity to form a coalition. The Prime Minister then selects the other Ministers which make up the Government and act as political heads of the various Government Departments. About twenty of the most senior government ministers make up the Cabinet and approximately 100 ministers in total comprise the government. In accordance with constitutional convention, all ministers within the government are either Members of Parliament or peers in the House of Lords.
As in some other parliamentary systems of government (especially those based upon the Westminster System), the executive (called "the government") is drawn from and is answerable to Parliament - a successful vote of no confidence will force the government either to resign or to seek a parliamentary dissolution and a general election. In practice, members of parliament of all major parties are strictly controlled by whips who try to ensure they vote according to party policy. If the government has a large majority, then they are very unlikely to lose enough votes to be unable to pass legislation.
The Prime Minister and the Cabinet
The Prime Minister is the most senior minister in the Cabinet. They are responsible for chairing Cabinet meetings, selecting Cabinet ministers (and all other positions in Her Majesty's government), and formulating government policy. The Prime Minister being the de facto leader of the UK, he or she exercises executive functions that are nominally vested in the sovereign (by way of the Royal Prerogatives). Historically, the British monarch was the sole source of executive powers in the government. However, following the lead of the Hanoverian monarchs, an arrangement of a "Prime Minister" chairing and leading the Cabinet began to emerge. Over time, this arrangement became the effective executive branch of government, as it assumed the day-to-day functioning of the British government away from the sovereign.
Theoretically, the Prime Minister is primus inter pares (,i.e. Latin for "first among equals") among their Cabinet colleagues. While the Prime Minister is the senior Cabinet Minister, they are theoretically bound to make executive decisions in a collective fashion with the other Cabinet ministers. The Cabinet, along with the PM, consists of Secretaries of State from the various government departments, the Lord High Chancellor, the Lord Privy Seal, the President of the Board of Trade, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Ministers without portfolio. Cabinet meetings are typically held weekly, while Parliament is in session.
Government departments and the Civil Service
The Government of the United Kingdom contains a number of ministries known mainly, though not exclusively as departments, e.g., Department for Education. These are politically led by a Government Minister who is often a Secretary of State and member of the Cabinet. He or she may also be supported by a number of junior Ministers. In practice, several government departments and Ministers have responsibilities that cover England alone, with devolved bodies having responsibility for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, (for example - the Department of Health), or responsibilities that mainly focus on England (such as the Department for Education).
Implementation of the Minister's decisions is carried out by a permanent politically neutral organisation known as the civil service. Its constitutional role is to support the Government of the day regardless of which political party is in power. Unlike some other democracies, senior civil servants remain in post upon a change of Government. Administrative management of the Department is led by a head civil servant known in most Departments as a Permanent Secretary. The majority of the civil service staff in fact work in executive agencies, which are separate operational organisations reporting to Departments of State.
Devolved national administrations
The Scottish Government is responsible for all issues that are not explicitly reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster, by the Scotland Act; including NHS Scotland, education, justice, rural affairs, and transport. It manages an annual budget of more than £25 billion. The government is led by the First Minister, assisted by various Ministers with individual portfolios and remits. The Scottish Parliament nominates a Member to be appointed as First Minister by the Queen. The First Minister then appoints their Ministers (now known as Cabinet Secretaries) and junior Ministers, subject to approval by the Parliament. The First Minister, the Ministers (but not junior ministers), the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General are the Members of the 'Scottish Executive', as set out in the Scotland Act 1998. They are collectively known as "the Scottish Ministers".
The Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales have more limited powers than those devolved to Scotland, although following the passing of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the Welsh devolution referendum, 2011, the Assembly can now legislate in some areas through an Act of the National Assembly for Wales. Following the 2011 election, Welsh Labour held exactly half of the seats in the Assembly, falling just short of an overall majority. A Welsh Labour Government was subsequently formed headed by Carwyn Jones.
Northern Ireland Executive
The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have powers closer to those already devolved to Scotland. The Northern Ireland Executive is led by a diarchy, currently First Minister Arlene Foster (Democratic Unionist Party) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin).
The UK Parliament is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom (i.e., there is parliamentary sovereignty), and Government is drawn from and answerable to it. Parliament is bicameral, consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. There is also a devolved Scottish Parliament and devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, with varying degrees of legislative authority.
House of Commons
The Countries of the United Kingdom are divided into parliamentary constituencies of broadly equal population by the four Boundary Commissions. Each constituency elects a Member of Parliament (MP) to the House of Commons at General Elections and, if required, at by-elections. As of 2010 there are 650 constituencies (there were 646 before that year's general election). Of the 650 MPs, all but one - Lady Sylvia Hermon - belong to a political party.
