British Culture & Society — tb system of Government Chapter 13 s ystem of Government

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British Culture & Society — TB System of Government

Chapter 13

S ystem of Government
No more distressing moment can

ever face a British government

than that which requires it to

come to a hard, fast and specific


B. W. Tuchman (1912-89,

American writer), August 1914 (1962)
A parliament can do anything but make a man a woman, and a woman a man.

-Henry Herbert( 1534-1601),2nd Earl of Pembroke

Chapter Thirteen looks at the system of government in the United Kingdom. The chapter begins with a brief but comprehensive account of some social institutions and their different functions. Part Two of the chapter looks at the Executive by describing the role of the Sovereign, the respective responsibilities of Prime Minister and Cabinet, as well as the workings of the non-political Civil Service. Part Three deals with the law-making body of the state — Parliament, which consists of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. While the former until recently was a non-elected, non-salaried and non-representative group within the state, it has now undergone a major process of reform. Attention here is given to the democratically elected and more powerful House of Commons, with emphasis laid on its daily proceedings, its members’ accountability, and the process of their being selected and elected. The chapter concludes with a short description of local authorities, the general pattern of which is a three-layer one: county, district and community/parish councils. Among many other things, local government in Britain today is responsible for implementing laws and organizing a wide range of legally regulated public services.

Focus questions

  1. What is the basic structure of the central government of the United Kingdom?

  2. What is the role of the Sovereign?

  3. What are the major responsibilities of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Britain?

  4. How do you understand the British Civil Service system: its past and present?

  5. How are the Members of Parliament in the House of Commons elected? How are those in the House of Lords selected?

Facts and figures

The Monarch

  • The Sovereign personifies the state and is, in law, an integral part of the legislature, head of the executive, head of the judiciary, the commander-in-chief of all armed forces of the Crown and the ‘supreme Governor’ of the Church of England.


  • The government is the body of Ministers responsible for the administration of national affairs, determining policy and introducing into parliament any legislation necessary to give effect to government policy.

  • The office of Prime Minister, which had been in existence for 200 years, was officially recognized in 1905.

  • The Cabinet developed during the eighteenth century as an inner committee of the Privy Council, which was the chief source of executive power until that time.

  • The Cabinet’s functions are the final determination of policy, control of government and co-ordination of government departments.

The Civil Service

  • The Civil Service consists of Government Departments dealing with subjects covering the whole range of Government activities as they may affect the nation.

  • It acts as the administrative arm of the Government.

  • It is accountable to Parliament, mainly to provide information.

  • It has less capacity today than before to undertake research work on problems.


  • The United Kingdom Parliament is the supreme authority of legislature in Britain.

  • Members of Parliament in the House of Commons are elected, by universal suffrage to represent each of the 659 constituencies existing in the United Kingdom.

  • Elections are held every five years, unless prevailing circumstances cause an earlier one.

  • The House of Commons is the only body which can give permission to the Government to raise revenue.

  • The House of Lords — the ‘Upper House’, as it is sometimes referred to -- acts as the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Local government

  • The present structure of local government derives mainly from the Local Government Acts of 1972 ,1992 and 2000

  • Local government attaches great importance to the effective delivery of services.

1.  Work individually 
Fill in the box with the main differences you can find between these groups within the British state.

House of Lords

House of Commons

Civil Service

non-elected permanent

elected for a limited period

non-elected permanent career

no salary




represents constituents


2.  Work individually, then in a group of four 
Summarise the main functions of the following institutions by writing a few sentences.
The monarch:

Head of State — gives Royal Assent to laws passed by Parliament —

opens Parliament — largely a ceremonial role in modern constitution
The cabinet:

Determines government policy — members are heads of government departments —


Represents electorate — debates important national and regional issues — amends and approves or rejects legislation — acts as watchdog over government (committees, question times etc.)

The judiciary:

Independent of political influence — interpret laws in practice

The civil service:

Advise and help formulate government policy — day to day administration of departments nationally and locally

You may want to ask some students to read out their summaries to the class before forming discussion groups.
In your group, compare your summaries and then discuss how much power each of these groups has.

