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Chapter 6: Politics in Britain

Democracy in Action?


Das Vereinigte Königreich wird oft als „Wiege der Demokratie“ apostrophiert, und die lange Tradition des parlamentarischen Systems ist der Stolz der Briten – einerseits. Andererseits sind negative Seiten der Politik ein Dauerthema der Boulevardpresse: Ange­fan­gen bei Liebesaffären eines Abgeordneten bis zu den Skandalen um die Ehen der Royals – es gibt nichts, was die Massenblätter auslassen würden, um ihre Leser an der Glaubwürdigkeit der Repräsentanten ihres Lan­des zweifeln zu lassen. Doch auch in seriösen Zei­tungen wird die Frage diskutiert, ob das britische Kö­nigs­haus tatsächlich im 21. Jahrhundert weiterleben werde, und das britische Wahlsystem, das lange Zeit eine Dominanz der beiden großen poli­ti­schen Parteien garantierte, wird immer deut­li­cher als re­formbedürftig kritisiert.

Diese Themen werden in diesem Kapitel behandelt, und es kommt noch ein weiteres Thema hinzu, für das Großbritannien ebenfalls die Urheberschaft bean­spru­chen darf: Der Streik als Mittel der Aus­einan­derset­zung in einem demokratischen System.

Course Manager

6a Politics in Britain: Glossary


“How Representative Is Parliament?”*

text type: (excerpt from) article

length: 959 words

degree of difficulty: **; 50 annotations and
14 explanations

theme: a discussion about how far the British parliament is truly representative of the British people

Magna Carta
(facsimile and transcription of beginning)

Importance of politics (2 quotations)

The House of Lords, The House of Commons
(2 photographs, 1 quotation)

Credibility of political parties
(2 cartoons)


Antony Jay
“A ‘United’ Kingdom:
The Role of the Monarchy”*

text type: article

length: 636 words

degree of difficulty: **; 24 annotations

theme: arguments in favour of the monarchy

The state opening of parliament


“Our far-flung empire...”

Satirical view of the royal family (Spitting Image)

6b Tony Benn: “Republicanism in the Nineties”


The Myth of the ‘Unwritten’ British Constitution*

text type: information sheet

length: 253 words

degree of difficulty: **; 20 annotations and
10 explanations

theme: clarification of some key concepts and principles underlying the British constitution

The Houses of Parliament


“Can Mr Burke produce the English constitution?”


“Electoral Reform: Which System Is Best?”*

text type: newspaper article

length: 296 words

degree of difficulty: *; 13 annotations and
10 explanations

theme: advantages and disadvantages of different electoral systems

“Democracy is...”


“Opinion polls”


“Should We Ban Strikes in Key Public Services?”

text type: newspaper article and readers’ letters

length: 475 and 554 words

degree of difficulty: **; 65 annotations and
11 explanations

theme: arguments for and against allowing strikes in important industries and services

Staff of British Telecom demonstrate for better pay

“You’re not happy here, are you?”

The Texts


“How Representative Is Parliament?”*

Background information

The British people are imperfectly represented by parliament in a number of different ways. This is true, first, in terms of the people and groups of people to be found there. Men are in the vast majority in the Brit­ish parliament, both House of Commons and House of Lords. The number of women in the House of Com­mons – 60 out of 651 (at the 1992 election) – is not of course proportionate to the number of women in the population. Britain, like Germany (in 1985 9.8 % women in the Bundestag) and the United States (in 1985 4.5 % in Congress), has a relatively low number of women in its parliament. In other countries women are better represented: (all figures for 1985) Iceland 15 %, China 21.2 %, Norway 23 %, Hungary 23.3 %, Denmark 25.7 %, Sweden 28.9 %, Finland 30.5 %.

Many other groups are also under-represented. There are (1992) only six black and Asian MPs (five Labour and one Conservative). Certain jobs, occupa­tions and professions are also over- or under­repre­sented. There are 109 barristers, solicitors, doctors, dentists, architects/surveyors, accountants, 38 com­pany directors, 83 company executives, and 42 jou­rnalists in the House of Commons; there are six housewives, 63 skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, and no students represented there. If we examine the education of MPs there is an even greater imbalance. 36 MPs went to Eton; a total of 258 were educated at independent or public schools; 207 went to the universities of Oxford and Cam­bridge; only 53 MPs had just a secondary education. Only one MP was aged under 30 in 1992 and only two were over 70. The largest group of MPs (253) fell into the 40-49 age band, followed by 201 in the 50 to 59 age band.