In modern times, all Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have been drawn from the Commons, not the Lords. Alec Douglas-Home resigned from his peerages days after becoming Prime Minister in 1963, and the last Prime Minister before him from the Lords left in 1902 (the Marquess of Salisbury).
One party usually has a majority in Parliament, because of the use of the First Past the Post electoral system, which has been conducive in creating the current two party system. The monarch normally asks a person commissioned to form a government simply whether it can survive in the House of Commons, something which majority governments are expected to be able to do. In exceptional circumstances the monarch asks someone to 'form a government' with a parliamentary minority which in the event of no party having a majority requires the formation of a coalition government. This option is only ever taken at a time of national emergency, such as war-time. It was given in 1916 to Andrew Bonar Law, and when he declined, to David Lloyd George and in 1940 to Winston Churchill. A government is not formed by a vote of the House of Commons, it is a commission from the monarch. The House of Commons gets its first chance to indicate confidence in the new government when it votes on the Speech from the Throne (the legislative programme proposed by the new government).
House of Lords
The House of Lords was previously a largely hereditary aristocratic chamber, although including life peers, and Lords Spiritual. It is currently midway through extensive reforms, the most recent of these being enacted in the House of Lords Act 1999. The house consists of two very different types of member, the Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual. Lords Temporal include appointed members (life peers with no hereditary right for their descendants to sit in the house) and ninety-two remaining hereditary peers, elected from among, and by, the holders of titles which previously gave a seat in the House of Lords. The Lords Spiritual represent the established Church of England and number twenty-six: the Five Ancient Sees (Canterbury, York, London, Winchester and Durham), and the 21 next-most senior bishops.
The House of Lords currently acts to review legislation initiated by the House of Commons, with the power to propose amendments, and can exercise a suspensive veto. This allows it to delay legislation if it does not approve it for twelve months. However, the use of vetoes is limited by convention and by the operation of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949: the Lords may not veto the "money bills" or major manifesto promises (see Salisbury convention). Persistent use of the veto can also be overturned by the Commons, under a provision of the Parliament Act 1911. Often governments will accept changes in legislation in order to avoid both the time delay, and the negative publicity of being seen to clash with the Lords. However the Lords still retain a full veto in acts which would extend the life of Parliament beyond the 5-year term limit introduced by the Parliament Act 1911.
The House of Lords was replaced as the final court of appeal on civil cases within the United Kingdom on 1 October 2009, by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
Devolved national legislatures
Though the UK parliament remains the sovereign parliament, Scotland has a parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have assemblies. De jure, each could have its powers broadened, narrowed or changed by an Act of the UK Parliament. The UK is a unitary state with a devolved system of government. This contrasts with a federal system, in which sub-parliaments or state parliaments and assemblies have a clearly defined constitutional right to exist and a right to exercise certain constitutionally guaranteed and defined functions and cannot be unilaterally abolished by Acts of the central parliament.
England, therefore, is the only country in the UK not to have its own devolved parliament. However, senior politicians of all main parties have voiced concerns in regard to the West Lothian Question, which is raised where certain policies for England are set by MPs from all four constituent nations whereas similar policies for Scotland or Wales might be decided in the devolved assemblies by legislators from those countries alone. Alternative proposals for English regional government have stalled, following a poorly received referendum on devolved government for the North East of England, which had hitherto been considered the region most in favour of the idea, with the exception of Cornwall, where there is widespread support for a Cornish Assembly, including all five Cornish MPs. England is therefore governed according to the balance of parties across the whole of the United Kingdom.
The government has no plans to establish an English parliament or assembly although several pressure groups are calling for one. One of their main arguments is that MPs (and thus voters) from different parts of the UK have inconsistent powers. Currently an MP from Scotland can vote on legislation which affects only England but MPs from England (or indeed Scotland) cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is an MP for a Scottish constituency, introduced some laws that only affect England and not his own constituency. This anomaly is known as the West Lothian question.
The policy of the UK Government in England was to establish elected regional assemblies with no legislative powers. The London Assembly was the first of these, established in 2000, following a referendum in 1998, but further plans were abandoned following rejection of a proposal for an elected assembly in North East England in a referendum in 2004. Unelected regional assemblies remain in place in eight regions of England.
The Scottish Parliament is the national, unicameral legislature of Scotland, located in the Holyrood area of the capital Edinburgh. The Parliament, informally referred to as "Holyrood" (cf. "Westminster"), is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members who are known as Members of the Scottish Parliament, or MSPs. Members are elected for four-year terms under the mixed member proportional representation system. As a result, 73 MSPs represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the plurality ("first past the post") system, with a further 56 returned from eight additional member regions, each electing seven MSPs.
