Unit 2: Governing the UK
by Nicola McEwen
Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh writes for BBC Parliament
'The House of Lords Debating the Queen's Speech, November 1995' by Andrew Festing
A central feature of the UK political system is parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy.
Whereas in a presidential system, the powers and personnel of the executive are formally separated from those of the legislature, the distinctive elements within a system of parliamentary government are more closely inter-related.
The Prime Minister and his ministerial team are drawn from Parliament. Although formally appointed by and responsible to the monarch, they are politically accountable to Parliament.
In legal theory Parliament refers to the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown.
In practice, the Crown plays a largely ceremonial role as head of state, while the legislative process unfolds within the two Houses of Parliament.
The House of Commons
The House of Commons, the lower House, is the most powerful of the two Houses of Parliament.
It is made up of 659 MPs, each elected in one of 659 constituencies throughout the UK.
Notwithstanding the rare exceptions, such as Martin Bell, the former journalist elected as an independent 'anti-sleaze' MP in 1997, almost all MPs are elected as members of a political party.
The House of Commons fulfils four key functions:
Representation: Once elected, MPs are expected to represent all of their constituents. MPs may also represent 'interests' such as trade unions, or particular professions, provided these interests are declared. Almost all MPs represent political parties, and usually vote according to the party line (the whipping system).
Government Personnel: Although parliament does not appoint the government, it provides a forum in which budding ministers can demonstrate and hone their political skills, while serving ministers can make or break their career depending on their performance at the Commons' despatch box.
Legitimisation: Described as the 'core defining function' of the House of Commons (Norton, 2001: 313), the legitimisation function permits the elected assembly, acting on the people's behalf, to grant (or withhold) its approval for most actions of the government, including legislation and the grant of money.
Scrutiny of the Executive: As governments tend to enjoy large parliamentary majorities, Parliamentary approval is rarely withheld. However, the House of Commons plays an important role in scrutinising the policies and actions of the government, in debates, parliamentary questions and within the influential cross-party select committees.
The House of Lords
Prior to its reform in 1999, the House of Lords (the upper House) had over 1,200 members, although only one third to one half attended regularly.
Its unique feature was that its membership was largely based on inheritance.
Almost two thirds of those entitled to sit in the House of Lords had inherited their peerage, while around one third were appointed by the government to serve as 'Life Peers' until their death.
There are also a small number of Law Lords and Bishops. The House of Lords is not only unelected, it is also politically unrepresenative.
In 1997, almost half of all Peers sat on the Conservative benches, while just 12% represented the Labour Party, and 6% represented the Liberal Democrats.
The remaining third, known as 'cross-benchers', had no political affiliation (Coxall and Robins, 1998: 321-5).
The House of Lords shares many of the functions of the lower House, especially in scrutinising the government and providing its remaining personnel.
However, it is much weaker, and its powers diminished considerably during the twentieth century.
Uncontroversial legislation can be initiated in the House of Lords, but more important is its role in revising and refining legislation introduced in the House of Commons.
Peers tend to be more interested in the detail rather than the principle of legislation and, by a convention known as the Salisbury Convention, do not vote on the principle of measures included in the government's election manifesto.
Peers lost the power to delay or amend money bills in 1911, but they can still amend and delay non-money bills.
In addition to its legislative and scrutinising function, the House of Lords has an important judicial function, as the highest court of appeal.
© Nicola McEwen 2004
Lecturer in Politics
University of Edinburgh