Topic 63 – The british institutions. The parliament chambers. The government. Political parties and electoral system. The crown

Topic 63 – The british institutions. The parliament chambers. The government. Political parties and electoral system. The crown



1.1. Aims of the unit.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.


2.1. A European framework.

2.2. The Parliament.

2.2.1. A historical background.

2.2.2. The House of Lords.

2.2.3. The House of Commons.

2.2.4. The monarch.

2.3. The Government.

2.3.1. The Central Government. The Cabinet. The monarch. The Civil Services.

2.3.2. The Local Government.

2.4. Political parties and electoral system.

2.4.1. Political parties. Conservative Party. Labour Party. Liberal Democrats. Other parties.

2.4.2. The electoral system.

2.5. The Monarchy.





1.1. Aims of the unit.

The present unit, Unit 63, aims to provide a useful introduction to the British institutions among which we shall focus on those related to British politics, that is, the main political bodies in Great Britain: the Parliament, the Government, the main political parties and the British electoral system, and finally, the Monarchy. In doing so, we shall first locate the British institutions within a European framework and then we shall move on to analyse British politics and, therefore, each political body.

So, Chapte r 2, British institutions, will be divided into five main sections which coincide with the main issues we are going to deal with. Hence, (1) a European framework for British institutions, and then the main political bodies within British politics, that is, (2) the Parliament in terms of (a) a historical background and a closer examination of its political elements, that is, (b) the House of Lords, (c) the House of Commons, and (d) the monarch. Then, we shall review (3) the Government, in terms of (1) central government, regarding (a) the Cabinet, (b) the monarch, and (c) the Civil Services; and (2) local governement; then we shall approach (4) the main political parties and the British electoral system, by reviewing (a) the main political parties, that is, ( i) the Conservative Party, (ii) the Labour Party, (iii) the Liberal Democrats, and (iv) other lesser parties; and (b) the electoral system; finally, we shall examine the role of (5) the Monarchy. Actually, all of them are key elements in the way the country is governed, though at two different levels which are interconnected: the Parliament and the Monarchy.

On the one hand, the Parliament (The House of Commons and Lords), represented by the government (the cabinet) and its members (ministers, politicians), is in charge of controlling the country under a parliamentary democracy. On the other hand, Britain is a constitutional monarchy by means of which the country is governed by the king or queen who accepts the advice of parliament. Other key elements are the main British political parties (Conservative, Labour, Centre) which form the goverment, and the British electoral system, which eventually determines the final outcome on elections.

Chapter 3 will be devoted to the main educational implications in language teaching regarding the introduction of this issue in the classroom setting. Chapter 4 will offer a conclusion to broadly overview our present study, and Chapter 5 will include all the bibliographical references used to develop this account of the British institutions.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.

An influential introduction to British institutions is based on Bromhead, Life in Modern Britain (1962); Palmer, Historia Contemporánea (1980); Cook & Paston, European Political Facts of the Twentieth Century (2001), which is a fundamental reference tool for Europe including leading political figures, statistics, and major events. Other sources include the Encyclopaedia Larousse 2000 (2000); the Encyclopedia Britannica (2004); and the historylearningsite website (2004).

The background for educational implications is based on the theory of communicative competence and communicative approaches to language teaching are provided by the most complete record of current publications within the educational framework is provided by the guidelines in B.O.E. (2004) for both E.S.O. and Bachillerato; the Council of Europe, Modern Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. A Common European Framework of reference (1998); and van Ek and Trim, Vantage (2001).


Chapter 2 will provide a general overview of British institutions by first locating them within (1) a European framework and then within British politics, where we shall examine (2) the Parliament in terms of (a) a historical background and a closer examination of its political elements, that is, (b) the House of Lords, (c) the House of Commons, and (d) the monarch. Then, we shall review (3) the Government, in terms of (1) central government, regarding (a) the Cabinet, (b) the monarch, and (c) the Civil Services; and (2) local governement; then we shall approach (4) the main political parties and the British electoral system, by reviewing (a) the main political parties, that is, (i) the Conservative Party, (ii) the Labour Party, (iii) the Liberal Democrats, and (iv) other lesser parties; and (b) the electoral system; finally, we shall examine the role of (5) the Monarchy.

2.1. A European framework.

Broadly speaking, we consider relevant to locate British institutions (essential bodies in a society: education, health, politics) within a European framework since, in 1971, Britain

eventually became a member of the European Community (now European Union) along with the Irish Republic and Denmark. This event was to be achieved under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970-1974), who re-opened negotiations with the EEC despite the French opposition to Britain’s integration in the Common Market (Laurosse,

2000; vol. 7:2614). Later on, the drive for deeper integration continued under John Major’s service and in 1993 the Parliament eventually passed the Maastricht Treaty. This treaty resulted in the transformation of the EEC to the European Union (EU) and promoted closer economic and political union through the establishment of a European currency and central bank, and harmonisation of defence, foreign and social policies.

The European Union is run not by one body but by a series of institutions with their own remit: the Council of Ministers (the most senior), the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice. These institutions were created in the 1960’s and have developed as the most important bodies in the European Union and, as such, they have the ability to impose its will as part of the supranational nature of the EU, where member states ability to create domestic policy is inferior to that of the European Union. Yet, to what extent do these European institutions act on British politics?