The current Scottish Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998 and its first meeting as a devolved legislature was on 12 May 1999. The parliament has the power to pass laws and has limited tax-varying capability. Another of its roles is to hold the Scottish Government to account. The "devolved matters" over which it has responsibility include education, health, agriculture, and justice. A degree of domestic authority, and all foreign policy, remains with the UK Parliament in Westminster.
The public take part in Parliament in a way that is not the case at Westminster through Cross-Party Groups on policy topics which the interested public join and attend meetings of alongside Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).
The resurgence in Celtic language and identity, as well as 'regional' politics and development, has contributed to forces pulling against the unity of the state. This was clearly demonstrated when - although some argue it was influenced by general public dillusionment with Labour - the Scottish National Party (SNP) became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament by one seat.
Alex Salmond (leader of SNP) has since made history by becoming the first First Minister of Scotland from a party other than Labour. The SNP governed as a minority administration at Holyrood following the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. Nationalism (support for breaking up the UK) has experienced a dramatic rise in popularity in recent years, with a pivotal moment coming at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election where the SNP capitalised on the collapse of the Liberal Democrat support to improve on their 2007 performance to win the first ever outright majority at Holyrood (despite the voting system being specifically designed to prevent majorities), with Labour remaining the largest opposition party.
This election result prompted the leader of the three main opposition parties to resign. Iain Gray was succeeded as Scottish Labour leader by Johann Lamont, Scottish Conservative and Unionist leader, Annabel Goldie was replaced by Ruth Davidson, and Tavish Scott, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats was replaced by Willie Rennie.
A major SNP manifesto pledge was to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence, which was duly granted by the UK Government and held on the 18th September 2014. When the nationalists came to power in 2011, opinion polls placed support for independence at around 31%, but in 2014, 45% voted to leave the union. In the wake of the referendum defeat, membership of the SNP surged to over 100,000, overtaking the Liberal Democrats as the third largest political party in the UK by membership, and in the general election of May 2015 the SNP swept the board and took 56 of the 59 Westminster constituencies in Scotland (far surpassing their previous best of 11 seats in the late 1970s) and winning more than 50% of the Scottish vote.
Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP following the country's rejection of independence in September 2014, and was succeeded in both roles by the deputy First Minister and deputy leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon. Also in the wake of the referendum, Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, stood down and Jim Murphy was elected to replace her. As Mr. Murphy is not currently an MSP, the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament is led by their deputy leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale.
National Assembly for Wales
The National Assembly for Wales is the devolved assembly with power to make legislation in Wales. The Assembly comprises 60 members, who are known as Assembly Members, or AMs (Welsh: Aelod y Cynulliad). Members are elected for four-year terms under an additional members system, where 40 AMs represent geographical constituencies elected by the plurality system, and 20 AMs from five electoral regions using the d'Hondt method of proportional representation.
The Assembly was created by the Government of Wales Act 1998, which followed a referendum in 1997. On its creation, most of the powers of the Welsh Office and Secretary of State for Wales were transferred to it. The Assembly had no powers to initiate primary legislation until limited law-making powers were gained through the Government of Wales Act 2006. Its primary law-making powers were enhanced following a Yes vote in the referendum on 3 March 2011, making it possible for it to legislate without having to consult the UK parliament, nor the Secretary of State for Wales in the 20 areas that are devolved.
Northern Ireland Assembly
The government of Northern Ireland was established as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This created the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly is a unicameral body consisting of 108 members elected under the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. The Assembly is based on the principle of power-sharing, in order to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist, participate in governing the region. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas and to elect the Northern Ireland Executive (cabinet). It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.
The Assembly has authority to legislate in a field of competences known as "transferred matters". These matters are not explicitly enumerated in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but instead include any competence not explicitly retained by the Parliament at Westminster. Powers reserved by Westminster are divided into "excepted matters", which it retains indefinitely, and "reserved matters", which may be transferred to the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly at a future date. Health, criminal law and education are "transferred" while royal relations are all "excepted".
While the Assembly was in suspension, due to issues involving the main parties and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), its legislative powers were exercised by the UK government, which effectively had power to legislate by decree. Laws that would normally be within the competence of the Assembly were passed by the UK government in the form of Orders-in-Council rather than legislative acts.
There has been a significant decrease in violence over the last twenty years, though the situation remains tense, with the more hard-line parties such as Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party now holding the most parliamentary seats (see Demographics and politics of Northern Ireland).