Second, elections are infrequent. This means that parliament does not represent current opinion on im­portant issues of the day or reflect changing public opinion.

Third, many votes are wasted. This refers to those votes cast for candidates who are not elected and is especially the case in so-called ‘safe’ seats, which make up two-thirds of all seats.

Fourth, the first past the post voting system does not translate the number of votes cast into a corre­sponding number of seats.

Fifth, the House of Lords, an undemocratic institu­tion since its members are there by appointment or birth, can delay and amend legislation.

Sixth, the desire of MPs to further their careers may prevent some of them from expressing their true opinions or from reflecting the views of their con­stituents for fear this will offend those in the govern­ment who might offer them a post.

Seventh, the civil service, although meant to be non-political, will to some extent influence govern­ment decisions. Like pressure groups, the civil service is not democratically accountable.

Eighth, pressure groups can, by means of open or secret campaigns, influence government decisions by targeting the civil service, members of the govern­ment, and MPs.

Note: there are a number of other ways, not men­tioned in the text, in which parliament is unrepresen­tative. First, the size of the 651 constituencies and therefore the value of each vote varies widely. The smallest constituency, the Western Isles, with 23,000 electors is under a quarter of the size of the constitu­ency with the largest number of electors, the Isle of Wight, with 99,000.

Second, Scotland and Wales are over-represented, and England is under-represented, in terms of seats in the House of Commons. Both Scotland and Wales have more seats – Scotland has 72 and Wales has 38 – than they should have if seats were distributed across Great Britain equally according to population. This introduces a third distortion into the sytem. Since many of the seats in Wales and Scotland are not only contested by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat but also by Nationalist candidates, the four­cornered fight means that a candidate can win with a very small minority vote, as happened in Inverness in Scotland in the 1992 general election:

Liberal Democrat 13, 258 votes (26.0%)

Labour 12, 800 votes (25.1%)

Scottish Nationalist Party 12, 562 votes (24.7%)

Conservative 11, 517 votes (22.6%)

Green 776 votes ( 1.5%)

The Text

As the title makes clear, this text summarises in a succinct fashion the arguments that can be put for­ward to support the assertion that representative de­mocracy is subject to a great number of constraints, and that the British version of this political system is subject to more than most. It also provides a starting point for dealing with those elements and institutions which are central to the British political system – elections, parties, the prime minister, the civil service, and pressure groups.

Suggested Answers


1 Use the following headings for a comparison between the British and German political systems:



electoral system

upper house

lower house

head of state

head of govt.

structure of state

names of parties / what they stand for

Ask your students to put the following terms under the correct heading (Germany or Britain) next to the correct sub-headings (lower house, etc.): unitary/federal; proportional representation/“first past the post”; elected/hereditary; leader of party/selected by party.


2 Women are not fully represented; elections are infrequent; some votes are wasted – those cast for candidates who are not elected; this is especially the case in safe seats, those in which one of the parties is almost certain to win; under the “first past the post” system small parties with low national support, such as the Green Party, have little chance of success.

3 It can delay legislation passed by the House of Commons for one year. It can revise and amend laws passed by the House of Commons.

4 MPs usually vote as their party dictates; this is called “party discipline.”

5 He called it an “elective dictatorship” because, as a result of party discipline, the majority party usually wins all the votes in the House of Commons and there is little that opposition parties can do to change this.

6 Civil servants have specialised knowledge and experience which often enables them to outwit politicians. Also the civil service is so large that it is difficult to control.

7 MPs listen to all types of pressure groups, such as businesses and trade unions.


8 It can only be justified for an MP elected in a safe seat (but note that the general election of 1 May 1997 made it clear that there are very few (Conservative) safe seats). The text largely contradicts Hacker’s view: MPs are not elected as individuals, they are usually elected because of the party they represent; when it comes to voting in the House of Commons, they have to obey the party line, which is determined by the prime minister; if MPs want promotion, they have to make themselves acceptable to the party leadership. However, as we have seen from the last years of John Major’s government (1992-1997), if the governing party has a small majority, if the party is divided on a particular issue, and if the leader is weak, MPs can make life very uncomfortable for the party leadership.


