How the British political system works

Photograph of the British Parliament building

British politics can seem very confusing – there are lots of different political parties and branches of government, and even though we have a monarchy we are also a democracy. We’ve put together this handy guide to answer some common questions about the British political system.

Is the Queen in charge of the UK?

Sort of. The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. This means that while a monarch – in this case, Queen Elizabeth II – is the head of state, she is not the head of government. She does not get to make most of the decisions about how the government is run; that job belongs to the Prime Minister, or PM.

The English monarchy used to have absolute power, but that was a long time ago – over 800 years in fact. 2015 was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter. This document spelled out the rights and responsibilities of King John of England and the ruling class in 1215. The Magna Carta is regarded as the first statement of citizen rights in the world.

The Bill of Rights of 1689 – which is still in effect – lays down limits on the powers of the crown and sets out the rights of Parliament and rules for freedom of speech in Parliament, the requirement for regular elections to Parliament, and the right to petition the monarch without fear of retribution.

Nowadays the Queen’s role is mostly ceremonial.

Do England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have their own governments?

Yes and no. England is the most powerful country of the four and the British Government works for the Queen, who is an English monarch. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all ultimately beholden to English law. However, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have governing bodies that work exclusively on issues in their own countries.

Scotland is the most politically independent country. The Scottish National Party (SNP) have 56 seats in the House of Commons and the Scottish Government is responsible for running day-to-day matters in Scotland such as education, transport, and health.

Wales has the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales, which are in charge of things like making laws for Wales and agreeing Welsh taxes.

At the moment Northern Ireland does not have a sitting government but Northern Ireland does have the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly which has powers closer to those already devolved to Scotland.

Who makes the laws in the UK?

The UK’s government has three basic types of power: legislative, executive, and judiciary.

Legislative power is the power to make new laws or remove old ones. This power is held by Parliament, which is made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Irish Assembly also have legislative powers; however, they do not have as much authority as Parliament.

Executive power – the power to implement and enforce laws – is controlled by the British government, which works on behalf of the Queen, as well as the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales and the Northern Ireland Executive.

Judiciary power, which is the power to prosecute those who break the law, is kept independent of the legislature and the executive. The highest court in the UK is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

What are the different political parties and how are their members elected?

People vote in elections for Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent them. The party that gets the most seats in Parliament forms the Government. For example, right now the Conservatives have the most seats in Parliament, so the UK has a Conservative Government. If, in the next election, Labour wins more seats, we will have a Labour Government.

There are lots of political parties in the UK, but the big ones are:

  • The Conservative Party (currently led by Boris Johnson). The Conservatives are “right wing,” or conservative. They typically believe that business shouldn’t be regulated and that we should all look after ourselves.
  • The Labour Party (currently led by Jeremy Corbyn). Labour are “left wing,” or liberal. People who are left wing believe that the state should support those who cannot support themselves. Ideas like the redistribution of wealth, the NHS, and job seeker’s allowance are fundamentally left-wing ideas.
  • The Liberal Democrats (currently led by Jo Swinson). The Lib Dems, as they’re called, fall between the Conservatives and Labour. Even though they have “liberal” in their name they are really a mix of liberal and conservative.
  • Scottish National Party (currently led by Nicola Sturgeon). The SNP is left wing and Scotland is, politically-speaking, more liberal than England.

Who can vote in the UK?

Members of the UK Parliament are elected in General Elections, which typically take place every five years. To vote in a General Election you must be:

  • Registered to vote
  • 18 or over on the day of the election (‘polling day’)
  • A British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen
  • Resident at an address in the UK (or a British citizen living abroad who has been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years)
  • Eligible to vote – i.e. you cannot be legally excluded from voting

How does the voting system in the UK work?

The UK voting system operates on a majority vote system. The political party that wins the most votes wins the election. For a political party in the UK to form a government they need an overall majority.

If the winning party does not have an overall majority then there is a hung parliament. If this happens, one large party will join up with a smaller party to form a coalition. By doing this, they exclude the main opposition and still have power – although it is now shared between the two coalition parties.