Although Queen Elizabeth II is the longest reigning British monarch, the country is actually ruled by Her Majesty’s Government (HM Government) in the monarch’s name. This political system is called a ‘Constitutional Monarchy’, because the monarch’s powers are limited by laws and conventions. The Government is made up of people who sit in the Houses of Parliament. There are two ‘Houses’ of Parliament: the House of Commons, which is elected by the people of the UK, and the ‘House of Lords’, which is not elected. The Prime Minister leads the government and is the person who a majority (more than half) of the House of Commons supports.
The population of the UK has reached over 65.5 million people, making it impossible to hear the voice and opinions of every person. Instead, we vote for people to represent us in the House of Commons, these elected officials are Members of Parliament (MPs). Each MP represents one of 650 constituencies across the UK, with most belonging to a political party.
Political parties are groups of people who share similar views, and join together to contest elections. In the UK there are two main political parties, but many smaller parties also win seats in the House of Commons. Some of these parties have one or two key issues that they base campaigns on, with others representing the issues of one part of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) in parliament.
General elections to select MPs must happen every five years, on the first Thursday in May. The ‘First Past The Post’ voting system is used to elect MPs, where the candidate in each constituency with the most votes wins to become the MP. After MPs are elected, the party with the most seats has the opportunity to form a government. If a single party wins 326 seats (an overall majority of the 650 available), they become the ruling party, and their leader becomes the Prime Minister.
However, if no party achieves this, we have a ‘hung parliament’. If this happens, parties can enter into an agreement to work together as a coalition. This last happened in 2010, when the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats created a coalition to form a government. If no party has a majority and no coalition is formed, the largest party may try and run a ‘minority government’; this means that they will try to persuade other MPs to vote with them (or at least not vote against them) each time there is a vote.
The Government and Parliament
After an election, the leader of the winning party asks the ruling monarch for permission to form a government. Once the monarch’s approval is given, the prime minister forms a government, and appoints MPs from their party to lead different government departments, as ‘Ministers’. These departments make changes to how things in the country are run, in accordance with the law. There are various government departments including the Department for Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and the Department for Defence.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own elected regional parliaments or assemblies, which make some decisions within their part of the UK; this is called ‘devolution’. They only have limited powers, which the UK Parliament decides, known as ‘devolved powers’. Similarly, the country is broken up into small areas run by local authorities (councils) which make decisions on a local level, such as parking and street maintenance. The people in all of these places are voted for in local elections, and only by those in the areas they affect.
The House of Lords, is an unelected house. Of the 798 members of the Lords, 91 are inherited positions, but the majority are life peers, appointed by the monarch with advice from the prime minister. These are people who have a great deal of experience or knowledge in a specific area, or have made significant contributions to this area. Although these cannot be chosen by the public, they’re still very important.
So how can you get involved in choosing who runs the country? Only British, Irish and some Commonwealth citizens over the age of 18 can vote in general elections, but you can register to vote at 17 if you will turn 18 before the next election.
There are other ways to get involved in how the country runs, if you are still too young to vote. The UK Youth Parliament gives young people an opportunity to have their voices heard, and bring about change country wide. Many local areas also now have a Young Mayor, who helps to make decisions affecting young people locally.
Although some people view politics as boring, it’s actually very important. Without sitting and voting in parliament yourself, which not everybody gets the opportunity to do, choosing who represents your views affects how the country is ruled. Whether it is at a general election, a local election, or for Youth Parliament, taking part in the choosing of representatives gives you some control over the decisions made that affect your life.
Next week we’ll be asking the question ‘What is Democracy?’ and exploring this topic further in the next blog of our British Values Series. See you then!
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