9 Some suggestions for reform:

• Introduce proportional representation (But which system? See Text 4 “Electoral Reform: Which Sys­tem is Best?”)

• Abolish the House of Lords (But what would re­place it? An appointed or elected chamber? If elected, on what basis and by what electoral sys­tem? In what ways should it be different from the House of Commons?)

• Enable more women and people from ethnic mi­norities to enter parliament (But how? By quotas? By special lists?)

• Change the frequency of elections (Should there be more elections or perhaps more referendums? Should a government’s maximum term of office be reduced from five years to, say, four as in Ger­many?)

• What to do about “safe seats”? (Are they unavoid­able, or could something be done to make constitu­encies more equal as regards the numbers of elec­tors in each party, or should there just be a list sys­tem?)

• Can and should the power of the parties and of the prime minister be reduced to enable MPs to vote more often according to their conscience, or would this have some undesirable effects?

• Should the civil service become more politicised to make it more reliable and obedient, i.e. should more civil servants be political appointees rather than ca­reer civil servants?

• Pressure groups: how should their influence be controlled? How far should MPs declare fees that they have received for promoting particular causes?

10 The House of Lords:


• hereditary peers are in theory more independent of the party line than MPs;

• experts in particular fields can be brought into parliament as life peers;

• because of their age, members usually have a vast amount of experience upon which to base decisions.


• neither hereditary nor life peers are democratically accountable to anyone;

• life peers are appointed by the prime minister and their appointment is a result of political influence;

• hereditary peers come from a very narrow social class, and are usually conservative in outlook and supporters of the Conservative Party;

• members are said to be too old to be able to keep in touch with current events.


11 Include: number of members; number of electors they each represent; term of office; party membership and coalitions; seating arrangement.

12 Include: party leader/candidate; term of office; party membership and dependence on coalition partners; relationship to head of state; image and age.


Antony Jay
“A ‘United’ Kingdom: The Role of the Monarchy”

Background information

When some of the functions of a hereditary monarchy were put to the British public in a public opinion poll in 1988 (see Bill Jones et al., Politics UK (Hemel Hempstead: Philip Allan, 1991), p. 299), a large ma­jority thought the following to be ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important:

1 represent the UK at home and abroad;

2 set standards of citizenship and family life;

3 unite people despite differences;

4 ensure the armed forces give allegiance to the Crown rather than the government;

5 maintain continuity of British traditions;

6 preserve a Christian morality.

Supporters of the royal family think that only a hereditary monarchy would perform these functions satisfactorily.

1 Representation of the UK at Home and Abroad

This is a symbolic function to which a monarch is particularly well suited since he or she is not attached to a political party. The President of the United States and the President of France are heads of state and heads of government and therefore practising politi­cians. As such they are involved in the conflicts and controversies of everyday politics. The German presi­dent, who is no longer a practising politician, was a politician, and may have residual party loyalties and may express partisan views which antagonise sections of the public. In addition, the symbolism, the history and the pageantry which surround monarchs make them a powerful source of media and public interest at home and abroad. Whatever the real powers of the British monarchy, the British royal family is always assured of a great deal of attention.

2 Setting Standards of Citizenship and Family Life

They are actively involved in the work of charities and voluntary organisations such as the Save the Children Fund. They also epitomise what many peo­ple like to think of as an ‘ideal family’. Since the failed marriages of Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales, of Prince Andrew and Lady Sarah Ferguson, and the divorce of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden, their appeal in this respect has dimin­ished considerably.

3 Uniting People despite Differences

The monarch symbolises the unity of the nation. The Queen is head of state and the various organs of the state operate in the monarch’s name: the government, (Her Majesty’s Government), the Opposition (Her Majesty’s Opposition), public prosecutions, and the armed services. The Queen speaks of My Govern­ment, My Ministers, My soldiers (who go to war and die for Queen and Country), and of My people or My subjects. The monarch provides a clear focus for na­tional pride and national unity which transcends po­litical activity. This unpolitical loyalty to the nation and its head of state are only possible, its supporters would maintain, in a hereditary monarchy.

