Britain is a constitutional monarchy. That means it is a country governed by a king or a queen who accepts the advice of a parliament. It is also a parliamentary democracy. That is, it is a country whose government is controlled by a parliament which has been elected by the people.

The highest positions in the government are filled by the members of the directly elected parliament. In Britain, as in many European countries, the official head of state, whether a monarch (as in Belgium, the Netherlands or Denmark) or a president (as in Germany, Greece or Italy) has little power.

The Parliament

The British Parliament is divided into two "houses", and its members belong to one or other of them, although only members of the Commons are normally known as MPs (Member of Parliament). The Commons is by far the more important of the two houses.

The House of Lords consists of over 1000 non-elected members. Members can be divided into the Lords Spiritual, higher bishops of the Church of England, and the Lords Temporal. The latter can be divided into Lords who have inherited their titles, Lords who have been given their titles for their lifetime and Law lords. Only a relatively small number of the members of the House of Lords take an active interest in politics and regularly attend meetings of the House, which usually sits about 145 days each year. The sole power of the House of Lords is to delay bills becoming a law. The speaker of the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor, is a member of the Cabinet. The Law Lords sit as the highest court of appeal in England.

The House of Commons carries out the bulk of parliamentary work. The 650 Members Of Parliament (MPs), who sit in the Commons, are elected representatives of the people in the United Kingdom (523 for England, 38 for Wales, 72 for Scotland and 17 for Northern Ireland). Each MP represents one of the 650 constituencies into which the UK is divided. Commons has a maximum term of 5 years, at the end of which a general election must be held. However, a general election can be called in the Government at any time.

The constitution

However, Britain is almost alone among modern states in that it does not have 'a written constitution'. There are rules, regulations, principles and procedures for the running of the country - but there is no formal document that could be called the Constitution of the United Kingdom or which can be appealed to as the highest law of the land. However, there are three distinctive features that have influenced Britain's social and political institutions and that may be called the basis of the political system: statue law, common law and conventions.

Statue law are Acts of the Parliament. They are written laws and include rules of major importance for the history of the country, e.g. the Bill of Rights or the European Community Act. They also deal with the electoral system (the Representation of the People Acts) and with the composition of the Parliament. Other acts relate to the monarchy, or are concerned with civil liberties (the Habeas Corpus Act).

Common law is the body of traditional, unwritten laws of England, based on judges' decisions and custom. They have proved particularly important in relation to civil liberties, such as the advancing of the Habeas Corpus Act, which orders that a person should be told by a judge why he or she is being held in custody.

Conventions are basically rules that have developed during the centuries or may have come into existence only recently. Some conventions are far more important than most of the statues or common laws. So it is a convention, that says that there must be a prime minister or a cabinet.

The Government

The term "the government" can be used to refer to all politicians who have been appointed by the monarch to help run government departments or to take on various other special responsibilities, such as managing the activities of the parliament.

The other meaning of the term "the government" refers only to the most powerful of these politicians, namely the Prime Minister and other members of the cabinet.

Partly as a result of the electoral system, Britain, unlike much of western Europe, normally has a "single-party government". In other words, all members of the government belong to the same political party. The habit of single-party government has helped to established the tradition known as collective responsibility. (That is, every member of the government, however junior, shares the responsibility for every policy made by the government.)

All important decisions are made by the Government. It consists of about 100 members who usually belong to one of the Houses of Parliament. The highest members of the Government (about 20) are known as the Cabinet.

The cabinet

The cabinet started in the eighteenth century as an informal grouping of important ministers and officials of the royal household. The Government was run by the Privy Council, a body of hundred and more people - including those belonging to "the cabinet" - directly responsible to the monarch. In the twentieth century, the cabinet has itself become more and more "official" and publicly recognised and much of the real decision-making takes place in the cabinet.

The cabinet meets once a week and takes decisions about new policies, the implementation of existing policies and the running of the various government departments. The members of the Cabinet are chosen by the Prime Minister and may or may not have a government department under them.

The Prime Minister

The position of a British Prime Minister (PM) is in direct contrast to that of the monarch. Although the Queen appears to have a great deal of power, in reality she has very little. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, appears not to have much power but in reality has a very great deal indeed.

Today the Governments power is concentrated in the hand of the Prime Minister, who at the same time is the leader of his party. He is the head of the government and has a seat in the Commons. Among other responsibilities, he recommends a number of appointments to the sovereign, including senior clergy of the Church of England.