For instance, the Council of Ministers (the European’s union most powerful decision- making body) is made up of the foreign ministers of member states, who discuss and eventually decide on the policies created by non-elected civil servants and by a non- elected Commission. “Before 1986, just one country represented in the Council could veto a policy but in 1986 Qualified Majority Voting was introduced. This is a system whereby each country has been given a block of votes dependent on its size” ( and, therefore, Britain, France and Germany have 19 votes each (as the largest member states) whereas other countries such as Luxembourgh has 2 votes. In total, there are 87 votes in the Council and 62 are needed to secure a majority1.

clip_image001The European Parliament is an elected body where members of it are known as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and are elected by voters within a member state. Yet, the European Parliament is not a legislative body so it cannot introduce any policies, but rather to be consulted on issues and influence changes to

1Yet, “Britain has suffered rebuffs using this QMV system. Britain was overruled on the principle of a 48

hour week in 1993. In 1996, the Major government, in retaliation for the EU banning the sale of British beef as a result of the BSE scare, in troduced a policy of non-co-operation with the EU. However, this was doomed to fail and was no more than gesture politics as the Council of Ministers did not need Britain’s 10 votes to push through policy” (

those policies. This is only done by the Commission which initiates the whole process. In this sense, what power does the European Parliament have? The European Parliament has two theoretical powers: first, to reject the annual budget of the European Union with a centralised currency (the Euro) so as to bring the whole concept of a Europe working together; and secondy, it has the theoretical right to dismiss the European Commission if two-thirds of MEP’s vote for this. Actually, there are 626

MEP’s (elected for 5 years) who have been allocated a higher number of seats in terms of being more populated member states. So, those who belong to a political party, tend to sit with all those from a similar party, hence the British Tories in the Parliament usually sit with what is known as the European Democratic Group.

Finally, the European Court of Justice is the body that most undermine British political sovereignty. “When Britain signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, simply by doing this the government put European law above British law. Though the Treaty of Rome has no validity in itself, what it stated was brought into British law by an Act of Parliament – the European Communities Act – in 1972. Therefore, all British domestic law has to be in synch with European Union law. The European Court will decide if it is or is not. The first time this affected Britain was in 1991 when the House of Lords used the 1972

Act to adjudge the 1988 Merchant Shipping Act to be contrary to European Union law

(known as the Factortame Case)2.

2.2. The Parliament.

Following the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2004), the Parliament is defined as the “legislative assembly of Britain and of other governments modeled after it3.” Actually, as the supreme legislature of the United Kingdom “the British Parliament consists of the monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.” Hence the highest positions in the government are filled by members of the directly elected parliament whereas the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, is subject to Parliament since she represents a constitutional Monarchy with no executive power.

clip_image002Regarding the Members of Parliament (MPs), originally, representation in parliament was not directly linked to population, but among the great reforms of the XIXth century was the

2 This is the Factortame Case’s summary: “the EEC Treaty is the supreme law of this country taking precedence over Acts of Parliament. Our entry [Britain] into the EEC meant (subject to our undoubted but

probably theoretical right to withdraw from the Community all together) Parliament surrendered its

sovereign right to legislate contrary to the provisions of the Treaty on matters of social and economic policy.”

abolition of “rotten boroughs” and, as a result, the concept of population equality for all parliamentary ridings. The meeting point of the Members of Parliament is the Houses of Parliament, though its officia l name is the Palace of Westminster, which contains offices, committee rooms, restaurants, bars, libraries, some places of residence, and the famous clock tower, Big Ben at the north end of the building by Westminster Bridge. Since the British Parliament is divided into two ‘houses’, it contains two larger rooms where the House of Commons and Lords meet.

Cabinet ministers are always in Parliament, though formerly, they were often in the House of Lords. The activities of Parliament in Britain are more or le ss the same as those of Parliament in any wester democracy, for instance, it makes new laws, gives authority for the government to raise and spend money, and keeps close eye on government activities, among other tasks. Note that both the executive and legislative branches of British government derive their power from the House of Commons (unlike the system in the United States).

Parliament is now virtually the only source of legislation although the main, but very limited, exception is legislation under the prerogative. This power to legislate is especially important when providing that Acts of Parliament alone can authorise the levying of taxes. Together, these Articles are vital in ensuring that the executive accounts to Parliament, and both give Parliament some leverage over the Government, which constantly needs grants of taxation. Because of the effect of the Parliament Acts (1911- 49) and convention, the House of Common is of far greater importance in these matters than the House of Lords.

But, as with the first function, one can exaggerate the power of Parliament. In reality, Parliament largely reacts to legislation initiated by the Government. It does not initiate its own legislative programme reflecting its own policies, and few Acts are passed which are not sponsored by Government Ministers. As before, British constitution is said to enshrine the idea of Parliamentary Government. This does not mean that Parliament governs but that the Government must work through Parliament.

Then, since their roots trace back to the thirteenth century, let us examine what type of activities were carried out in the past as well as in the present by offering (1) a historical background to the British Parliament together with a closer examination of the elements that made it up, that is,

clip_image003(2) the House of Lords, (3) the House of Commons, and (4) the monarch.

3 It is worth remembering that government functions through three bodies: the legislative, which makes laws; the executive, which puts laws into effect and plans policy; and the judiciary, which decides on

2.2.1. A historical background.

National councils to advise the monarch date back before the Conquest, but the origin of the modern parliament is generally dated to 1265, when Edward I (1239-1307), before acceding to the throne in 1272, called together an assembly at Westminster where the union of the Great Council and the King’s Court gave way to the creation of two bodies that treated with and advised the king. It is worth remembering that the thirteenth century held some events which led to the Loss of Normandy, partly responsible for the separation of England and Normandy in the year 1204, when Normandy was confiscated to King John (1199-1216) by King Phillip II of France.

This event had far reaching social, linguistic and, for our purposes, political consequences, since the properties in French soil of the barons living in England would be confiscated (Decree of Rouen, 1204). So, those having properties on both sides of the Channel had to decide which one to choose. As a result, the loss of Normandy gave the English nobility a new collective feeling of their insular identity, and soon considered themselves as English. This event established a community of interests with the English speaking lower classes which later may result in a reaction against the continental Norman-French.

Yet, this nationalistic feeling did not extend to the King and courtly nobility. Henry III (1207-

1272) married Eleanor of Provence, who brought with her to England a host of French relatives so as to be surrounded by French nobles and prelates. Therefore, French knights in charge of castleries oppressed the barons of Norman-English origin. This gap between the aristocracy (nobility at court) and the barons (rural nobility) was the reason for the Barons’ War (1258-

1265), in which the barons rebelled so as to claim a greater participation in and supervision of

royal government. Hence the creation of these two bodies to treat with and advise the king.