4 Allegiance of the Armed Forces

Ensuring that the armed forces give their allegiance to the Crown rather than to the government is an impor­tant function. This allegiance is underlined by the close relationship between the royal family and the armed services. Members of the royal family serve in either the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force or the Army, some hold ceremonial rank as Colonel-in-Chief of a particular regiment, and the Queen takes a close interest in military matters. Such a relationship emphasises the apolitical role of the British armed forces and provides a safeguard if the military should ever seek to overthrow or threaten an elected govern­ment. This is again a role many would say is best carried out by a hereditary family with a long tradition of involvement in the armed services.

5 Maintaining Continuity of British Traditions

Change is a feature of all democratic governments. Continuity is provided by the civil service and the monarchy. The continuity of the monarchy consists of living historical traditions, many of which are of great symbolic significance: the state opening of parliament and the Trooping of the Colour; others have a social meaning: garden parties and the awarding of honours. Each year some 30,000 people are invited to royal garden parties – few decline the invitation.

6 Preserving a Christian Morality

The Queen is the head of the Church of England. At the coronation ceremony the Archbishop of Can­terbury crowns and anoints the monarch. Bishops are appointed by the Crown, acting on the advice of the prime minister. Even though fewer than one in 20 of the adult British population are members of the Church of England, and even though the royal family’s attitudes towards such matters as divorce are more relaxed than they were, the British public still look to them as symbols of a basically Christian morality.

Those who criticise the monarchy point out that the monarchy

1 has considerable residual powers within the consti­tution which have no democratic legitimation,

2 is unrepresentative,

3 is overly expensive,

4 is unnecessary.

1 Royal Powers within the Constitution

As the “guardian of the Constitution” with the duty of “upholding the law” the British monarch has three formal and potentially highly influential powers which he or she exercises without the advice of the current prime minister (Ferdinand Mount, The British Constitution Now (London: Heinemann, 1992), pp. 9/97). These are:

– The selection of the prime minister: this is normally no problem if the election produces an outright winning party, since the monarch then chooses the leader of the largest party in the House of Comrnons (which is usually, but not always, the party with an overall majority). If, however, an election were to result in a hung parliament – one in which no party had an overall majority – the Queen would have real power to choose a government. Britain’s first past the post electoral system has in the past made hung parliaments unlikely. They are now increasingly possible as voters move away from the two main parties, and if Britain changed to a system of proportional representation they would probably occur frequently. The monarch would then be involved in highly delicate political negotiations and would certainly open up the monarchy to charges of partisanship.

– The dissolution of parliament: theoretically the monarch can both refuse to dissolve parliament and dissolve parliament before it has reached the end of its full five-year term. Constitutional experts think such action would be justified if a government tried to push through legislation which was considered unconstitutional, such as the abolition of the monar­chy or of the House of Lords. But the problem here is: who decides whether the legis­lation is unconsti­tutional? This itself is a political act and would mean that the monarch would be making partisan decisions.

– The dismissal of the government: this power is highly controversial and was last exercised by William IV in 1834. Whether a monarch could still dismiss a government or whether this power is in abeyance is the subject of debate among constitu­tional experts.

Views of the ‘real’ powers of the monarch vary widely; they range from Jeremy Paxman’s dismissive comment that: “The formal powers of the royal family have diminished as the yardage about them in the newspapers has grown” (Jeremy Paxman, Friends in High Places (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 57) to Ferdinand Mount’s statement that in certain ex­treme situations “the Queen [...] is clearly visible as the guardian of the Constitution. It is in such moments that her Coronation Oath – to govern according to law [...] is put to its most crucial test” (op. cit., p. 97).

2 The Unrepresentative Nature of the Monarchy

The monarchy is unrepresentative on two counts: it is not a freely elected institution and it is not socially representative. It can be argued therefore that a hereditary head of state is out of place in a democracy and reinforces a social hierarchy based on privilege and inherited wealth.

