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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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