Over the next several centuries, there was a struggle between Parliament and the monarch for supremacy and, in the fourteenth century, Parliament was split into two houses: on the one hand, the lords, who were not only the nobility but also high officials of the church (hence they are regarded as spiritual and temporal); and on the other hand, the knights and burgesses. Eventually, the British Parliament is composed of two houses: commoners were first summoned to advise Edward I and, as the concept of democracy grew, power gradually shifted from the hereditary House of Lords to the elected House of Commons. In the same century Parliament also began to present petitions (“bills”) to the king, which with his assent would become law

clip_image004(still current today).

cases that arise out of the laws.

Robert Walpole was the first party leader to head the government as prime minister (1721–42) and this led to the Civil War between Charles I (born 1600, accession 1625, died 1649) and supporters of parliamentary rights. After James II (born 1633, accession 1685, died 1689) was deposed by the Glorious Revolution, the monarch was made permanently subordinate to Parliament. The relative power of the hereditary House of Lords diminished relative to the House of Commons and is now largely a formality since in 1999 the hereditary peers lost their right to sit in the House of Lords. Still, under Tony Blair’s policy this hereditary condition is still supressed.

2.2.2. The House of Lords.

As seen, “the House of Lords traces its origins to councils of nobles that were called by the kings of England before the Conquest. English monarchs continued to assemble the barons at intervals until Edward I called the first meeting of the modern Parliament in 1265. Over the centuries, power has shifted to the House of Commons. Until recently, any peer could claim the right to sit in the House of Lords, but recent reforms have made membership in that house selective. Like the House of Commons, the House of Lords meets in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.”

The House of Lords is defined as the “upper house of Britain’s bicameral Parliament” (Britannica, 2004), where the arrangement of the seats in the Lords’ chamber is similar to that in the Commons’. Long, straight blocks of benches face each other with Government supporters on one side and opposition parties on the other. As mentioned above, it was the house of the aristocracy from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and, still until the twentieth century (1999), “its membership included clergy, hereditary peers, life peers (peers appointed by the prime minister since 1958), and the judges of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Britain’s final court of appeal).”

Though the Supreme Court of Judicature “predates the House of Commons and dominated it for centuries, its power has gradually diminished. Its power to affect revenue bills was constrained by the Parliament Act of 1911, and in 1949 its power to delay by more than a year the enactment of any bill passed by the Commons was revoked. In 1999 the hereditary peers lost their right to sit in the House of Lords, though an interim reform retains their voice in a more limited fashion. The body’s chief value has been to provide additional consideration to bills that may be not be well formulated.”

There are over 1200 members in the House of Lords, among whom some are life peers, that is, former members whose sons and daughters cannot be accepted from hereditary links; and also, a great amount of judges or bishops who are hereditary peers (over 775) and are there because of their ancestors since they are heads of aristocratic families. Since their ancestors were mere advisors to the king, at present the House of Lords is still a forum for public discussion where, as the monarch, they have no power on decision-making and the Lords must agree with the proposal.

Though the Lords’ power is now limited, they may approve or reject proposals to amend bills, after discussions which include statements of the Government’s wishes, made by a minister from the front bench. Also, after a short period (6 months), a proposal may become a law with or without the Lords’ agreement. Yet, sometimes important matters are ignored by the Lords in the open since the members of the House of Commons do not depend on party politics for their position.

2.2.3. The House of Commons.

The House of Commons is defined as the “popularly elected lower house of the bicameral British Parliament” (Britannica, 2004). The House of Commons is one of the oldest democratic institutions in the world, and its origins go back to “the late 13th century, when landholders and other property owners began sending representatives to Parliament to present grievances and petitions to the king and to accept commitments to the payment of taxes.” In particular, it was the Simon de Montfort Parliament that first met in Westminster Hall.

In the fourteenth century, the House of Commons met on its own for the first time (1341), and in 1363 the first Clerk of the Parliament, Robert de Melton, was appointed. In 1376 there came the “Good Parliament” which stated the importance of good governance, and the following year, in 1377, the first Speaker of the House of Commons was elected, Thomas Hungerford. In the fifteenth century Nicholas Maudit, the first Serjeant at Arms of the House of Commons, was appointed (1415); and in 1523 came the first request for free speech from a Speaker, Thomas More.

The seventeenth century has its starting point in the death of Elizabeth I (1603) and the accession of James I (1603-1625) to the crown, followed by his son, Charles I (1625-1642), who ruled until civil war broke out in 1642; Cromwell (1642-1660), until monarchy was restored by Charles II (1660-1685); and the abdication of James II (1685-1689) who was followed by the reign of the Dutchman William of Orange (William III) and his wife Mary (1689- 1707). This period, known as the Stuart Age (1603-1713) and also called the Jacobean Era, the age of

Cromwell and the Restoration, which is characterized by crisis, civil wars, the Commonwealth and the Industrial Revolution.

In 1605 there was an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament, known as the Gunpowder Plot, which was organised by Robert Catesby to remove the anti-Catholic Monarchy which was in place. However, the plot failed, and Guy Fawkes was arrested for placing the explosives in the cellar under the House. Catesby was executed in 1605, and Fawkes was executed in early

1606. From 1640 to 1660 there was the British Civil War, when the King’s authority was challenged by Parliament and Charles I was executed. This led to the running of the country by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.

In 1668 the Bill of Rights was published, which gave Parliament further powers and protected the debates of the Parliament to ensure that they were free and unhindered. The so called Glorious Revolution took place between 1688 and 1689, and led to the abdication of James II (1685-1689) who, in 1668, fled before his invading son- in-law, the Dutchman William of Orange became William III, taking then the crown in joint sovereignty with his wife Mary (1689-1707). James was forced to abdicate following concerns over his strong religious beliefs. The term Glorious Revolution refers to the lack of violence which was involved in the change of Monarch. In 1689 the Declaration of Rights was published on February 13th.