1.  Work individually 
What are the advantages and disadvantages of Britain’s single party government (i.e. a government by one party holding a clear majority, with the other parties in opposition). Contrast this with coalition government i.e. a government formed by agreement between separate political parties.

Potential or possible advantages of Britain’s single party government

  • It ensures a comparatively coherent group with a settled policy, which is essential for efficiency and progress.

  • It ensures a thorough discussion of all important topics. There is no possibility of collusion to rush controversial measures through without publicity.

Potential or possible disadvantages of Britain’s single party government

  • It can always use its majority to enforce its will. The net result is that the Cabinet is master of Parliament.

  • It lacks a greater pliability of policy and greater responsibility for the individual members.

2.  Work in pairs 
Here is the manifesto of a Labour Party candidate. What kind of qualities are emphasised and why?
Notice both personal qualities and political qualities i.e. ‘family man’ — sympathetic towards others - local connection — ability to initiate useful public services
What qualities do you think are needed to be an MP? (SR ‘A Day in the Life of an MP’)
For example, a lot of stamina! — farsightedness, ability to rationalise many different points of view, honesty, integrity
Essay topics
1. Does Britain have an adequate parliamentary electoral system? Justify your answer.
2. Examine the role of the Prime Minister in contemporary Britain.

1. Britain and the European Union
During the 1950s there was a growing awareness that Britain needed a new role and that the developing European Economic Community (now the European Union) was a suitable vehicle. After unsuccessful attempts to join in 1961 and 1967, Britain eventually became a member in 1973. Membership involves some loss of sovereignty; under the Treaty of Accession, European Union (EU) institutions are empowered to administer and enforce some law directly in member states. The main decisions are taken by the European Council and the meeting of heads of state and government. Britain has often been at odds with most of the other member states because it has fought to curb the rise in agricultural spending (at one time some 60 per cent of the total EU budget) from which it was losing, and to limit its net contributions to the budget.
In recent years there have been significant moves towards greater co-ordination of policies of the member states. The Single European Act came into effect in July 1987. This updates the Treaty of Rome (drawn up by the original 6 member states) for the 12 member states. [On] 1 January 1992 the EU became a single internal market allowing the free movement of capital, goods and workers. Crucially, the principle of majority voting has been allowed for matters concerning the single market. Mrs. Thatcher [was] out of step with most other leaders who [wished] to move to a single bank and currency. She envisaged the EU as a body which consists of independent sovereign states, though Mr. Heath, her predecessor as Conservative leader, has expressed a willingness to embrace a greater pooling of Sovereignty. By 2002 the euro had become the common currency of eleven of the fifteen member states, but not including Britain. The Labour Prime Minister elected in 1997, Tony Blair, promised a referendum on the issue as soon as the government feels that the economic conditions are right. Since 1997 the attitude of the British government has generally been more positive towards involvement with Europe with a desire to take a lead in shaping its future as it plans to expand and take in more member states.

2. Britain’s elusive constitution
For those with neat and tidy minds the British constitution exhibits the rather frustrating characteristic of not actually existing at all, or rather, not existing in the form of a nicely bound slim volume available from a bookshop . An American citizen can spend an edifying half-hour perusing the constitution on the bus or as a bedside companion. In contrast, the British constitution is notorious for its mysteriously unwritten manifestation. This is not strictly true because most of it certainly can be found in written form. However, the provisions are uncodified; the various elements have not been drawn together in a single document grandly entitled ‘The Constitution’. This is just as well for, if all the material was bound together, the British counterpart of the American patriot would be faced, not with a light read, but something approaching the seven labours of Hercules.
The constitution takes this form because throughout history those in power have never wanted to make a dramatic renunciation of the past and start again. If Britain had experienced a popular revolution, then it is likely that the new rulers would have erased all trace of the ancient regime, as has happened with variations, in many polities, including great ones such as France, Russia and the US (and indeed happened briefly in England under the Cromwellian regime).