The United Kingdom does not have a single legal system due to it being created by the political union of previously independent countries with the terms of the Treaty of Union guaranteeing the continued existence of Scotland's separate legal system. Today the UK has three distinct systems of law: English law, Northern Ireland law and Scots law. Recent constitutional changes saw a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom come into being in October 2009 that took on the appeal functions of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, comprising the same members as the Supreme Court, is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth countries, the UK overseas territories, and the British crown dependencies.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Both English law, which applies in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland law are based on common-law principles. The essence of common-law is that law is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of legal precedent (stare decisis) to the facts before them. The Courts of England and Wales are headed by the Senior Courts of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the highest court in the land for both criminal and civil cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and any decision it makes is binding on every other court in the hierarchy.
Scots law, a hybrid system based on both common-law and civil-law principles, applies in Scotland. The chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom serves as the highest court of appeal for civil cases under Scots law. Sheriff courts deal with most civil and criminal cases including conducting criminal trials with a jury, known that as Sheriff solemn Court, or with a Sheriff and no jury, known as (Sheriff summary Court). The Sheriff courts provide a local court service with 49 Sheriff courts organised across six Sheriffdoms.
Various electoral systems are used in the UK:
- The first-past-the-post system is used for general elections to the House of Commons, and also for some local government elections in England and Wales.
- The plurality-at-large voting (the bloc vote) is also used for some local government elections in England and Wales.
- The additional member system is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales (Welsh Assembly) and London Assembly. The system is implemented differently in each of the three locations.
- The single transferable vote system is used in Northern Ireland to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly, local councils, and Members of the European Parliament, and in Scotland to elect local councils.
- The alternative vote system is used for by-elections in Scottish local councils.
- The D'Hondt method of party-list proportional representation is used for European Parliament elections in England, Scotland and Wales.
- The supplementary vote is used to elect directly elected mayors in England, including the mayor of London.
The use of the first-past-the-post to elect members of Parliament is unusual among European nations. The use of the system means that when three or more candidates receive a significant share of the vote, MPs are often elected from individual constituencies with a plurality (receiving more votes than any other candidate), but not an absolute majority (50 percent plus one vote).
Elections and political parties in the United Kingdom are affected by Duverger's law, the political science principle which states that plurality voting systems, such as first-past-the-post, tend to lead to the development of two-party systems. The UK, like several other states, has sometimes been called a "two-and-a-half" party system, because parliamentary politics is dominated by the Labour Party and Conservative Party, with the Liberal Democrats holding a significant number of seats (but still substantially less than Labour and the Conservatives), and several small parties (some of them regional or nationalist) trailing far behind in number of seats.
In the last few general elections, voter mandates for Westminster in the 30–40% ranges have been swung into 60% parliamentary majorities. No single party has won a majority of the popular vote since the Third National Government of Stanley Baldwin in 1935. On two occasions since World War II – 1951 and February 1974 – a party that came in second in the popular vote actually came out with the larger number of seats.
Electoral reform for parliamentary elections have been proposed many times. The Jenkins Commission report in October 1998 suggested implementing the Alternative Vote Top-up (also called alternative vote plus or AV+) in parliamentary elections. Under this proposal, most MPs would be directly elected from constituencies by the alternative vote, with a number of additional members elected from "top-up lists." However, no action was taken by the Labour government at the time. There are a number of groups in the UK campaigning for electoral reform, including the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Count Coalition and Fairshare.
The 2010 general election resulted in a hung parliament (no single party being able to command a majority in the House of Commons). This was only the second general election since World War II to return a hung parliament, the first being the February 1974 election. The Conservatives gained the most seats (ending 13 years of Labour government) and the largest percentage of the popular vote, but fell 20 seats short of a majority.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered into a new coalition government, headed by David Cameron. Under the terms of the coalition agreement the government committed itself to hold a referendum in May 2011 on whether to change parliamentary elections from first-past-the-post to AV. Electoral reform was a major priority for the Liberal Democrats, who favour proportional representation but were able to negotiate only a referendum on AV with the Conservatives. The coalition partners campaigned on opposite sides, with the Liberal Democrats supporting AV and the Conservatives opposing it. The referendum resulted in the Conservative's favour and the first-past-the-post system was maintained.
There are two main parties in the United Kingdom: the Conservative Party, and the Labour Party. The Scottish National Party is the third party in terms of representatives elected and party membership.
The modern Conservative Party was founded in 1834 and is an outgrowth of the Tory movement or party, which began in 1678. Today it is still colloquially referred to as the Tory Party and its members as Tories. The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a Labour breakaway formed in 1981. The Liberals and SDP had contested elections together as the SDP–Liberal Alliance for seven years before. The modern Liberal Party had been founded in 1859 as an outgrowth of the Whig movement or party (which began at the same time as the Tory party and was its historical rival) as well as the Radical and Peelite tendencies.