The early eighteenth-century political background is to be framed upon the Georgian succession line, thus under the rule of Queen Anne (1701-1714), who was Mary’s sister; her German cousin, who became George I (1714-1727); George II (1727-1760), and George III (1760-

1820), king of Great Britain and Ireland. Since William favoured foreign policy, in 1701 he

entered England into the League of Augsburg which later became known as The Grand Alliance and consequently, he was involved in the War of the Spanish Succession. After eight years of war, William was able to hold the alliance together. In contrast to his ability to handle foreign affairs, William had trouble holding down the fort at home, where a majority of reforms were brought about by Parliament, such as the passing of the Bill of Rights and the freedom of the press.

When he died in 1701, England and Scotland were unified under Mary’s sister Anne (1702-

1714). She was the second daughter of King James, but Protestant. Events in her reign included the War of Spanish Succession, Marlborough’s victories at Blenheim, Ramilies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet, the replacement of the Tories with a Whig government in 1703. Yet, the most important event took place in 1707, the Act of Union where she presided over the union of the parliaments of Scotland and England into the parliament of Great Britain (1 May 1707). Controversially the Scots had been forced into the union through a variety of English measures

and legislation but received, in return, a bribe of £398,085 and, eventually, in 1707 the Scottish Parliament was abolished, and the Scottish members instead returned members to the House of Commons at Westminster.

The nineteenth-century political background is still to be framed upon the Georgian succession line in the first quarter, thus under the rule of George III (1760- 1820), king of Great Britain and Ireland; and his son, George IV (1820-1830), who was succeeded by his brother, William IV. Yet, the nineteenth-century political background is namely represented by the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne when her uncle, William IV dies in 1837. She would reign from

1837 to 1901 and would be the longest reigning British monarch. The passing of the crown introduced new ideals concerning such issues as the Church, Parliament, and foreign policy. Generally speaking, each monarch also had their own personality that determined how the British Common would interact with their monarch and, therefore, these factors combined dictated the making of British history in the nineteenth century.

In the early nineteenth century, Cobbett’s Parliamentary History (1806) first appeared, which was one of the first proper records of the Houses of Parliament, although prior to this there had been coverage in the newspapers of the activities in the House. In 1811, William Cobbett sold the business to Thomas Curson Hansard, which initially was simply a report of the statements made in the House copied from papers and checked by a Member of the House. This further developed into being a complete record of all that is said in the Houses of Parliament, and is still known today as Hansard.

In 1812 Spencer Perceval was assassinated, the only Prime Minister in history to be murdered, but twenty years later, the Great Reform Act was published in 1832 (next Reform Acts would take place in 1867 and 1884), which removed rotten boroughs and increased the number of individuals entitled to vote. For the first time the seats for the House of Commons were distributed according to population. This Reform Act, passed by William IV, secured the passage by agreeing to create new peers to overcome the hostile majority in the House of Lords and to make Parliament a more democratic body. The Reform Act, also known as the

‘Representation of the People Act’, aimed to extend the voting rights and redistribute

Parliamentary seats. As a result, ‘Pocket’ and ‘Rotten’ boroughs were abolished, and seats were redistributed on a more equitable basis in the counties. Unfortunately, in 1834 the Houses of Parliament were badly damaged by fire, with only Westminster Hall remaining relatively undamaged.

The House of Commons was the less powerful house until 1911, when the Reform Bill of that year gave it the power to override the House of Lords. The party with the greatest representation

in the Commons forms the government, and the prime minister chooses the cabinet from the party’s members. During the WWII (1941) the House of Commons chamber was destroyed by enemy action, and temporarily the MPs met in the House of Lords until their chamber was rebuilt. During the 1970s and 1980s the media entered the House of Commons since radio coverage began in 1978, and television in 1989. Also, the 1990s are characterized by the election of the first woman Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, in 1992.

As stated above, the House of Commons is part of the legislative process of British politics and “because it alone has the power to levy taxes and allocate expenditures, it is Britain’s chief legislative authority.” According to Britannica (2004), “in the early 21st century there were 659 members, elected from single -member districts” in the House of Commons, which is seen as a cradle of democracy where even a government with a huge parliamentary majority can see that majority dwindle if party members vote against the government (as the 2004 tuition fee issue demonstrated).

With the exception of by-elections, every MP in the Commons has to go before their constituents every 5 years. The main function of the Commons is to scrutinise government bills and vote on them and, therefore, having a vital input in to how laws are made in this country. The Commons finally fulfils this role by receiving public petitions which are then sent to the relevant Minister who is expected to print a reply or they may even be debated if urgent. The petition is an increasingly popular way of raising the political profile of an issue. It is also a way of allowing a small degree of participation by the electorate in the business of Parliament.

Another important function of the House of Commons as the most important political forum in the country is to be able to exchange views between spokes people for the Government and the opposition when in session where, when in session. This idea of a political forum in theory is taken further in reality in that following a General Election, the choice of Government is a matter for the Commons in the senses that (1) the leader of the party with the greatest number of MPs is expected to become Prime Minister; and (2) that Prime Minister then chooses the political heads of the Government (the Cabinet and Ministers) from existing Commons Members of Parliament (though there are also about 25 out of about 120 chosen from the House of Lords). However, the most important Cabinet positions are given to serving MP’s from the House of Commons.

2.2.4. The monarch.

The United Kingdom has not an absolute monarchy, but constitutional. This means that the monarchy is apolitical and impartial, that is, “symbolic and ceremonial” as Walter Bagehot stated in the nineteenth century. In the same way, this is even more true in the twenty-first century where the monarchy has even less power than before. The relationship between Parliament and the monarch is to be found in the Royal Prerogative, which is the term given to the formal powers of the Crown within the executive process of British politics.