3. Sources of the constitution
The constitution flows from five sources: royal prerogative, statutes, common law, convention and authoritative opinion.
The royal prerogative This is a set of privileges enjoyed exclusively by monarchs since medieval times. Personal prerogatives are held by the monarch as a person and political prerogatives as head of state. The latter are the most important to the efficient constitution and include the rights to declare war or make peace, pardon criminals, dissolve Parliament, appoint ministers and assent to legislation. With the gradual erosion of the effective powers of the monarchy these ...[have been]..... inherited by the Cabinet and the Prime Minister.
Statute These are no more than ordinary laws passed by Parliament. It is a rather unnerving fact that a law intended to change the constitution is not required to undergo any special procedures, as is usually the case under written constitutions. Thus the monumentally important extensions of the franchise were all made by politically motivated governments with little elevated thought of democratic or constitutional principle 

Statutes override all other constitutional sources. Some, such as the 1688 Bill of Rights (defining the relationship between Crown and Parliament) and the 1701 Act of Settlement (determining the succession) are extremely venerable. More recently, there have been the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 (determining the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament) and the 1963 Peerage Act (enabling peers to renounce their titles). In addition to statutes, and having much the same character and force, are certain revered historical documents, the most notable of which is the Magna Carta. [1215]

Common law This is formed on the basis of precedent [refer back to ‘Justice & the Law’], from an accumulation of decisions made by judges (and juries) in specific legal cases throughout history. The Judicial process is particularly useful for resolving ambiguities in the other constitutional sources. The two great virtues claimed for the common-law element of the constitution are its reflection of the wisdom of the past and its independence from the political process.
Common law accounts for the greatest part of the constitution. Examples from the hundreds of important cases include the Case of Proclamations in 1610 (establishing that the king could not create new offences by issue of a proclamation); Anderson v Corrie in 1895 (which established the immunity of judges for what they said and decided in court); and Bradlaugh v Gossett in 1884 (establishing the supremacy of Parliament over the courts in regulating its own internal affairs).
Conventions These are regularly observed practices, having no legal basis and not enforceable in the courts. All states must evolve conventions to breathe life into their constitutions if they are to be flexible enough to survive. (The conventional elements of the constitution are the most easily changed.) However, in no other countries are conventions as important as in Britain, where they regulate the key processes of government. Democracy itself is based on conventions limiting the prerogative powers of the Crown and enabling them to be exercised by elected leaders. The Cabinet, the epicentre of government, is known only through convention.
In addition, there are many lesser conventions. For example, MPs never tell lies to the House, or to be more precise, no MP ever accuses another of having done so  [this would be ‘unparliamentary language’].... There can be disagreement as to whether or not a convention actually exists. For example, some have argued that in cutting off relations with the TUC, Mrs. Thatcher broke a newly minted convention of consultation with interest groups.
Although conventions may be regarded as the most obviously ‘unwritten’ part of the constitution, they are probably the most written about. This is necessary because there is more need for guidance in an area where the formal law is silent. This leads to the final source 
Authoritative opinion It is considered appropriate that learned works of great authority and wisdom be regarded as legitimate constitutional sources, though there may be difficulty in defining precisely what is meant by authority. Great age is taken as important because it may be presumed that ancient texts distilled the wisdom otherwise lost. Of course not all authorities agree; indeed it is in their nature to be disputatious. The very belief that one can discover the constitution from the authorities of the past is itself open to question.

4. A written constitution?
In spite of the praises heaped on the mysterious virtues of the British constitution, its unwritten, or uncodified, manifestation is not universally acclaimed. Some argued that the twin guarantees of limited government and protection of individual rights would be far safer if codified in the form of a written constitution and placed beyond the meddling hand of the government of the day through entrenchment. This would have implications for parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law and the operation of checks and balances.

A written constitution would mean the end of parliamentary supremacy, some law would have to be so entrenched that they could no longer be changed by normal legislative means, and Parliaments would be bound by the constitutional amendments of their predecessors. Moreover, new laws would be subject to judicial review to ensure their harmony with the fundamental laws. [Note: at present, judges can only question executive actions regarding whether a minister has made a decision by following the proper procedure]. In addition, the Cabinet would be subject to checks from both the Commons and the judiciary. It would even be possible to increase the power of the monarchy and Lords, to provide further counterweights.