The Liberal Party was one of the two dominant parties (along with the Conservatives) from its founding until the 1920s, when it rapidly declined and was supplanted on the left by the Labour Party, which was founded in 1900 and formed its first government in 1924. Since that time, the Labour and Conservatives parties have been dominant, with the Liberals (later Liberal Democrats) being the third largest party until 2015, when they lost 48 of their 57 seats, while the Scottish National Party went from 6 seats to 56. Founded in 1934, the SNP advocates for Scottish independence and has had continuous representation in Parliament since 1967. The SNP currently leads a minority government in the Scottish Parliament.
Minor parties also hold seats in parliament:
- Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, has had continuous representation in Parliament since 1974. Plaid has the third-largest number of seats in the National Assembly for Wales, after Welsh Labour and the Welsh Conservative & Unionist Party, and participated with the former in the coalition agreement in the Assembly before the 2011 election.
- In Northern Ireland, all 18 MPs are from parties that only contest elections in Northern Ireland (except for Sinn Féin, which contests elections in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland). The unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the republican Sinn Féin, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the nonsectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland all gained seats in Parliament in the 2010 election, the Alliance Party for the first time. Sinn Féin has a policy of abstentionism and so its MPs refuse to take their seats in Parliament. DUP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the SDLP are considered the four major parties in Northern Ireland, holding the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the most recent general election in 2015, the Conservatives, who in the previous parliament had led a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, gained a majority of seats and went on to form the government.
The Conservative Party won the largest number of seats at the 2015 general election, returning 330 MPs (plus the Speaker's seat, uncontested, bringing the total MPs to 331), enough to make an overall majority, and went on to form the government.
The Conservative party can trace its origin back to 1662, with the Court Party and the Country Party being formed in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Court Party soon became known as the Tories, a name that has stuck despite the official name being 'Conservative'. The term "Tory" originates from the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678-1681 - the Whigs were those who supported the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Duke of York from the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland, and the Tories were those who opposed it. Both names were originally insults: a "whiggamore" was a horse drover (See Whiggamore Raid), and a "tory" (Tóraidhe) was an Irish term for an outlaw, later applied to Irish Confederates and Irish Royalists, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
Generally, the Tories were associated with lesser gentry and the Church of England, while Whigs were more associated with trade, money, larger land holders (or "land magnates"), expansion and tolerance of Catholicism.
The Rochdale Radicals were a group of more extreme reformists who were also heavily involved in the cooperative movement. They sought to bring about a more equal society, and are considered by modern standards to be left-wing.
After becoming associated with repression of popular discontent in the years after 1815, the Tories underwent a fundamental transformation under the influence of Robert Peel, himself an industrialist rather than a landowner, who in his 1834 "Tamworth Manifesto" outlined a new "Conservative" philosophy of reforming ills while conserving the good.
Though Peel's supporters subsequently split from their colleagues over the issue of free trade in 1846, ultimately joining the Whigs and the Radicals to form what would become the Liberal Party, Peel's version of the party's underlying outlook was retained by the remaining Tories, who adopted his label of Conservative as the official name of their party.
The Conservatives enjoyed 18 years of Government between 1979 and 1997, first under the country's first ever female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and then under John Major. The crushing defeat of the 1997 election saw the Conservative Party lose over half their seats from 1992 and saw the party re-align with public perceptions of them.
In 2008, the Conservative Party formed a pact with the Ulster Unionist Party to select joint candidates for European and House of Commons elections; this angered the DUP as by splitting the Unionist vote, republican parties will be elected in some areas.
After thirteen years as the official opposition, the Party returned to power as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, going on to form a majority government in 2015. 2016 saw the resignation of David Cameron, which resulted in the appointment of the country's second female prime minister Theresa May. The party often cites that it is the only party in the United Kingdom to have ever had a female prime minister.
Historically, the party has been the mainland party most pre-occupied by British Unionism, as attested to by the party's full name, the Conservative & Unionist Party. This resulted in the merger between the Conservatives and Joseph Chamberlain's Liberal Unionist Party, composed of former Liberals who opposed Irish home rule. The unionist tendency is still in evidence today, manifesting sometimes as a scepticism or opposition to devolution, firm support for the continued existence of the United Kingdom in the face of movements advocating independence from the UK, and a historic link with the cultural unionism of Northern Ireland.
The Labour Party won the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons at the 2015 general election, with 232 MPs.