The Royal Prerogative are the powers of the Crown and are part of common law. Hence the work of the monarch within the remit of the royal prerogative is seen as being on behalf of elected ministers, that is, that the work that it does in politics is largely symbolic since the Queen reigns but does not rule.The monarch is above the law and has crown immunity. The legal immunity conferred by the Royal Prerogative may extend to institutions and servants of the Crown. Cabinet ministers may try to use crown immunity to avoid the release of parliamentary documents as they are servants of the Crown.

2.3. The Government.

The Commons have often been regarded as a direct broker of Governments. Yet, the choice is now largely determined by the electorate, so that the Government is really settled on election night and not a week or so later when Parliament actually assembles. The basis may be, first, the Westminster model, whose powerf flows from the electorate to Parliament which chooses and controls the executive; and secondly, the Whitehall model, by means of which the electorate chooses the Government and Parliament is there to confirm that choice as an electoral college and then to serve Government and ensure it works effectively in accordance with its mandate. The role of MPs is on this view to facilitate and improve a government’s programme by exploring and testing them but ultimately approving them. In short, Parliament is a critical rather than governmental body.

In general, the word ‘government’ is defined as “the formal institutional structure and processes of a society by which policies are developed and implemented in the form of law, binding on all. The government has legislative (law making), executive (law enforcing) and judicial (law interpreting) functions, with decision power exercised by majority within Parliament. Government usually operates under the restrictive nature of a constitution whether it be written

or not. A constitution often puts limitations on goverment, telling the incumbent government what it can do but, more importantly, what it cannot do” (

Within Britain, the House of Lords have the final say in interpreting British unwritten constitution though the European Courts are likely to play a more increased role in this aspect as Europe becomes more integrated. So, the word ‘government’ in Britain refers to the party in power in the House of Commons and also to individuals who have specific power within certain fields, such as the government of transport and the government of education, among others. Within Britain, the government has the right to levy taxes, declare war, in itiate both foreign and domestic policies, control the military, and so on. Yet, it is difficult to determine how far these will be eroded in the future.

Following Bromhead (1962), “effective power belongs to the Government, which is part of Parliament and responsible to it, but which also normally dominates it. The Government consists of about a hundred politicians under the Prime Minister, appointed to their offices, as ministers, whips 4, etc. by the Queen on his advice. A modern Government is arranged in about fifteen departments, each with its ministerial head, normally entitled, for example, ‘Secretary of State for Social Services’. The number changes from time to time, as departments are split or joined together. All the heads of departments are members of the House of Commons. Nearly every head of department has under him one, two or three ‘ministers of state’, and at a lower level one, two or three ‘parliamentary under-secretaries’. Some of the offices have special titles, but the word ‘minister’ is commonly used to describe all these office-holders.”

Moreover, regarding the Government policy, we must distinguish between (1) central and (2) local governement. Let us start by presenting the elements which govern the central government, that is, (a) the Cabinet, (b) the monarch, and (c) the Civil Services; and then, we shall move on to those regarding the local one.

2.3.1. The Central Government. The Cabinet.

clip_image002[1]Among the people who forms the Cabinet, we include the Prime Minister, the ministers ‘heads of departments’) and other positions. Thus:

4 A ‘whip’ is a member of Parliament who is responsible for making other members of his party to attend at voting time.

The most outstanding person in the Cabinet is the minister, who is the leader of the winning party that has formed the government on having most MPs. As Bromhead (1962) states “the Cabinet consists of the sixteen to twenty-four senior ministers whom the Prime Minister has appointed as members of it. These are the heads of the departments together with a few others. The Cabinet meets about once a week in Number 10 Downing Street, a rather ordinary house which also contains the Prime Minister’s personal office. He lives on the top floor. Number 10 is not really as small as it looks; there are big extensions behind the house, and the whole group of buildings is used by the Cabinet Secretariat as well as the Prime Minister’s own civil service group and political officers.”

Yet, following Bromhead (1962), “although the word ‘minister’ is used as a generic term, nearly all the ministers who are heads of departments now have the title

‘Secretary of State’.” For instance, the ‘Foreign Secretary’ in the Foreign Office to deal with Britain’s international relations; the ‘Home Secretary’ in the Commonwealth Office in charge of Britain’s home problems –law and order, namely-; the ‘Secretary of State for Environment’ in the Department of the Environment; the archaic title

‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’ for the minister in charge of finance; and the Lord Chancellor who is in charge of Justice. “Several other archaic offices survive, but are now used for new purposes. In addition, social services absorbed insurance and health.

“No minister of any rank is allowed to indicate disagreement with any aspect of settled Government policy, either in Parliament or on any public platform outside. If even a junior minister should criticise Government policy during a political meeting in a schoolroom far from London on a Friday evening, the local press will report this indiscretion, the Opposition will hear of it, and in the next week the Prime Minister will have to answer an embarrassing question in the House of Commons.”

Also, “if any minister disagrees with any aspect of his Government’s settled policy he must hide his disagreement and give loyal support. A policy which as been settled without a minister’s knowledge, at a meeting where he was not present, is binding on him because he shares the whole Government’s responsibility for all policy. If he will not accept his share of that responsibility he must resign. The requirement of ministerial solidarity does not extend to matters about which the Government as such does not have a settled policy, or where the Government’s policy is to leave the decision to a free vote of the House of Commons, with each individual MP voting according to his own preference.”

Other positions within the Government are to be held by MPs or peers, two MPs of the party in power, who are appointed Law Officers for England and two for Scotland; then there are Whips in both Houses, concerned with managing the business. Note that all these share in the whole Government’s responsibility.

Hence “British government has traditionally been called ‘Cabinet government’, because of the collectivity of its members. The term dates from the nineteenth century, before the huge increase in the number of political ministers and under-secretarie s of the lower levels. The oldest departments, notably Foreign and Defence, have their main offices in Whitehall, which is the name of the street which runs from Trafalgar Square to the Palace of Westminster, where the two Houses of Parliament have their home. The practice of describing the British Government as ‘Whitehall’ comes from the location of these old departments in this street.” The monarch.