The political debate: limited government or individual rights? It must be remembered that constitutional reform is never out of the realm of the political, and choruses of constitutional disapproval are intoned from right and left. However, although employing similar rhetoric, the motives of each are quite different.
The call from the right: limited government The right is haunted by the spectre of ‘big government’, which is seen as directly opposed to the liberalism (minimal government) required by capitalism and established by the nineteenth-century constitution. All extensions to the role of the state are portrayed as the first steps along the dark road to totalitarianism and the right has found much cause for alarm. The social legislation of the late nineteenth century had set restrictions on the hours people could work, regulated conditions in factories and, in the case of children, prevented them from working at all, even insisting that they go to school. The 1909 Liberal government made further inroads with the introduction of national insurance and state pensions [refer to Chapter 10 ‘Welfare’], and two world wars rolled forward the state frontiers into the era of the welfare state. Numerous quangos mushroomed to extend state tentacles onto scientific, industrial, educational and artistic life. In areas such as race relations and gender equality, [laws were] introduced to deny the Englishman his right to express his [opinion of his] racial and sexual superiority. Moreover, such relaxations in state control that did come about were not the sort the right welcomed: the permissive society of the 1960s reduced state regulation of personal morality, even permitting adults to read alarming works about upper-class ladies fornicating with gamekeepers. [refers to D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’].
During the 1960s and 1970s, as Labour looked increasingly like a natural party of government, the right became preoccupied with the idea of a written constitution. The cause was given great prominence by the distinguished Conservative lawyer Lord Hailsham (later Lord Chancellor) in 1976, when he delivered the BBC Dimbleby lecture. He lamented that the British constitution had become an ‘elective dictatorship’, posing a considerable threat to ordinary citizens by its intemperate tendency to interfere with their lives. At the same time the thinkers of the ‘New Right’ were dusting up some archaic nineteenth-century economic theory, which required maximum freedom from the state in order to somersault through an economic time-warp into a pre-Keynesian world of unbridled capitalism. [Keynes advocated some government control over the free market - see Chapter 12 ‘Domestic Economy’]
The advent of the Thatcher government in 1979 produced the opportunity to put these ideas into practice and curb the dangerous threat of ‘elective dictatorship’.  establishment fears for the liberty of the man in the street suddenly evaporated,  the new policies were more concerned with the liberty of the man in the City. The state was certainly rolled back, but the arm of the repressive state was extended to suppress any rising social unrest resulting from the policy.
The call from the left: protecting the individual The interest in liberties is by no means a prerogative of the right. The restoration of ancient medieval rights has been an historic rallying cry for radicals challenging the established order. Today left-wing concern for liberty is institutionalized in bodies such as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), a pressure group established in 1834 by left-wing intellectuals. Although fears associated with police suppression of public disorder were very apparent in the 1970s, the years of the Thatcher government were to see a resurgence of left-wing attention to individual rights.
Of particular concern were the excessive powers of the police to arrest, or harass people on scant evidence of crime; the militaristic use of the police in industrial disputes; the use of the Official Secrets Act to curtail freedom of speech; government secrecy, and electronic surveillance by the state over left-wing or working-class political activists. Thus the case from the left for a written constitution is not to limit the range of government but to entrench that part of the constitution which has guaranteed the individual rights of the citizen from the coercive power of the state.
Unwritten and unknowable?
The fact that the constitution is unwritten means that it can never be said to be entirely known; it is always subject to interpretation and dispute. In defence, it could be argued that the constitution is already a written one which remains uncodified; yet to attempt to codify all the relevant material into a document of manageable size would rob it of its infinite subtlety.  Moreover, the great virtue of flexibility would be sacrificed: no longer could changes take place imperceptibly to accommodate subtle social developments. Lawyers would become overpowerful, their fingers stained by the acrid alchemy of politics; indeed British judges, unaccustomed to meddling in such areas, would be like bishops trying to quell raucous altercations in a whorehouse. With the loss of parliamentary sovereignty would go the sovereignty of the people; non-elected organs of the state (Lords, monarchy, judiciary) would be able to thwart the wishes of an elected government. This would bring an unexpected problem for the left in that a socialist programme could be thwarted by upper-class judges. Moreover, throughout the world evidence suggests that written constitutions do not work with anything like the neatness implied by the legalists, and some countries with model bills of rights are guilty of serious abuses of freedom. Finally it can be argued that the entire exercise would be futile because the reality of the polity lies in the economic power structure of society, which would be unaffected by changes in constitutional architecture.

