Politics in the UK: Historical Evolution and Political Institutions
I. Political Development
- Violence and revolution are common features of 20th century domestic politics throughout the world, including even in the US. Yet for the past 300+ years in the UK, domestic political differences have been settled w/o resort to revolution or violent civil war
- while there has been much change in England over those years (industrialization, imperialism, lost of empire, the creation of a welfare state, the move away from the welfare state under Thatcher and now the move to devolution under Blair) the change has occurred gradually & relatively peacefully
Question: How did GB develop so “peacefully?”
1) Centralization of Authority
- England achieved ntl unity fairly early, relative to France and other continental European countries—around the 11th and 12th centuries
- Consolidation in England occurred relatively peacefully for various reasons.
- One of the most important was the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066.
-William, Duke of Normandy
- In 1066 William Duke of Normandy (France) engineered the last successful invasion of Britain in 1066: he invaded w/a force drawn from all over France and defeated English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings
- He brought w/him his own nobility & a plan to organize & govern England
- William replaced the entire English ruling class w/Norman (French) nobles and his rule was backed by brutal military power and much better administration plan and so political stability and centralization was brought to England relatively early: earlier than in continental Europe
- however, while sovereign power resided in the Monarch, British Kings were still expected to consult w/the earls, barons, and leading clergymen (i.e., nobility) in order to declare laws and levy taxes
- This expectation (of consultation) was finally documented in the Great Charter or Magna Carta of 1215, by which King John recognized it as a right of his subjects “to have common council of the kingdom” for the assessment of extraordinary aids—taxation, crafting law, milt conscription
-The Magna Carta, or "Great Charter"
- Such consultation was undertaken thru a Great Council, from which evolved what was to be recognized as a Parliament.
- While power was still largely in the hands of the King who ruled by divine right, he was nonetheless required to consult before levying taxes or making law
- As time wore tensions b/n the crown and parliament grew.
- Parliament got a major boost during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) when he declared a partnership w/the Parliament in his struggle w/Rome (wanted a divorce cause Catherine couldn’t bear him male child, Pope wouldn’t grant it so Henry w/Parliament bolted Catholic Church and created Church of England): granted divorce
-Henry VIII -The many wives of old Henre!
- Eventually the tensions b/n the institutions boiled over, as the efforts of the Stuarts (Charles I and James II) to centralize authority in the 1600s led to all out war b/n Crown & Parliament
- Charles I took England to unsuccessful wars w/Spain and France which increased his desperation for $ and he tried to levy taxes w/o consent of the Parliament
-Charles in Charge -Charles I and his Queen, Henrietta Maria
- Parliament balked and civil war broke out. Charles was captured , tried, and beheaded in 1649. From 1649-1660 England had no King
-the execution of Charles I -Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the "new Protectorate"
- James II (1685-88) tried to win back divine right of monarchs, but lost and was forced by the Parliament to flee the country (to France)
-King James II
- William and Mary came to power, and Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 was proclaimed
- 1689--Bill of Rights published—made clear the supremacy of Parliament over the monarch--now illegal for the king to raise taxes or pass laws w/o the agreement of Parliament—impt b/c went beyond Magna Carta
-William and Mary -Presentation of the Declaration of Rights
- Over time, the Parliament continued to gain power and the monarchy became a purely symbolic institution
- By 19th century, GB still a limited democracy and Parliament still dominated by the aristocracy thru H of Lords
- However, the new class of industrialists and entrepreneurs found this unacceptable and pressure for change led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, which extended the franchise/vote to about 300,000 men, and further reduced aristocratic power
- Reform Act 1867 increased franchise to another 2.7M men; More reform in 1884-85 increased suffrage even more and by 1918 ALL women could vote—so by 1918 Britain had an electoral system based on universal suffrage
- Parliamentary Acts in 1911 stripped all the remaining significant powers away from the aristocratic House of Lords and so reform of the system that made Britain a more substantive and expansive democracy was complete
II. Political Institutions
1. In his classic commentary on the British political system—The English Constitution, published in 1867—constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot described British political institutions as being either “dignified” or “efficient”
-Walter Bagehot -You know...look above
- The dignified elements—such as the House of Lords and the monarchy—are symbolic and decorative and have little real power
- The efficient elements—such as the House of Commons, the cabinet, and the office of the PM—are the parts w/real political power and with which Britain “works and rules”.