The relationship between the monarchy and the British system of government was admired for more than two hundred years “for its combination of stability with adaptability, along with its avoidance of arbitrary power” (Bromhead, 1962). This relationship still survives, but only in a formal sense. “As it is often said: she reigns but does not rule.” Actually, “the State as a legal entity is commonly called ‘the Crown’. The Queen is its embodiment; all ministers and officers of the central government are her servants. For legal purposes there are no British ‘citizens’, but only ‘subjects’.

“As a constitutional monarch the Queen appoints the Prime Minister; normally the leader of the party with a majority in the Commons; but it seems to be accepted that the politicians should arrange things so that she does not have to make a real choice herself. Having appointed a Prime Minister the Queen appoints other ministers and public servants on his/her advice, and gives the Royal Assent to bills passed by Parliament. The absence of a written constitution would make it difficult to claim that any advice was ‘unconstitutional’; and if the Queen should go against her ministers they could claim that her action was itself ‘unconstitutional’ (Bromhead, 1962:17).” The Civil Services.

According to Bromhead (1962:21),“when we speak of ‘the Government’ we tend to think of the ministers, who are politicians. But we must not forget that each department has a large staff of

professional civil servants who do most of the work of running the department on the minister’s behalf. The Civil Service is wholly non- political. Those of its members who are in any way concerned with administration are forbidden to be candidates for Parliament or to give public support to any political party, though they may vote at elections. When a new government comes into office the same civil servants must work for the new ministers, who a few weeks before led the attack on the old ministers’ policies.”

“Once a civil servant has an established post he has almost complete security of tenure, and can in practice only be removed for improper conduct. Promotion is not automatic according to seniority, but selective, and based on the recommendation of superior officers. A civil servant does not necessarily remain in the same department all through his career; in fact when a department has a vacancy in one of its top posts it is very likely that it will be filled by someone brought in from another department.

2.3.2. The Local Government.

In Britain local government authorities, commonly known as ‘councils,’ derive their existence and their powers and functions from Parliament and the central government. Parliament can take powers away or add to them, and it can even abolish any particular authority, or group or class of authorities, if it wants to. Actually, following Bromhead (1962:61-62), “although the United Kingdom is a unitary state, not a federal one, a very large part of the public services are administered by local authorities, which together employ more than two million people. The central government employs only one-third as many. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own systems, which are not quite the same as that of England and Wales, though the differences are only superficial.”

Since the modern local government system is almost entirely the result of decisions by the national Parliament, most of the tasks that local councils perform are tasks which the central authorities have told them they must perform, and which are supervised and given some financial assistance. Hence many of the activities of local authorities are in fact supervised, advised or controlled by the central government, but there is no single agency of control for any particular local authority or class of authorities. In each area the elected council and its offices have direct relations with the various central government departments –though these may have

clip_image005regional offices through which some of the central-local relations are conducted5.”

5 “Traditionally, the most important local area is the county. England has been divided into counties for more than 1,000 years”, commonly known as ‘shires’ and, later on, at various dates between 1100 and

1970 nearly all large and medium-sized towns were given th eir own charters of incorporation, either as

“Local authorities are allowed to impose taxes on their residents in only one form – a tax collected from all people who occupy land or buildings, based on an objective assessment of the value. These local taxes are called ‘rates’. Every house, shop, etc., has a ‘rateable value’ assessed by officials of the central government. The local tax is imposed by each local authority as a percentage of the rateable value. The rates for county and district purposes are collected by officers of the districts, and the district must hand over to the county the proportion due to it. Hence some areas are more prosperous than others.”

The first recent change in local government affected London when the London Government Act of 1963 created a new county of Greater London. Since then the city of London has been synonymous with commerce, banking and finance. Later on, “the Local Government Act of

1972 completely reorganised the whole system, bringing a new structure into effect in April

1974. Although the central Parliament has these powers of life and death over local authorities, and has used them recently, it has never exercised any detailed supervision through any office of the nature of prefect or local governor”.

“Every county, district and parish has its council, elected by the inhabitants. Any person who is entitled to vote in parliamentary elections may now vote in local elections too. The number of members of a council depends on the population ofr the area, but is not related to it according to any definite formula. Most of the new county councils have between 40 and 100 members, district councils 30 to 50, parish councils 5 to 20. The arrangements for the election of the councillors are rather complicated, and are not the same for all types of councils. Members of county councils are elected for three years at general elections taking place every three years. With district councils there may be an election every year. Councillors are not paid for their work, but they may receive an attendance allowance and expenses on a very generous scale in counties and districts.”

“Every local council has its presiding officer, and this post is filled by the vote of the whole council, for ony one year at a time. The presiding officer of a county or district council is called the Chairman, but in a district which is a borough or city he is called Mayor or Lord Mayor. The mayor has many formal duties, as the first citizen of his town. He has a chain of office, which he wears on official occasions. In modern times it has been thought that the mayor needs to have a female consort on social and formal occasions, and in most towns the mayor appoints a woman to be his mayoress.”

clip_image004[1]Moreover, “all local councils work through committees. Each council has a committee for each of the main sections of its work; the general management of the schools in a county or a

‘boroughs’ or as ‘cities’. The title of ‘city’ has no real significance; it is merely a title of distinction given

metropolitan district is under the control of the education committee of the country or district council. Some of the committees consist only of members of the council (with the parties represented in the same proportion as in the whole council), and some of them have in addition a few coopted members- people who do not belong to the council but have been chosen by the whole council to assist the committee with their special knowledge or other qualifications”.

Actually, the local authorities appoint their own staffs and the type of people who run local councils are usually public citizens, such as shopkeepers, businessmen or housewives, and many are industrial workers. By now, two-party government is a usual characteristic of important local councils, with the Labour Party opposed by Conservatives, though there may also be some Liberals or Independents. The strength of party discipline among non-Labour members varies from place to place, and it depends on the way the parties are balanced.”