3 Overly Expensive

The Queen is believed to be among the world’s rich­est women and may possibly be the richest. Details of her personal fortune are not made public and esti­mates of her wealth vary widely, from £4.5 billion (Fortune Magazine in 1985) to £6.7 billion (Sunday Times in 1990). This fortune was exempt of all taxes from 1936 until 1993. For carrying out public duties the Queen, as head of state, and other members of the royal family are paid expenses from the Civil List, money granted to them by parliament. In total the state paid the Queen and ten other members of the royal family approximately £20 million a year to cover staff costs, the upkeep of royal residences, the cost of functions and transportation, and maintenance of the royal yacht Britannia and of the Queen’s aircraft (Politics UK, p. 308). In 1993 the government and the royal family put forward proposals to reduce the cost of the monarchy. The Queen agreed to pay income tax (but not capital gains or inheritance tax) and payments from the Civil List for public duties are to be limited to the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother (the mother of Queen Elizabeth).

Supporters of the monarchy would argue that this is money well spent, not only from a constitutional point of view, but because of the money that the royal fam­ily earns for Britain in the form of revenues from tourism and because of the public relations value of the royals to British industry. It has been estimated that in 1981, the year Prince Charles and Lady Diana got married, foreign tourists bought souvenirs valued at £200 million. The state also gains an income (£45 million in 1980) from Crown Lands surrendered to the state in 1761 in return for the annual income from the Civil List.

4 The Royal Family is Unnecessary

The critics advocating the views expressed in the first two points would not necessarily wish to abolish the monarchy. They might be satisfied with its reform. Those who argue it is unnecessary would want to do away with it entirely (Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass – Britain and its Monarchy (London: Century Hutchinson Radius, 1988); Egar Wilson, The Myth of the British Monarchy (London: Journeyman/Republic, 1989)). They state that the monarchy forms part of a conservative establishment that has no place in a democratic society, and that it is arbitrary, unrepre­sentative, unaccountable, and socially divisive. All the duties performed by the royal family could be carried out by an elected president more cheaply, more effectively and more democratically.

The Text

The aims of this chapter are to get students to think about the necessity, functions and role of a head of state and to consider possible advantages and disad­vantages of having a monarch as head of state.

This text and 6b (Tony Benn: “Republicanism in the Nineties”) consider the contemporary role of the monarchy in Britain. While students may know some details about the British royal family, their knowledge will perhaps be limited to that obtained from mass circulation newspapers and magazines. They will probably not be aware of the complex, controversial and mysterious functions of the monarch within the political system and will only have a vague idea of the monarch’s social role.

Suggested Answers


1 Anarchists (those who believe that government is intrin­sically evil) deny that either a head of state or a head of government are necessary. A head of gov­ernment can carry out the functions of head of state (e.g. the United States). Or the two offices can be separated, as in Britain and Germany. In these two countries the head of state has no direct political function but is mainly ceremonial. A distinction between the two offices of head of state and of gov­ernment is considered useful by some people since the head of state can be a non-political figure who is a focus for loyalty and patriotism, whereas the head of government is a politician who actually exercises power.

2 Advantages of having a monarch as head of state:

– non-political;

– no elections needed, therefore not politically divi­sive but a unifying figure;

– gives a sense of continuity from one generation to another.

Disadvantages of having a monarch as head of state:

– comes from a very restricted social group, therefore could be socially divisive;

– dangerous to rely on hereditary gifts;

– a monarch may be born who is particularly stupid or incompetent;

– difficult to get rid of.


3 Arguments in support of the monarchy:

– provides a focus for emotions of pride, patriotism and loyalty;

– expresses a sense of nationhood;

– represents the whole nation in a way a politician cannot;

– is politically impartial;

– is a force for national unity.

Arguments against an elected president:

– cannot represent the whole nation because of his/her political role;

– will be unknown to many people.

4 The monarchy has a) the political, ceremonial, for­mal role of “presiding over and authorising the activi­ties of the government” (44-45); b) the personal and emotional role of being a focus of the people’s sense of pride, loyalty and patriotism.

5 He claims that the monarchy is not such an un­democratic institution after all because each monarch has to gain the respect of the people and cannot rely on the past; if the people really did not want the mon­archy, it would not survive.


6 A battlefield: largely negative; politics characterized by conflict, controversy, animosity, disagreement, insults, winners and losers, and self-interest.

A family circle: largely positive, characterized by harmony, loyalty, selflessness, service, peace, love and affection.

7 Pride: we feel better about ourselves, respect our­selves more if we feel good about our country; it enables us to identify with and respect the achieve­ments of others, such as great athletes, who belong to the same country.