Recent Developments

However, the vagueness of the unwritten constitution has meant that in reality the checks and balances adjudged necessary for limited and democratic government have in large measure stemmed from the willingness of members of the political elite to observe informal rules or conventions and practise self-restraint. This was a flimsy bulwark, and from the mid-1970s the two-party system began to disintegrate with the emergence of a third political force in the form of the Liberal Democratic Party. After some fluctuations in fortunes, the effect of the change was to give the Conservatives a seemingly impregnable hold on office so that, under Margaret Thatcher, they began to ride roughshod over conventional niceties such as respect for opponents, consultation with affected interests, acceptance of local democracy, and so on.

In December 1988 citizens roused by this erosion of rights formed a Charter 88 movement calling for a written constitution conferring a Bill of Rights, the rule of law, open government, electoral reform., reform of the House of Lords, greater control over the executive, independence of the judiciary, legal remedies for abuse of power by the state and protection of local government. This movement was unique in that it brought together as bedfellows figures from both left, right and centre of the political spectrum.
The European Convention on Human Rights is an international treaty containing a statement of some basic human rights such as right to life, prohibition of torture, right to a fair trial, right to respect for family and private life, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Most Convention rights can be limited by public authorities under certain circumstances. Individual rights sometimes have to be balanced against one another or the wider public interest. Britain had ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951 but had not enacted it into law. Thus, although British citizens could not use the Convention as a basis for taking a case to the domestic courts, they could use it to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights once they have exhausted the judicial avenues available to them at home. The court had found British governments in violation of human rights on a number of occasions (homosexual rights, immigration, telephone tapping,.)
The new Labour Government elected in 1997 responded to these concerns with The Human Rights Act 1998. The Act requires all public authorities, including courts of law, to act in accordance with the Convention rights (unless an Act of Parliament leaves no choice). The Act enables an individual to rely on those rights in any legal proceedings and to bring a claim against a public authority which has acted incompatibly with those rights. The Act requires a court to give effect to legislation, as far as possible in a way that is compatible with convention rights. A court cannot declare invalid an Act of Parliament which is incompatible with the Convention, but the higher courts may make a declaration of incompatibility. It will be up to Parliament to decide what action to take, if any, following such a declaration.
Britain has gone some way therefore towards incorporating codified rights in its constitution, but this remains in balance with the sovereignty of Parliament and the many other unwritten conventions by which the British government works in practice.

5. The powers of the House of Lords
The powers of the House of Lords have been considerably reduced in the twentieth century yet it remains a significant if not major check in the House of Commons. It is because the Upper House retains its capacity to damage and delay if not destroy Commons (largely government) legislation that it has been subject to major reforms in its composition. (see Students Book)
By convention, the House of Lords is part of the legislative sovereign- ‘the Queen-in-parliament’. Constitutionally, therefore, despite its reduced powers, the Upper House remains an essential part of the legislative process. By the Parliament Act of 1911, the Lords completely lost its power to delay or amend money bills; these go for the Royal Assent one month after leaving the House of Commons, whether approved by the Lords or not. But it retained other powers which included the power to delay non-money bills for up to two successive sessions (reduced to one session only by the Parliament Act of 1949). The present powers and functions of the House of Lords may be conveniently summarised as follows:

  1. to delay non-money bills for up to one parliamentary session/year;

  2. to revise House of Commons legislation, giving Ministers an opportunity for second thoughts and allowing pressure-group points to be considered;

  3. to veto (a) bills to prolong the life of parliament, (b) provisional order bills and (c) delegated legislation;

  4. to initiate non-controversial legislation (in fact, about one quarter of all Government legislation since 1945 has been introduced in the House of Lords);

  5. to exercise certain scrutiny functions on Private Bills, Statutory Instruments and the European Communities;

  6. to carry out a judicial role, hearing appeals in the Appellate Committee and in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council;

  7. to conduct a deliberative role by holding debates on contemporary issues.

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