2.4. Political parties and electoral system.

Broadly speaking, the field of politics is dominated by a number of different types of party systems, for instance, (a) one-party system means that the position of the ruling party in one- party state is guaranteed in a constitution and all forms of political opposition are banned by law (Cuba, North Korea, China, Iraq); (b) two-party system indicates that it is a state in which just two parties dominate (America); (c) the multi-party system suggests that this is a system in which more than two parties have some impact in a state’s political life and in which no party can guarantee an absolute majority (Germany, Italy); and finally, the dominant-party syste refers to a party which is quite capable within the political structure of a state, to become dominant to such an extent that victory at elections is considered a formality. In Britain, in particular, the party system refers to the way the political parties of the day interact with one another within the politically competitive nature of Westminster and beyond.

2.3.1. Political parties.

In Britain there are many political parties but throughout the whole of England, there are three dominant political parties: Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. These are expanded on in the regions by the addition of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland, Plaid Cymru inWale s and the various Unionist parties and Sein Fein of Northern Ireland. Yet, in terms of electoral success, Britain has frequently been referred as a two-party state (similar to America)

clip_image003[1]whereas in terms of pure definition, it is defined as a classic multi- party state in which just a

at some time as a sign of a town’s special importance” (Bromhead, 1962:62).

handful of parties have any political or electoral significance due to the electoral system, for instance, (1) the Conservative Party, (2) the Labour Party, (3) the Liberal Democrats, and (4) other lesser parties. Conservative Party.

Following Bromhead (1962:30-31), “theConservatives have always been the party of the Right, identified with the existing social order. The party’s M.P.s alone elect their leader. Conservative values accept leadership in principle, and the party’s leader, once in office, is accepted as the director of its policies. As Prime Minister he chooses and dismisses ministers, moves them from one department to another, with some consideration for the need to include among them representatives of the main strands of opinion in the party, and expects their loyal support. When in Opposition he does the same with his Shadow Cabinet.”

“The party’s Central Office is responsible to the leader. The M.P.’s are expected to observe discipline and to vote with the Party at whipped votes on several nights a week, usually at 10 p.m., and it is assumed that hope of promotion to ministerial office provides them with an incentive for obedience. There is scope for an M.P. to try to influence his leader’s policies by presenting arguments to Whips (and through them to ministers) and by speaking and seeking support at party M.P.’s specialist groups and at the M.P.s’ weekly general meeting.”

“Outside Parliament the party has more than a million individual members who pay annual subscriptions, with an association for each constituency (reconstructed when constituency boundaries are changed). The most important function of an association is to choose the party’s candidate for the next election, and then to keep in close touch with him as an M.P. if he is elected. The chief officers of the association have most influence; if the M.P. abstains or votes the wrong way in Parliament he may be asked to explain his action to a general meeting of the association or of its executive committe, and the ultimate sanction is a decision not to re-adopt him as candidate at the next election.”

“When a constituency needs a new candidate, there are usually several dozens of applicants, some local people, some from other areas, most of them already on the national list of approved candidates. Two or three officers of the association may choose up to twenty of the aspirants for itnerview, as though they were applicants for an ordinary job. Eventually, they reduce the list to about three or four for interview at a full meeting of the association’s executive committee, which has usually between 50 and 100 or more members. The committee hears the aspirants speak and answer question, one by one, then votes by exhaustive ballot until one is the winner. Male’s aspirants’ wives come in with them because the Conservatives’ world is full of social

events. It can adapt itself to a woman M.P. (or mayor, prime minister or monarch) but a man alone is incomplete.”

“The National Union of Conservative Association is the partner, in London, of the Central Office, on whichit may exert pressure. Each autumn a few representatives of each local association go, with the M.P.s and national leaders, to a four-day conference at a seaside town. There, with continuous television coverage, each section of the nation’s business is debated for an hour or two, on the basis of a motion formed from several local proposals, and voted on, usually by a show of hands with a conclusion supportive of the national leadership.”

“Those who go to the conference are the most dedicated Tories, and some opinions voiced there have been critical of the leaders for their readiness to compromise. In Mrs Thatcher the M.P.s chose the kind of leader favoured by the activists, and her radical policies have in general been well supported. Tory purists welcome the privatisation of sections of the nationalised industries, the sale of council houses, the rhetoric of the state’s withdrawal from direction of the economy. They also favour a strong stance on the pursuit of the national interest, and a high priority for defence and law and order. They would be critical of an M.P. showing weakness on these matters (they call it ‘wetness’). But many of these activities are also local councillors, and unhappy about the government’s current interference with such autonomy as the councils have traditionally enjoyed.” Labour Party.

Following Bromhead (1962: 31-32), “the Labour Party’s internal structure is in most ways like the Conservatives’, but big differences arise from Labour’s attempts to give much more real power to ordinary members. Labour’s annual conference is the supreme policy- making body of the party, and the parliamentary leaders are expected to follow its general policies when in power or in opposition. During each annual conference the sections of the party choose, by vote, their 28 representatives on the National Executive Committee (N.E.C.) which makes decisions week by week. The N.E.C. includes the leader and, usually, several ministers (when in power) or shadow ministers who, in opposition, are elected by the M.P.s. Relations between the N.E.C. and Labour cabinets in office have often produced bitter arguments, much publicised in the newspapers.”

“The annual conference is attended by delegates fromthe constituency parties, trade unions and other bodies affiliated to the Labour Party. Each delegation’s voting weight depends on the number of party members represented. In most trade unions most of the union members are automatically affiliated to the Labour Party. The union hands over some of the union

subscriptions to the party. Any union member may ‘contract out’ of party membership, but many do not know of this; in 1984 the Trades Union Congress agreed to the Conservative government’s demands that this right to contract out should be made more effective.”

“Ain recent years the conference has voted for withdrawal from Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament, massive new nationalisations, increased trade union power, abolition of the House of Lords and other left-wing policies. It has also required each sitting Labour M.P. to face a contested re-selection process during the life of a Parliament, and changed the rules for choosing the party leader, so that the Labour M.P.s votes have only the same weight in this process as the constituency party delegations, and the unions more weight than either. The new system was first used in 1983, when Neil Kinnock succeeded Michael Foot after the election defeat.”