The history of the Labour party goes back to 1900 when a Labour Representation Committee was established which changed its name to "The Labour Party" in 1906. After the First World War, this led to the demise of the Liberal Party as the main reformist force in British politics. The existence of the Labour Party on the left of British politics led to a slow waning of energy from the Liberal Party, which has consequently assumed third place in national politics. After performing poorly in the elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924, the Liberal Party was superseded by the Labour Party as the party of the left.
Following two brief spells in minority governments in 1924 and 1929–1931, the Labour Party had its first true victory after World War II in the 1945 "khaki election". Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, Labour governments alternated with Conservative governments. The Labour Party suffered the "wilderness years" of 1951-1964 (three straight General Election defeats) and 1979-1997 (four straight General Election defeats).
During this second period, Margaret Thatcher, who became leader of the Conservative party in 1975, made a fundamental change to Conservative policies, turning the Conservative Party into an economic neoliberal party. In the General Election of 1979 she defeated James Callaghan's troubled Labour government after the winter of discontent.
For most of the 1980s and the 1990s, Conservative governments under Thatcher and her successor John Major pursued policies of privatization, anti-trade-unionism, and, for a time, monetarism, now known collectively as Thatcherism.
The Labour Party elected left-winger Michael Foot as their leader after their 1979 election defeat, and he responded to dissatisfaction with the Labour Party by pursuing a number of radical policies developed by its grass-roots members. In 1981 several right-wing Labour MPs formed a breakaway group called the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a move which split Labour and is widely believed to have made Labour unelectable for a decade. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party which contested the 1983 and 1987 general elections as a centrist alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. After some initial success, the SDP did not prosper (partly due to its unfavourable distribution of votes in the FPTP electoral system), and was accused by some of splitting the anti-Conservative vote.
The SDP eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Support for the new party has increased since then, and the Liberal Democrats (often referred to as LibDems) in 1997 and 2001 gained an increased number of seats in the House of Commons.
The Labour Party was badly defeated in the Conservative landslide of the 1983 general election, and Michael Foot was replaced shortly thereafter by Neil Kinnock as leader. Kinnock progressively expelled members of Militant, a far left group which practised entryist, and moderated many of the party's policies. Despite these changes, and because of Kinnock's negative media image, Labour was defeated in the 1987 and 1992 general elections, and he was succeeded by John Smith .
Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party after John Smith's sudden death from a heart attack in 1994. He continued to move the Labour Party towards the 'centre' by loosening links with the unions and embracing many of Margaret Thatcher's liberal economic policies. This, coupled with the professionalising of the party machine's approach to the media, helped Labour win a historic landslide in the 1997 General Election, after 18 years of Conservative government. Some observers say the Labour Party had by then morphed from a democratic socialist party to a social democratic party, a process which delivered three general election victories but alienated some of its core base - leading to the formation of the Socialist Labour Party (UK).
A subset of Labour MPs stand as joint Labour and Co-operative candidates due to a long-standing electoral alliance between the Labour Party and the Co-op Party - the political arm of the British co-operative movement. In the 2015 general election 42 candidates stood using the Labour and Co-operative Party description, of which 24 were elected.
Scottish National Party
The Scottish National Party won the third largest number of seats in the House of Commons at the 2015 general election, winning 56 MPs from the 59 constituencies in Scotland having won 50% of the popular vote. This was an increase of 50 MPs on the result achieved in 2010.
The SNP has enjoyed parliamentary representation continuously since 1967. Following the 2007 Scottish parliament elections, the SNP emerged as the largest party with 47 MSPs and formed a minority government with Alex Salmond the First Minister. After the 2011 Scottish election, the SNP won enough seats to form a majority government.
The Liberal Democrats won the joint-fourth largest number of seats at the 2015 general election, returning 8 MPs.
The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal Party with the Social Democratic Party, but can trace their origin back to the Whigs and the Rochdale Radicals who evolved into the Liberal Party. The term 'Liberal Party' was first used officially in 1868, though it had been in use colloquially for decades beforehand. The Liberal Party formed a government in 1868 and then alternated with the Conservative Party as the party of government throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Liberal Democrats are heavily a party on Constitutional and Political Reforms, including changing the voting system for General Elections (UK Alternative Vote referendum, 2011), abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a 300-member elected Senate, introducing Fixed Five Year Parliaments, and introducing a National Register of Lobbyists. They also support what they see as greater fairness and social mobility. In government the party promoted legislation introducing a pupil premium - funding for schools directed at the poorest students to give them an equal chance in life. They also supported same sex marriage and increasing the income tax threshold to £10,000, a pre-election manifesto commitment.
