Following last week’s exploration of democracy, this week we will be exploring what democracy looks like in Britain.

Westminster

As we touched on last week, during general elections the population are able to vote for Members of Parliament to represent their interests in the House of Commons. Parliament in the UK is held at Westminster Palace, and the decisions made there can affect all of the countries in the United Kingdom. We say that Parliament is ‘sovereign’, which means that it can make any law it likes, without limitation. Don’t forget, though, that ‘Parliament’ includes the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Monarch, so it is not possible for the elected MPs to make or change any law on their own (so they cannot, for example, abolish elections to stay in power). Some powers are passed, or devolved, to smaller government bodies to make decisions on a more local level. The powers devolved to more local governments are granted by Westminster, and can be reclaimed by Westminster as it remains the sovereign legislative (law-making) body in the UK.

Devolved Governments

There are four countries that make up the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The only one without a devolved government is England, where all legislation is made at Westminster. The other countries have devolved parliaments or assemblies to make certain laws and govern their respective regions, using the powers devolved to them by the Parliament at Westminster.

The National Assembly for Wales meets at the Senedd, in Cardiff, to make decisions on Welsh issues. The Assembly is made up of 60 members, 40 from specific constituencies and 20 from areas of Wales (e.g. North Wales), who are elected every five years. The Assembly was set up in 1999, but Wales started the movement towards devolution in 1886. The Assembly debates laws and makes policies that affect Wales, and have devolved powers from Westminster.

The Scottish Parliament meets in Edinburgh, and makes decisions on issues affecting Scotland. As with the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, but the Scottish Parliament is made up of 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), who represent constituencies and regions of Scotland. A number of powers are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. One key feature of elections for the Scottish Parliament, which differs from other UK elections, is that the minimum voting age is 16 years old.

The Northern Irish Assembly, meets at Stormont in Belfast. Northern Ireland has a longer history of devolution than Wales and Scotland. The current Assembly began meeting in 1998, but Northern Ireland had its own Parliament as far back as 1921. Struggles between major opposing parties have led to abolition of this Parliament in the past, but the current Assembly was set up following the Belfast Agreement in 1998. The Northern Irish Assembly has 108 elected members, who vote on powers devolved to them from Westminster.

Cities and Counties

Throughout the UK, cities and counties have their own councils and mayors, who are voted for through local elections. Local councils (sometimes called ‘local authorities’) are composed of councillors, which can make decisions about local issues, for example rubbish collection. As well as councils and local mayors, many cities also elect a mayor. Probably the most well-known of these in the Mayor of London, who heads the London Assembly to make decisions for the residents and businesses in London.

The European Union

In 1973, the UK joined the EU and elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who represent the interests of the UK in the European Parliament. In addition, some British politicians were selected to serve on the European Commission in various roles. Whilst part of the EU, the UK is subject to laws and regulations that affect all member states and so we say that the UK Parliament has ‘pooled sovereignty’, agreeing to be bound by EU law in return for membership. However, in 2017 following a UK wide referendum, the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union, by 52% to 48%.

Summary

By devolving power to local authorities and regional governments, decisions on local issues can be made at a more local level, freeing up the Parliament at Westminster to make laws on more substantial issue that affect all of the United Kingdom. This gives people the chance to elect representatives for both their local area and region, as well as for the UK Parliament at Westminster.  

Next week, we’ll be looking at the ways to make democracy fair, stay tuned!