The British Parliamentary System is often called the "Mother of Parliaments." In its present state - a Constitutional Monarchy - it has existed since the Reformation of the Monarchy in 1658, making it one of the oldest Parliaments in the world. Thanks to the British Empire many nations throughout the world now have similar Parliaments.

Britain's system of Government is unique in that it has no written constitution, something that frequently causes consternation among advocates of constitutional reform. In fact, the reason no constitution has ever been written is that Parliament has functioned, with relatively few hitches, rather efficiently throughout its history. Constitutional checks and balances are inherent in a series of British laws, including the 1703 Act of Union and the Settlement Act. In this node I do not intend to give an exhaustive account of the minutae of daily parliamentary life, nor to give a prolonged history of Parliament, but to outline some of the key systems and conventions that make the British parliament what it is.


The British Parliament is a bicameral system consisting of a house of elected Members (the House of Commons) and an upper house of appointed and hereditary peers (the House of Lords) - there are, at present, 92 hereditary peers. The system as a whole is presided over by the Sovereign, presently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, and the overall system of government is known as The Queen In Parliament. Although the Sovereign in theory can overrule Parliament, She actually delegates her rule to the Houses of Parliament. Her delegation and authority is indicated by the presence of The Mace, a gold sceptre residing in both Houses.

The House of Commons carries out daily parliamentary business, and is primarily responsible for the formation of Bills for presentation to the House of Lords. The House of Commons is officiated by the Speaker, who sits at the front of the House on a throne. Speakers are selected by the House as a whole, and have a special status in that they can overrule any individual in the House, and are bound by convention to be totally apolitical. In 1992 the first female Speaker, Betty Boothroyd MP (Lab) was elected.

Daily business is proposed by Members and an agenda is generated by a Government minister, the Leader of the House. He is also responsible for proposing and implementing reforms of techniques within the House, although it is outside his mandate to alter the basic structure. Another crucial element to the Leader of the House's role is allocating parliamentary time to specific debates on the request of any Member, so long as the Leader deems it appropriate.

Formation of Governments

Under current legislation, a General Election is to be held at least once every five years. The Sovereign proclaims a General Election acting on the advice of the Prime Minister, and, depending upon current political circumstances, the Prime Minister may request a General Election before the end of the five-year term.

The Prime Minister is not directly elected by the people; he is appointed by the Sovereign. Usually the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament will be appointed Prime Minister. The Queen last exercised her power to appoint a Prime Minister independently of Parliament following the General Election in 1974, when Harold Wilson MP (Lab) was appointed with a majority of -33 seats - this was because there was technically no overall majority (a Hung Parliament), and, acting on the advice of the Privy Council, the Queen appointed the leader of the party with the most overall votes.

After the Election, the Queen invites the leader of the main party to form a Government on Her behalf (She is still technically responsible for the appointment of ministers, and is still required to approve the Cabinet). The Prime Minister will select members for his Cabinet, which consists of both senior and junior ministers and Secretaries of State. There are traditionally five big positions in the Cabinet:

It is important to note that the Armed Forces are commanded by the Queen through Parliament. Although Parliament can send the Armed Forces where it pleases, the Prime Minister technically cannot without invoking the Royal Prerogative. This is why the debate on the recent conflict in Iraq was so vital. The only person in Britain who can command all of the Armed Forces is the Queen.

The Prime Minister, as already stated, is not directly elected by the electorate. The ruling party will have selected a leader by whatever process it chooses. This leader will be appointed Prime Minister by the Sovereign. This opens up the possibility of a coup d'etat within the ruling party, as famously happened in 1991 when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party government revolted and replaced her with John Major. The Queen could have called a General Election at this stage, but was advised instead to appoint Major as Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister's role is not to rule the country, nor to dictate to the Cabinet. He runs the Cabinet on behalf of the Sovereign, and acts as a chairman. He is supposed to meet with the Sovereign once a week (traditionally on Tuesdays) to keep Her informed of what the Cabinet's decisions have been, and to ask whether She has any advice.

Tony Blair's form of Cabinet rule has been more presidential, as was Margaret Thatcher's, in that he makes decisions and expects the Cabinet to support them after debate. This has led to prominent members of the Cabinet deserting it; most MPs are fiercely proud of the Cabinet's traditional role of Collective Responsibility.

Parliamentary Government

Once the Government has been established Parliament may be assembled or dissolved at any time by Royal Decree - again, the Queen will do this on the advice of the Prime Minister, althought the Prime Minister cannot invoke the Royal Prerogative - if the Queen decides or declines to dissolve Parliament, the Prime Minister can do nothing about it (see notes on the role of the sovereign). The two Houses run somewhat differently.

The House of Commons

To the right of the Speaker sits the Government. Ministers sit on the front benches, with the Prime Minister 11 positions away from the Speaker's Chair, next to his Despatch Box. Ordinary members are seated behind the Cabinet members, and are called backbenchers.