Northern Ireland parties
The Democratic Unionist Party had 8 MPs elected at the 2015 election. Founded in 1971 by Ian Paisley, it has grown to become the larger of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland. Other Northern Ireland parties represented at Westminster include the Social Democratic and Labour Party (3 MPs), the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (1 MP) and Sinn Féin (4 MPs). Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take their seats and sit in a 'foreign' parliament.
Plaid Cymru has enjoyed parliamentary representation continuously since 1974 and had 3 MPs elected at the 2015 election. Following the 2007 Welsh Assembly elections, they joined Labour as the junior partner in a coalition government, but have fallen down to the third largest party in the Assembly after the 2011 Assembly elections, and have become an opposition party.
Other parliamentary parties
The Green Party of England and Wales kept its only MP, Caroline Lucas, in the 2015 General Election (it had previously had an MP in 1992; Cynog Dafis, Ceredigion, who was elected on a joint Plaid Cymru/Green Party ticket). It also has seats in the European Parliament, two seats on the London Assembly and around 120 local councillors.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has 1 MP and 24 seats in the European Parliament as well as seats in the House of Lords and a number of local councillors. UKIP also has a MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly. UKIP has become an emerging alternative party among some voters, gaining the third largest share of the vote in the 2015 General Election and the largest share of the vote of any party (27%) in the 2014 European elections. In 2014 UKIP gained its first MP following the defection and re-election of Douglas Carswell in the 2014 Clacton by-election. They campaign mainly on issues such as reducing immigration and EU withdrawal.
There are usually a small number of Independent politicians in parliament with no party allegiance. In modern times, this has usually occurred when a sitting member leaves their party, and some such MPs have been re-elected as independents. The only Independent MP in the current parliament is Sylvia Hermon, previously of the Ulster Unionist Party. However, since 1950 only two new members have been elected as independents without having ever stood for a major party:
- Martin Bell represented the Tatton constituency in Cheshire between 1997 and 2001. He was elected following a "sleaze" scandal involving the sitting Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton—Bell, a BBC journalist, stood as an anticorruption independent candidate, and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties withdrew their candidates from the election.
- Dr. Richard Taylor MP was elected for the Wyre Forest constituency in the 2001 on a platform opposing the closure of Kidderminster hospital. He later established Health Concern, the party under which he ran in 2005.
Non-Parliamentary political parties
Other UK political parties exist, but generally do not succeed in returning MPs to Parliament.
The Libertarian Party was founded in 2008 and has contested several local elections and parliamentary constituencies, gaining some local councillors.
The English Democrats, which wants a parliament for England, has some local councillors and had its candidate elected mayor of Doncaster in 2009.
Other parties include: the Socialist Labour Party (UK), the Free England Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party (England and Wales), the Socialist Workers Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Liberal Party, Mebyon Kernow (a Cornish nationalist party) in Cornwall, Veritas, the Communist Left Alliance (in Fife) and the Pirate Party UK.
Several local parties contest only within a specific area, a single county, borough or district. Examples include the Better Bedford Independent Party, which was one of the dominant parties in Bedford Borough Council and led by Bedford's former Mayor, Frank Branston. The most notable local party is Health Concern, which controlled a single seat in the UK Parliament from 2001 to 2010.
The Jury Team, launched in March 2009 and described as a "non-party party", is an umbrella organisation seeking to increase the number of independent members of both domestic and European members of Parliament in Great Britain.
The Official Monster Raving Loony Party was founded in 1983. The OMRLP are distinguished by having a deliberately bizarre manifesto, which contains things that seem to be impossible or too absurd to implement – usually to highlight what they see as real-life absurdities. In spite of (or perhaps because of) a reputation more satirical than serious, they have routinely been successful in local elections.
Current political landscape
After winning the largest number of seats and votes in the 2015 general election, the Conservatives first under David Cameron and now under Theresa May remain ahead of the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn since September 2015. The SNP has maintained its position in Scotland, the party was just short of an overall majority at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2016.
However a turbulent referendum on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union, called for by David Cameron, led to his own resignation, the appointment of a new prime minister Theresa May, and divided opinion on Europe amongst the party.
In addition, the EU referendum campaign plunged the Labour Party into crisis and resulted in a motion of no confidence in the party leader Jeremy Corbyn being passed by the party's MPs in a 172-40 vote, which followed a significant number of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet. This led to an ongoing leadership election which began with Angela Eagle, the former Shadow First Secretary of State and Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills who eight days later withdrew from the leadership race, to support Owen Smith, the former Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Following the vote to leave the European Union, Nigel Farage offered his own resignation as leader, something he had campaigned for since 1992. A leadership contest also took place in the Green Party, which led to the joint election on 2 September 2016 of Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas as co-leaders, who took over the role in a job-share arrangement. Lucas, was previously leader until 2010 and is the party's only MP.