Prime Ministers since 1940:

Winston Churchill (1940-45)

Clement Attlee (1945-51)

Winston Churchill (1951-55)

Anthony Eden (1955-57)

Harold Macmillan (1957-63)

Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64)

Harold Wilson (1964-70)

Edward Heath (1970-74)

Harold Wilson (1974-76)

James Callaghan (1976-79)

Margaret Thatcher (1979-91)

John Major (1991-97)

Tony Blair (1997-)

Conservative - Labour

Central and local government

In Britain local government authorities - generally known as "councils" - only have power because the central government has given them powers. Indeed they only exist because the central government allows them to exist.

The system of local government is very similar to the system of national government. There are elected representatives, called councillors - the equivalent of MPs. They meet in a council chamber in the Town Hall or County Hall - the equivalent of Parliament, where they make policy which is implemented by local government officers - the equivalent of civil servants.

The monarchy

For the evidence of written law only, the Queen has almost absolute power, and it all seems very undemocratic. Every autumn, at the state opening of Parliament, Elizabeth II, who became Queen in 1952, makes a speech. In it, she says what "my government" intends to do in the coming year. And indeed, it is her government - not the people's. As far as the law it concerned, she can choose anybody she likes to run the government for her. The same is true for her choices of people to fill some hundred or so other ministerial positions. And if she gets fed up with her ministers, she can just dismiss them. Officially speaking they are all "servants of the Crown". Furthermore nothing the parliament has decided can become law until she has agreed to it. There is also a principle of English law that the monarch can do nothing that is legally wrong.

But in reality it is of course very different. Of course she cannot choose anyone she like to be Prime Minister, but she has to choose someone who has the support of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons - because "her" government can only collect taxes with the agreement of the Commons, so if she did not choose such a person, the government would stop function. With the Parliament it is the same story - the Prime Minister will talk about "requesting" a dissolution of Parliament when he or she wants to hold an election, but it would be normally impossible for the monarch to refuse this "request". So in reality the Queen cannot actually stop the government going ahead with any of its politics.

There are often mentioned three roles of the monarch. First, the monarch is the personal embodiment of the government of the country. This means that people can be as critical as they like about the real government, and can argue that it should be thrown out, without being accused of being unpatriotic. Second, it is argued that the monarch could act as a final check on a government that was becoming dictatorial. Third, the monarch has to play a very practical role as being a figurehead and representing the country.

The sovereign reigns but does not rule.

The royal family

The family name of the royal family is Windsor. Queen Elizabeth is only the fourth monarch with this name. It is because George V, Elizabeth's grandfather, changed the family name. It was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, but during the First World War it was thought better for the king not to have a German sounding name.

Queen Elizabeth II was born in 1926 and became Queen in 1952. She is one of the longest reigning monarchs in British history.

The party system

Britain is normally described as having a "two party system". This is because, since 1945, one of the two big parties has, by itself, controlled the government, and members of these two parties have occupied more than 90% of all the seats in the House of Commons. The same situation existed already throughout the nineteenth century, except that the Liberals, rather than the Labour, were one of the two big parties.

In Britain there exist a lot of different parties. The three biggest ones of the UK are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, there also exist some Nationalist parties - such as Both Plaid Cymru ("Party of Wales") and the SNP (Scottish National Party), which fight for devolution of governmental powers - some parties in Northern Ireland - which mostly represent either the Protestant or the Catholic communities - and there are also numerous of very small parties - such as the Green Party, the Communist Party and the British National Party, an extreme right wing party, which is fairly openly racist.

The Conservative Party

The Conservative Party was developed from the group of Members of Parliament (MPs) known as the Tories in the early nineteenth century. The Conservative Party is right of centre and stands for hierarchical interference in the economy, they would like to reduce income tax and they give a high priority to national defence and internal law and order. The leader, who has a relatively great degree of freedom to direct policy, was the former Prime Minister John Major in 1996.

The present Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is supported by the Labour Party.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party was formed at the beginning of the twentieth century from an alliance of trade unionists and intellectuals. In 1923 the Labour Party was in government for the first time. The Labour Party is left of centre and stands for equality, for the socially weaker people in society and for more government involvement in the economical issues.

The Liberal Democratic Party

The Liberal Democratic Party was formed in the late 1980s from a union of Liberals - who developed from the Wigs of the early nineteenth century - and the Social democrats - a breakaway group of Labour politicians. It is regarded as being in the centre or slightly left of centre and has always been strongly in favour of the European Union. The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in 1996 was Paddy Ashdown.