Politics of the United Kingdom: how they govern

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The House of Commons holds an active session in London.

Americans are usually rather uninformed on the politics of other nations, besides a few mentions that aren’t in-depth. However what goes down in the politics of other nations can give us an insight into other nations’ cultures, values, and lives. 

An example of a nation that many people hear about, but don’t know much about the politics of is the United Kingdom. The UK likes to pop up on the American news once in a while, usually related to the debates over Brexit, but besides these brief mentions, is generally ignored and not well known by most of America. 

The United Kingdom operates under a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system. This means the monarch is the head of state but is generally ceremonial. Most power however is held within the Parliament, the most powerful part of all the UK government, also known as parliamentary sovereignty, which passes legislation and can also appoint and remove the government. 

The Parliament consists of two chambers, just like America. The House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Commons is a much more similar chamber to the House of Representatives in the United States. It consists of 650 members, elected from single-member districts called constituencies, from across the country. The House of Commons has a lot more power than the House of Lords, as it is the only chamber that can appoint and remove the government and can ultimately pass legislation even if the House of Lords disagrees with it.

The House of Lords on the other hand has a fluid amount of members, currently sitting at 796. Members of the House of Lords are selected through multiple ways, such as appointment by the government, appointment by the monarch, appointed by committees working to get experts in, and many other ways. The House of Lords has much less power than the Commons, not being able to appoint or remove the government and being able to be overridden by the Commons. However the Lords still have a large amount of power in amending legislation, and most Lords’ amendments stay in legislation. In addition, the Lords can delay the passage of legislation even if they cannot stop it, which can still have massive consequences on legislation. 

Taken by UK Parliament | Picture of the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK Parliament.

The executive of the United Kingdom is based around the Prime Minister and their cabinet. After the parliament appoints a Prime Minister, they will appoint a cabinet, and then they will get going in running the day-to-day functions of the government. One of the key differences between the US executive and the UK executive, besides the election, is the composition of the cabinet. The Prime Minister and cabinet are all derived from the legislature, meaning that a minister will also be a member of the House of Commons. This is because of the concept of parliamentary sovereignty where parliament is more powerful than the government. However besides these key differences, generally speaking, the executives run rather similarly, with the key difference being that parliament tends to be more involved in the approval of executive actions, once again due to parliamentary sovereignty.

The judiciary is probably the most different part of the UK. As the UK doesn’t have a constitution, there is no court that can strike down legislation for being unconstitutional seeing as there is no constitution. However, there have been recent developments in the 2010s, and a Supreme Court was created. The Supreme Court however only has the power to strike down actions of the executive as illegal under existing legislation, and in rare cases, may strike down legislation if it does not comply with treaties to which the United Kingdom is bound to.  

With the explanation of the government out of the way, it’s time to look at what issues dominate the UK political sphere, and where their political parties stand on these issues. 

The biggest issue, which has dominated the United Kingdom since the 2016 referendum on the issue is Brexit, which is the adopted term for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. There is a broad range of opinions on the matter and many groups have varying opinions, but they can generally be put into three camps.

The first camp is simply the “Remainers.” They do not have any interest in leaving the EU and want to stay in it. They disagree on if they should have integrated further into the EU or kept the current settlement, but they all agree that it would be better inside the EU rather than outside of the EU. The second group would be soft Brexiteers who only want to partially leave European Union programs. Many of these want to overall leave the apparatus of the EU but still stay in key parts, such as the common market and customs union. They generally want more control over the UK in its political affairs while also mitigating the possible negative effects of Brexit on the UK economy. This group of Brexiteers has generally been reduced ever since the referendum since this next group has overtaken them in the apparatus of the governing party that is responsible for negotiating Brexit. This final group would be the hard Brexiteers, who want to leave the EU, customs union, and common market. They argue that this arrangement will give the UK the most political independence to decide their own future. The current Prime Minister and much of his party are in this camp, and as such the Brexit they have been negotiating has made sure that when the UK leaves, they will be completely out. 

The second biggest issue in the UK would be healthcare, and the operation of the National Health Service, which is the universal healthcare service in which all UK citizens are eligible to use for healthcare. The issues relating to the National Health Service don’t generally revolve around if it should be abolished or not, but more on how much of a role it should play within the healthcare market of the UK. The two big slides on this are generally increased funding in the NHS, and less privatization of the NHS, and more privatization and a decreased amount of funding into the NHS. Those who want more funding and less privatization argue that it will ensure that all services will be accessible to citizens of the UK, regardless of their economic status, and that privatization will increase costs for the lower class. Proponents of decreased funding and more privatization argue that privatization would allow for lower wait times, and more access to certain types of healthcare, and overall allowing for more choice in a person’s healthcare. 

The third biggest issue in the UK would probably be the status of the union. The union has been an extremely contentious issue in recent years, primarily within Scotland, where they had an extremely close referendum on independence. Ever since then there has been a huge debate between people on the merits of the union. Proponents of independence argue that independence will allow Scotland to have more control over its future. In addition, independence will allow Scotland to rejoin the EU, which it overwhelmingly voted to stay into. Proponents of the union however argue that leaving will cause economic ruin for Scotland and that EU entry wouldn’t be possible because of Spain’s refusal to let Scotland in the EU.

Finally, how do the parties fit into this system, and where do they stand on these issues? There are currently two extremely big parties and two minor, but still, very relevant parties that hold the vast majority of seats in parliament.

The first of these parties are currently in government and are the largest party in the House of Commons. This party is the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories. The Conservative Party is well, conservative. They like lower taxes and smaller government to an extent, are a bit more socially conservative, and like tradition. However, unlike the American GOP, there are some very key differences that make it stand out, such as support for the NHS generally, and also not having a pro-gun stance. On the issues mentioned, the Conservatives were once very divided on Brexit, but under the current leadership of Boris Johnson have become very pro-Brexit. The Conservatives are currently supportive of the NHS, however, they do support more privatization of services. And on the union, the Conservatives are extremely pro-union and support Scotland staying within it. 

The second of these parties, and the second-largest party is the Labour Party. The party is essential if Bernie Sanders had his own party in America. The party supports higher taxes on the rich and more money towards public services. The party is rather divided on Brexit, with some members supporting the remain option while others supporting a leave. On the NHS and healthcare, the party is extremely pro NHS and opposes any future privatization, and in fact, would like to see more nationalization of healthcare. Finally, on the union, the party is still rather neutral, however, the overall base is unionist leaning. 

The third-largest party in England and a smaller party in other parts of the United Kingdom is the Liberal Democrats. This party is closest ideologically to the establishment Democratic party in America. The party is essentially a middle ground party supporting public services but being open to privatization. In addition, the party is generally the most socially progressive party in the UK. The party was extremely anti Brexit, however, they recognize that Brexit is now happening and as such aren’t pushing to rejoin. The party wants to improve the NHS but is generally not for more or less nationalization of the healthcare system. Then on the union, the party is unionist, however is much less aggressive in its stance than the Conservatives.

The final party mentioned here is the Scottish National Party or the SNP. The party is a left-wing nationalist party fighting for the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom. The party was extremely anti-Brexit and is continuing to push for independence as a way for Scotland to rejoin the European Union. On healthcare, the party supports more nationalization, however, they would like Scotland to have more control over healthcare than the government does in London. Finally, on the union, as stated before, they want to completely leave the union and create an independent Scotland. 

The UK has a political system that is rather interesting, with a lot of differences and similarities to American politics that make it both familiar to Americans while offering a new taste of the world of foreign politics.

Here are some extra resources on the politics of the United Kingdom:

The Issues Facing the UK

Official UK Government website on government

Political parties of the United Kingdom