Patriotism: positive feelings about our country which reflect back on ourselves; the feeling that we belong to a country and that that country is special in some way(s); a monarchy strengthens this feeling of identi­fication with the country because it is personal, it consists of a family which in many ways is just like any other.

Loyalty: remaining faithful to and supporting one’s country; this feeling is promoted by the monarchy and the personal feelings we have towards it.

Affection: gentle feeling of love which would not usually be applied to a country but rather to people. We can feel affection for the monarchy as real people and these feelings are transferred to the country which the monarchy represents.

8 The author is implying that democracy tends to be unstable since it involves frequent changes of gov­ernment. This can be unsettling for many people and needs to be compensated for by continuity and stabil­ity. The monarchy is one way of providing such sta­bility and continuity.

9 The writer uses

a) words and phrases which he assumes have positive connotations but which in fact have only vague deno­tational meanings: “focus” (11, 20, 23, 46), “symbol” (20), “expression” (20, 23), “nationhood” (12, 48), “pride” (13, 17, 19, 47), “patriotism” (13, 19), “loy­alty” (13, 42), “battlefield” (26), “family” (8, 27, 49);

b) unsubstantiated and suggestive statements that seem to state the obvious and so assume the agree­ment of the reader: “pride and patriotism find their expression ...” (19-20) and “It is difficult for an elected president to represent all the nation” (28-29);

c) non sequiturs, incorrect logical inferences: “we only have to look at [the former] Yugoslavia to see what happens when national unity is broken ...” (58-59); cf. how Czechoslovakia broke up peacefully; Belgium has internal conflicts in spite of having a monarchy; Switzerland has few community problems and is not a monarchy.


10 Antony Jay has managed to change my opinion about the monarchy. Up till now, I always felt that the British were spending far too much money on an outdated and sometimes farcical institution whilst putting forward spurious arguments for keeping it. This text has made me realize that there is far more to having a hereditary monarchy than I previously con­sidered, so I could not imagine Britain without its Queen and Royal Family.

Antony Jay’s article has only served to reinforce my opinion of the British and their monarchy. It remains a mystery to me why, in this day and age, when everybody is talking about cutting costs and streamlining organisations, they still spend so much on maintaining an antiquated institution and are even proud of it. If they want to play an important role in Europe in the future, the British should reduce the influence of the Queen and the royal family.

11/12 Before tackling these questions students could try to define the concepts of “state”, “nation-state” and “nation”. The following definitions are from:

David Robertson, The Penguin Dictionary of Politics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 307f., 224f., 223.


It is easier to define it negatively; the State is, for example, opposed to the mere ‘government’. Gov­ernments come and go, at least in democracies, without changing the State. In a different way the State is often opposed, by political theorists, to what they call the CIVIL SOCIETY, where civil society means the whole range of organized and permanent institutions and behavioural practices like the econ­omy, churches, schools and family patterns that make up our ordinary life under the ultimate control of the coercive force of politics. The State means, essentially, the whole fixed political system, the set-up of authoritative and legitimately powerful roles by which we are finally controlled, ordered and or­ganized. Thus the POLICE, the ARMY, the CIVIL SERVICE are aspects of the State, as is PARLIA­MENT and perhaps local authorities. But many in­stitutions with a great deal of actual power, TRADE UNIONS for example, are not part of the state, be­cause they are voluntary organizations which we could, at least hypothetically, do without, and espe­cially because they directly represent one section of society against another. [...] For this reason political parties are not part of the state [...] and the govern­ments formed by them are not quite seen as part of the state. The trouble comes when one has to recog­nize that the offices of, say, Prime Minister or Presi­dent, which depend entirely on parties for their fill­ing and operation, are state offices, even though neither the parties that compete for them, nor the actual individuals filling them are, in their own right, parts of the State [...]


Nation-state describes a context in which the whole of a geographical area that is the homeland for people who identify themselves as a community because of shared culture, history, and probably language and ethnic character, is governed by one political system. Such contexts are the common ex­perience today, but are not necessarily more natural than other forms that have been common in history. There were, after all, no nation states in Classical Greece, though there was clearly a Greek nation, which sensed that all Greeks had more in common than a Greek with a barbarian, and shared language, religion, culture and historical identity. [...]