All political parties have membership schemes that allow members of the public to actively influence the policy and direction of the party to varying degrees, though particularly at a local level. Membership of British political parties is around 1% of the British electorate, which is lower than in all European countries except for Poland and Latvia. Overall membership to a political party has been in decline since the 1950s. In 1951, the Conservative Party had 2.2 million members, and a year later in 1952 the Labour Party reached their peak of 1 million members (of an electorate of around 34 million).
The table below details the membership numbers of political parties that have more than 5,000 members.
|Conservative||174,000||29 July 2014|
|Green Party of England and Wales||60,000||29 April 2015|
|Labour||370,658||8 October 2015|
|Liberal Democrats||70,000||29 June 2016|
|Plaid Cymru||7,863||27 January 2012|
|Scottish Green Party||9,000 +||9 June 2015|
|Scottish National Party||114,221||16 October 2015|
|UK Independence Party||39,143||28 August 2014|
No data could be collected for the four parties of Northern Ireland: the DUP, UUP, SDLP, and Sinn Féin. However, in January 1997, it was estimated that the UUP had 10-12,000 members, and the DUP had 5,000 members.
The UK is divided into a variety of different types of Local Authorities, with different functions and responsibilities.
England has a mix of two-tier and single-tier councils in different parts of the country. In Greater London, a unique two-tier system exists, with power shared between the London borough councils, and the Greater London Authority which is headed by an elected mayor.
The United Kingdom first joined the European Economic Community in January 1973, and has remained a member of the European Union (EU) that it evolved into; UK citizens, and other EU citizens resident in the UK, elect 73 members to represent them in the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg.
The UK's membership in the Union has been objected to over questions of sovereignty, and in recent years there have been divisions in both major parties over whether the UK should form greater ties within the EU, or reduce the EU's supranational powers. Opponents of greater European integration are known as "Eurosceptics", while supporters are known as "Europhiles". Division over Europe is prevalent in both major parties, although the Conservative Party is seen as most divided over the issue, both whilst in Government up to 1997 and after 2010, and between those dates as the opposition. However, the Labour Party is also divided, with conflicting views over UK adoption of the euro whilst in Government (1997–2010), although the party is largely in favour of further integration where in the country's interest.
UK nationalists have long campaigned against European integration. The strong showing of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) since the 2004 European Parliament elections has shifted the debate over UK relations with the EU.
In March 2008, Parliament decided to not hold a referendum on the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in December 2007. This was despite the Labour government promising in 2004 to hold a referendum on the previously proposed Constitution for Europe.
In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in a referendum. After the referendum, it was debated as to how and when the UK should leave the EU. On the 11th July 2016, the Cabinet Office Minister, John Penrose failed to deliver a final answer on whether it would be at the disposal of the Prime Minister and one of the Secretaries of State, through the Royal prerogative, or of Parliament, through primary legislation.
International organization participation
- African Development Bank
- Asian Development Bank
- Australia Group
- Bank for International Settlements
- Commonwealth of Nations
- Caribbean Development Bank (non-regional)
- Council of Europe
- Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council
- European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
- European Investment Bank
- European Space Agency
- European Union
- Food and Agriculture Organization
- G5, G6, G7, G8
- Inter-American Development Bank
- International Atomic Energy Agency
- International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
- International Civil Aviation Organization
- International Chamber of Commerce
- International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
- International Criminal Court
- International Criminal Police Organization - Interpol
- International Development Association
- International Energy Agency
- International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
- International Finance Corporation
- International Fund for Agricultural Development
- International Hydrographic Organization
- International Labour Organization
- International Maritime Organization
- International Monetary Fund
- International Olympic Committee (IOC)
- International Organization for Migration (IOM) (observer)
- International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
- International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
- International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat)
- International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
- International Whaling Commission
- Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) (guest)
- North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
- Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA)
- Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
- Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
- Organization of American States (OAS) (observer)
- Permanent Court of Arbitration
- Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC)
- United Nations
- United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
- United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (associate)
- United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
- United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
- United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
- United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
- United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)
- United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM)
- United Nations Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH)
- United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL)
- United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG)
- United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP)
- United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
- United Nations Security Council (permanent member)
- Universal Postal Union (UPU)
- Western European Union
- World Confederation of Labour
- World Customs Organization
- World Health Organization
- World Intellectual Property Organization
- World Meteorological Organization
- World Trade Organization
- Zangger Committee
- British political scandals
- British Polling Council
- List of British political defections
- Parliament in the Making
- Parliament Week
- Pressure groups in the United Kingdom
- Referendums in the United Kingdom
- History of taxation in the United Kingdom
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- Official UK parliamentary membership by party
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