2. Policy-Making Structures
Page of links to all things "officially" British
Parliament: effectively unicameral
a. House of Lords: the House of Lords is the so-called upper house, but really an anachronistic throwback to the days when Britain was ruled by aristocrats
- it is a prime example of what Bagehot called a “dignified” institution---referred to by MPs as “the other place”
- 715 men and women sit in this body; the job is unpaid and daily attendance is about 300, unpaid, Avg Age = 69
- (1) the 26 Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England (“Lords Spiritual”)
- (2) Life peers Frequently people near retirement age w/established reps in Commons/other areas of public life, and as a reward are given a peerage for life by the Queen on recommendation of the PM. About 1000 LPs (these folks now have the power in the Lords)
- (3) Law Lords—consist of 21 nominated judges who are the court of last resort in GB…work in teams of 5
- In reality the Lords have little real power: it can introduce, revise, or delay legislation
- but most of its decisions can be overruled by the Commons
- Generally what the Lords do best is debate: and b/c its members don’t have to stand for re-election they often debate controversial issues such as abortion, etc.
b. House of Commons: The House of Commons is the more powerful part of Parliament and a primary example of what Bagehot called an “efficient” institution
- The Commons are set out like a church b/c it originally met in a chapel and consists of 659 Members of Parliament (or MPs) who are elected by direct universal vote from single-member districts
- Parliament functions differently than the US Congress b/c of the fusion of executive and legislative authority.
- Functions: (1) Talking (debating about legislation; (2) PM Qtime (gives backbenchers chance to debate before govt acts); (3) Scrutinze (public policy before enacted); (4) Publicizing Issues (thru media and in Parliament)
- In fact, the Commons as a whole really plays a very limited role in policy making as the large majority of the bills are written by the Cabinet and merely passed by Parliament
- On average, 97% of the bills introduced by the govt (ie the Cabinet) in the 1945-2000 period have passed—Concept: “disciplined parties”
The Executive: PM and Cabinet (15 ministries)
-British PM David Cameron -Cameron and cabinet
- Unlike in the US, there is no clear separation of executive and legislative powers in Britain. By definition, then the PM is the leader of the political party or coalition w/the most seats in the House of Commons, and must be a Member of Parliament (MP).
- They are often referred to as primus inter pares (“1st among equals)
- The PMs residence and office are at 10 Downing Street (overhead)
- the PM is armed w/the authority of the Cabinet and support from the majority party in the Commons, and thus can be certain that virtually all legislation introduced by Cabinet ministers will be enacted into law.
What the PM Says and Does:
- Call elections: elections must be held at least once every 5 years, and PMs will usually call them when the timing is best for their party.
- Power of Appointment: As well as being a party leader, the PM decides on the size of the cabinet, unilaterally hires and fires members of the cabinet and all other senior govt officials
Question: Why Appoint? Why is this such a key power?
- Parliamentary Performance—ie Qtime: no script, advocate on behalf govt
- Media Performance—key these days: tv enables PM to speak directly to electorate/spin/Blair a master
c. The Monarchy
-Queen Elizabeth II-1952 -Queen Elizabeth II-Today
-The Heir to the throne, Prince Charles -The King in waiting and his dumbass brother Harry (jk)
- The Monarch in Britain is another of the “dignified” but ceremonial institutions. Except for a brief spell b/n 1649 and 1660, Britain since 1066 has been a monarchy
- Kings and Queens had a virtual monopoly on political power but began giving it up with the Magna Carta
- As stated the position is now largely ceremonial and symbolic with no real power: the last time a monarch vetoed a piece of legislation was in 1707 and the last time a ruler dismissed a govt was in 1834—
- behind pomp and ceremony is no real power/symbol of history, stability, traditions, and ntl identity what the monarchy is about
- The current Queen is Elizabeth II and she has held this position since the death of her father in 1952
- names new PM and rest of cabinet
- opens new session of parliament w/royal speech
- Bills only become law if Monarch gives assent (reality: haven’t exercised this power in nearly 200 years