The party with the next largest number of seats, Her Majesty's Official Opposition, sits to the left of the speaker in the same configuration. The Opposition forms a Shadow Cabinet, with positions like Shadow Home Secretary to oppose the Government. Shadow ministers sit on the front benches, with backbenchers behind. The Leader of the Opposition sits directly opposite the Prime Minister, and has his own Despatch Box.

The rest of the house is filled with minority parties.

Britain has at present three main political parties:

  • The Labour Party is the ruling party, with the Right Honourable (Rt Hon) Anthony "Tony" BLAIR MP as its leader. It is a progressive socialist party, standing for social equality, moderate redistribution of wealth, high public spending, and greater integration within the European Union.
  • The Conservative and Unionist Party, also known as the Tory Party, is the oldest party in Parliament, and is currently the Opposition. Currently led by the Rt Hon Michael HOWARD QC MP it is a progressive conservative party standing for free market economics, lower governmental control over individual and business rights and finances, traditional family values, and less integration within the EU.
  • The Liberal Democrat Party is the Third Party. Led by the Rt Hon Charles KENNEDY MP, it is generally the more centrist party. It favours greater integration into Europe, and higher taxes to support a powerful welfare state.

The Government produces Bills to be voted on by the House. Once a year, a Private Member's Bill is introduced, whereby a backbencher from any party may propose a Bill for passage through Parliament. Other members may press for the introduction of Bills, but ultimately the Leader of the House has responsibility for how long debates last and, therefore, how long members are given to propose their bills. After a Bill has been debated in the House of Commons it is voted on; if passed, it goes to the "committee stage," where it is scrutinised and amended by the relevant Select Committee (consisting of members from all parties), before being passed on to the House of Lords for debate and voting. If it passes the Lords it is passed to the Queen for the Royal Assent, otherwise it returns to the Commons.

Each Wednesday the House of Commons questions the Prime Minister for half-an-hour at Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs). This usually attracts the most Members, as the whole House may attack or support the Government.

Each year Parliament is formed and dissolved by Royal Decree. Parliament is always opened at the State Opening of Parliment, with The Queen's Speech setting out the Government's proposed legislative programme for the coming Parliament.

The House will appoint members to a series of Select Committees, whose responsibilities are specifically to debate certain issues, bills, and elements of Government - the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, for example, in 2003 debated Britain's foreign policy with regard to Iraq, triggering the subsequent Hutton Inquiry. These committees are entitled to call any Member of Parliament forward for cross-examination, but their decisions are advisory rather than compulsory. Given their leverage within the House, however, the Government will tend to implement Select Committees' recommendations, in order to prevent a backlash from backbenchers.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords, on behalf of the Queen, is the supreme legislative authority within the UK. It examines Bills presented by the House of Commons, debates and amends them, and can refer them back to the Commons, overturn them, or present them to the Sovereign for Royal Assent. The House of Commons may force a Bill through the Lords by invoking the Parliament Act if it feels the upper House is acting unfairly.

Members of the House of Lords are peers appointed by the Queen on the advice of Her Privy Councillors, or Hereditary Peers who have inherited their seat. This has led to some considerable debate on its democratisation, because it is possible for the Government to fill the Lords with its own supporters, and the issue of the Hereditary Principle has always been contentious. In the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher the House of Lords became "stuffed" with Conservative peers, and a similar situation is happening again under Tony Blair with Labour peers. It is proposed that the House of Lords should move to being an elected house, where peers are elected by the House of Commons.

The supreme authority within the House of Lords is the Lord Chancellor, acting on behalf of the Sovereign. He is also the Keeper of the Grand Privy Seal, meaning that all proposed laws are channeled through him to the Sovereign so that he can stamp them with the Grand Seal. He is also the highest legal officer in the UK (apart from the Sovereign). Under a highly unpopular ruling from the Government in 2003, the Office of Lord Chancellor, the oldest parliamentary office in the UK, is to be abolished late in 2004. This issue was not debated at all in either House, and sparked fury that the Government was able to exercise the Royal Prerogative to abolish such an important post.

The House of Lords contains members of all political parties, and Crossbenchers - peers with no political alignment. All Anglican bishops sit in the House, as do the Law Lords, who form the highest court in the land. Law Lords are appointed by the Sovereign for life, and are the last point of appeal after the High Court. Bishops are known as the Lords Spiritual, others are known as the Lords Temporal, and the collective, official name for the House of Lords's members is Her Majesty's Lords Temporal and Spiritual

Although there is much debate over the role and democratisation of the House of Lords, it functions extremely well in its current state because it is possible to elevate experts to the peerage. This means that individuals with specific talents, who would not necessarily have been elected, can be included in the House. Some good examples are:

  • Lord (Richard) Attenborough - prominent British actor.
  • Lord (David) Puttnam - prominent British film director.
  • Lord (Robert) Winston - world-renowned fertility expert.
  • Baroness (Margaret) Thatcher - first British female Prime Minister, highly respected stateswoman.
  • Field Marshal Lord Brammal - Former Chief of the Defence Staff, highly respected military officer.

