Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored democracy and what it looks like in the UK. This week, we delve a little deeper and explain how government works in the UK.
Are Government and Parliament the same thing?
Although a lot of people use the words interchangeably, government and parliament are not the same things.
Her Majesty’s Government (often just abbreviated as ‘HM Government’) is made up of ministers; MPs (or Lords) appointed by the Prime Minister using the ‘Royal Prerogative’ (which means that technically the monarch appoints ministers but he/ she always allows the Prime Minister to exercise this right on their behalf). The Prime Minister is always the individual who can command a majority in the House of Commons (i.e. more MPs would vote for them rather than against them). Ministers make day-to-day decisions on the running of the country.
Typically ministers will be from the party who wins an overall majority in most recent General Election. On occasion, the government can be formed of multiple parties that form a coalition government if no single party gets a majority. As there are 650 available seats in the House of Commons, a party needs to win more than half of these (326 or more) to form a majority government. Prime Ministers can form minority governments if they have slightly fewer seats than this but not enough MPs oppose them (for example, they could ‘abstain’ and simply not vote), or may form a coalition by entering into a formal agreement with another party.
Parliament includes all MPs (both those from the ruling party that are ‘backbenchers’ and not ministers, as well as those from other parties) in the House of Commons, as well as the House of Lords and the monarch. Parliament is the sovereign law-making body in the UK – the government can propose laws (‘bills’) but they have to go through a process of debates and votes to seek Parliament’s approval.
Who is in the UK Government?
The government is made up of ministers appointed by the Prime Minister to lead government departments. If two parties enter into a coalition, the leader of the second, the smaller party typically becomes the Deputy Prime Minister. This was the case when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition in 2010. As well as these two roles, the Prime Minister appoints a select number of MPs to be ministers in Cabinet. These are the most senior and important ministers in charge of different departments in government, and oversee the work done in those areas. The Prime Minister can also introduce new roles, such as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, change existing roles, or remove ministerial posts entirely. There are a number of more junior ministers that are not part of the Cabinet but still play a role in leading a part of a government department and help the relevant Cabinet minister to carry out their jobs. For example, the ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’ is the Cabinet minister in charge of Her Majesty’s Treasury and economic affairs, with more junior ministers helping them such as the ‘Chief Secretary to the Treasury’.
Is that the only Government in the UK?
The Government that sits at Westminster isn’t the only one in the UK, although it is where the decisions about the running of the country are made. As we saw in ‘What is Democracy Like?’ there are also devolved governments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as local governments. These governments make decisions on local issues, with powers devolved to them by Westminster.
What does the Government do?
The Government makes decisions on how the country is run, which can involve changing budgets for different departments and introducing new policies for those departments. The Government, along with the rest of Parliament, proposes laws and debates changes that need to be made. Although any MP can propose a new law or bill, most bills are put forward by the government as part of their ‘legislative programme’, which is the list of laws they want to make, set out in the ‘Queen’s Speech’ (which is written for her by the Prime Minister, whom the Queen appoints). MPs do not always have to vote along with their party, however as members join parties representing similar interests and goals, this is what commonly happens.
Next week we’ll be exploring laws and what they’re for.