[...] No obvious technical definition exists, but any working definition in the social sciences would include most of the following criteria. A nation is a body of people who see part at least of their identity in terms of a single communal identity with some considerable historical continuity of union, with major elements of common culture, and with a sense of geographical location at least for a good part of those who make up the nation. The difficulty of definition arises from the way in which all of these criteria may be false in any set of examples. For ex­ample, while Belgium is clearly a nation, the sharp, and historically long-term, divide along both relig­ious and linguistic dimensions between the Walloon (French-speaking) and Flemish (Dutch-speaking) people and the fact that Belgium only existed in its present form from the mid-19th century, seem to counter the definition. Similarly nations can exist despite extensive dispersion geographically – there are very many Chinese outside China as well as in it, whilst Poland continued to exist as a nation throughout several lengthy periods when it had no official existence on any map of Europe. [...]




15 –

16 Note to the teacher: The teacher will most proba­bly have to assume the function of chairperson, en­suring that the debate is held according to the rules; pupils will have to prepare their speeches as lectures at home, and might even be “rewarded” by having them marked!

Alternatively, the teacher can start off by describing the procedure to the class (see also  Reference Library, p. 286); then one of the pupils can be chairperson. The following description may be helpful.

Holding a Debate

A debate follows a definite formal procedure. The participants are: a chairperson, a proposer, who pro­poses a motion; a seconder, who supports the pro­poser; an opposer, who opposes the motion, and a seconder, who supports the opposer.

A chairperson puts forward the motion in the form “This House believes that...” The proposer makes a speech which supports the motion. The opposer makes a speech which opposes the motion. The pro­poser’s seconder makes a speech which takes up and criticises the points made by the opposer and the op­poser’s seconder makes a speech which attacks the points made by the proposer.

The motion is now thrown open to the floor of the House, which means that the rest of the class can take part in the debate by making short speeches which support or oppose the motion. The two seconders can participate in this part of the debate by answering points made from the floor. When everyone who wishes to has spoken, the proposer sums up the argu­ments for the motion and criticises the arguments that have been put forward against it. The opposer does the same, but against the motion. Finally, the motion is put to a vote, which is usually an open show of hands. People vote according to the skill of the speak­ers and the persuasiveness of the arguments.


The Myth of the ‘Unwritten’ British Constitution

Background information

The signing of Magna Carta was an early manifesta­tion of the rule of law, which applied as much to monarchs as to their subjects. It led Britain down the road of parliamentary power, parliamentary sover­eignty and finally to parliamentary democracy.

What led to the signing of Magna Carta? It took place during the reign of King John (1199-1216), the youngest son of Henry II, who was faced with formi­dable problems. The large and powerful empire in­herited from his father, which stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees, covering all of the Western half of France, was starting to crumble. In­flation was reducing the value of royal revenues. As a result he was forced to levy frequent taxes and restrict the use of forests, which were a profitable source of income. Taxes were also raised to finance his wars in France. Not only was the level of taxation increas­ingly felt to be oppressive, but as G.R.C. Davies points out:

the methods by which taxation was assessed and collected were arbitrary and extortionate; reprisals against defaulters were ruthless and brutal; for wrongs there was no redress (G.R.C. Davies, Magna Carta (London: The British Library, 1985), p. 10).

After an attempt by John to regain lost lands in France, a rebellion of powerful barons broke out in England in which the rebels devised a new focus for revolt: a programme of reform based on the ancient liberties of the kingdom as set out in the laws and charters of previous kings. In 1215, after they had captured London, the rebels forced John to accept the terms laid out in a document which came to be known as Magna Carta. The formal acceptance took place on 15 June at Runnymede, a meadow conveniently situ­ated beside the Thames between the royal castle of Windsor and the baronial camp at Staines.

Magna Carta was the result of demands made on King John by a powerful group of barons, churchmen and some citizens of the City of London in early 13th century England after they had rebelled against his authority. It was then little more than a treaty between the king and these groups, which served to define the king’s feudal powers and some of the subject’s judi­cial rights. In no sense was it a reflection of popular discontent or of a movement towards democracy. Nor was it, at first, a constitutional document, since there was no constitution or any authority to enforce one. It did not embody the principle of no taxation without representation. It did not guarantee parliamentary government, since parliament did not then exist.

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