The Hereditary Principle's proponents claim that those who inherit their seat have been brought up in a spirit of public service, and act as an effective, stabilising influence against the Government's right to appoint Peers.

The Role of the Sovereign

As I have indicated throughout this node, the Sovereign is the supreme authority for all affairs within the United Kingdom. She has several key roles, as listed:

  • Head of State
  • Commander-in-Chief - the highest authority for all orders in the Armed Forces, and also appoints officers with the Queen's Commission.
  • Responsible for giving Royal Assent to all laws - She reads every Bill presented to her, and may veto them or request amendments.
  • Meets the Prime Minister weekly in order to keep track of Cabinet business and advise or warn.
  • Opens Parliament with the Queen's Speech and dissolves it - the Prime Minister cannot invoke the Royal Prerogative to dissolve or call Parliament, he must ask the Sovereign to do so and the Sovereign can rightfully refuse. Under concessionary legislation passed by the Long Parliament in 1543 (the Triennial Act Parliament cannot be dissolved continuously for more than three years.
  • Appoints and dismisses Prime Ministers and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Appoints the Lord Chancellor and Law Lords.
  • Supreme authority for the award of all medals, honours and titles within the UK. She may award any individual a knighthood, elevate anyone to the Peerage. She is also the only person entitled to make the decision to award members of the Armed Forces the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour in the Commonwealth.
  • Appoints all Ambassadors, and calls foreign Ambassadors to Her official Court at St James's Palace upon appointment for their credentials to be presented to Her. She may exclude any Ambassador from the UK, or recall any British Ambassador from overseas.

This is by no means a full list of Her roles. In practice most of these roles are delegated to Parliament.

Traditionally her role has been described as "to advise, to warn, and to be consulted." Queen Elizabeth II takes her role very seriously. She is reputed to have advised Margaret Thatcher to call off plans for the poll tax, and She takes an active interest in military affairs. She is respected throughout the world as one of the most experienced statesmen - the only monarch who has been on his throne for longer is King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, with 57 years compared with the Queen's 52-year reign. She is head of state of 19 other countries throughout the world, and as such has nearly 200m subjects.

Her roles are most neatly summarised by Her Styles and Titles:

"Her Britannic Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith"


There are some interesting quirks in British politics, two of which are of particular interest:

The Chiltern Hundreds

In 1623 the House of Commons passed an odd resolution making it impossible for MPs to resign. Seats can only be vacated by an MP's death, elevation to the peerage, disqualification, expulsion, or by the dissolution of Parliament. If an MP wishes to resign, therefore, he must apply for a spurious, paid office of the Crown. There are, by tradition, two such offices:

  • Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough, and Burnham.
  • The Manor of Northstead.

Once an MP has applied for one of these posts his Warrant of Office is signed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, his seat becomes vacant, and a by-election is called. Three notable individuals to have left Parliament in this antique manner are Betty Boothroyd (C100s), Neil Kinnock (C100s) and J. Enoch Powell (MoN).

Parliamentary Etiquette

The two Houses of Parliament never refer to each other directly. Instead, the Commons refers to "our noble lords," the Lords refer, somewhat disparagingly, to "another place."

Members of the House of Commons never speak to each other in Parliament; they speak through the Speaker, which is why when you hear the Prime Minister attacking the Leader of the Opposition, for example, you will hear him say, "Mr Speaker" several times.

Members of the Commons refer to members of their own parties as "my honourable friend," and to members of other parties as "the honourable gentleman/lady." The Speaker does not use their names, but will refer, for example, to "the honourable member for Tewkesbury." Ex-military members (no MP is allowed to keep his rank) are supposed to be referred to as "honourable and gallant," although in practice this is not the case (Iain Duncan Smith, an ex-soldier, for example, is only referred to as right honourable). QCs (barristers) should be referred to as "honourable and learned", although the "learned" reference is usually dropped in the House (it does, however, appear in Hansard, the official parliamentary record). Members of Her Majesty's Privy Council are referred to as "Right Honourable." Members of the House of Commons are to refer to Peers as "my noble Lord/Lady," or, collectively, "the Noble Lords." In the House of Lords peers refer to fellow party members as "my noble friend," and to other party members and Crossbenchers as "my noble lord/lady."

Members of both houses must only ever refer to the Queen as "Her Majesty." According to tradition, to refer to Her as "the Queen" or to use Her name earns the member suspension from the House until he has apologised in writing to the Speaker or Lord Chancellor.


As stated in the introduction, this is by no means an exhaustive account of the conventions, rules and laws governing the British Parliament. It should, however, have given you a greater understanding of how Britain's system of government works, and why it is considered both an archaic and successful system. Constitutional reforms are currently being proposed, and the EU has the potential to fundamentally alter British sovereignty or even to take it away. It should be interesting to see how Parliament is able to stand up to the challenges ahead, and to see whether it is a robust now as it has been in the past.

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