“One old Labour Party rule survives: Communist Party members are not eligible for membership –though there are some Communist trade union officials. Lately, however, many local parties have b become dominated by left-wingers, including some belonging to a highly organised and disciplined group calling itself ‘Militant’. Liberal Democrats.

There have never been a centre party in British politics up to 1918, but a lesser important ally of the Liberals grown up to their left. Hence the policies of the party are regarded as in the centre or slightly left of the centre. In the inter-war years, there was a disastrous division of the Liberals, which caused the decline of this party as a centre party as well as a complete split in

1913. Later on a second centre party was created in 1981, that is, the Social Democratic Party.

However, after 1983 the Liberal Democrats stayed as the only serious party of the centre. It was then when this party was formally established as a union of Liberals (as well as the Social Democrats).

Among the main features, we may hightlight that the Liberal Democrats Party has always been strongly in favour of the United States; it emphasizes the defence of the environment more than other parties; and is in favour of giving greater powers to local government and the reform of the electoral system. Its voters belong to all social classes, namely from the middle class. Also, the money to support the party consists mostly of private donations, although this party is much poorer than Labour and Conservative parties. Other parties.

Among other lesser political parties, we may include:

(1) Nationalist parties, which are namely the party of Wales, Plaid Cymru, which emphasizes Welsh cultural autonomy as much political autonomy; and the Scottish National Party (SNP), which supports a separate Scottish Parliament with powers to raise its own taxes, and is willing to consider total independence from the UK. Both of them fight for the devolution of governmental powers, and usually have a few MPs in the second half of the twentieth century, but well under half of the total number of MPs from their respective countries.

(2) Parties in Northern Ireland, which are mostly represented by the Protestant or the Catholic communities. There is one large comparatively moderate party on each side, and one or more other parties of more extremist views on each side. Moreover, the Alliance Party asks for support from both communities.

(3) Britain’s Green Party, which is supported by environmentalists and was slower to develop than the Greens in some other European countries.

(4) The Communist Party, which reflected aims of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In 1990 the Party’s congress decided to abandon the name Communist, and seemed doubtful whether it would continue to exist as a political party.

(5) Finally, on the extreme right-wing we find the National Front Party, which has been called the British National Party (BNP) since the 1980s. It has been related to a racist attitude.

2.3.2. The British electoral system.

Following Bromhead (1962:24- 8), “the foundations of the electoral system were laid in the Middle Ages. Since then numerous Acts of Parliament have modified the system but never in a systematic way,” for instance, the passing of the Great Reform Bill (1832) by means of which seats are given to large new towns (Birmingham, Manchester) whic h have until now been represented in Parliament, and the franchise is made uniform throughout the country; the introduction of male workers in the franchise in 1867; the introduction of the secret ballot in

1872; the introduction of male rural labourers in the franchise in 1884; the Women’s suffrage in

1918 by means of which women are given the right to vote; also, all adults get the right to vote in 1928; and the minimum voting age was lowered to eighteen in 1970.

“Fundamentally the system still has its ancient form, with each community electing its (now) one representative to serve as its Member of Parliament until the next general election. If an M.P. dies or resigns his seat a by-election is held to replace him. Any British subject can be nominated as a candidate for any seat on payment of a deposit, though peers, clergymen, lunatics and felons in prison are disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons. There is no need to live in the area or to have any personal connection with it, and less than half of the candidates are in fact local residents. There are usually more than two candidates for each seat, but the one who receives most votes is elected.”

“The franchise (right to vote) became universal formen by stages in the nineteenth century; hence the rise of the Labour Party. Women’s suffrage came in two stages (1918 and 1928), and in 1970 the minimum voting age was reduced to eighteen. Since 1948 each voter has had only one vote, which hemay cast at his place of registration; if he knows that he will be unable to vote, because he is ill or has moved away or must be away on business, he may apply in advance to be allowed to send his vote by post.”

“Two changes were introduced in 1984. Until then any candidate who received more than 12 ½ per cent of the votes had his deposit of 150 pounds returned to him; otherwise he lost his deposit. When the figure of 150 pounds was first used it was more than a man’s average wage for a year: enough to deter irresponsible candidatures. By 1984, because of inflation, it was about a week’s wage. Huge numbers of individual candidates had stood for election, happy to sacrifice their deposits as a small price for some publicity.”

“Voting is not compulsory, but in the autumn of each year every householder is obliged by law to enter on the register of electors the name of every resident who is entitled to vote. Much work is done to ensure that the register is complete and accurate, and each register is valid for one year beginning towards the end of February. People who are just too young to vote are included in the list, so that they may vote at any election which may be held after their eighteenth birthday. It is only possible to vote at the polling station appropriate to one’s address.”

“The most important effect of the ele ctoral system, with each seat won by the candidate with most votes, has been to sustain the dominance of two main rival parties, and only two. One forms the Government, the other the Opposition, hoping to change places after the next general election. The Prime Minister enjoys one special advantage: he can choose the date of an election, with only three or four weeks’ notice, at any time that seems favourable to this party, up to five years after the last. Many opinion polls, over many years, have indicated that most of the British people would prefer to use their most fundamental right, that of voting, in a system which would give fair representation.”

“In Britain, when a party’s selectors are choosing a single candidate, they tend to exclude people of minority groups or with characteristics different from the usual; and this tendency is strongest in seats which a party expects to win. Yet women candidates do not get fewer votes than men in similar situations; their results, where they have been chosen, conform to the party voting patterns. The electors vote for a party, not caring much about the individual candidate.”

2.5. The Monarchy.

The Monarchy is the oldest institution of government in the United Kingdom. Until 1603 the English and Scottish Crowns were separate, but after this date one monarch reigned in the United Kingdom. The twentieth century coincided with the accession of Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII (1841-1910) to the crown, and his reign was known as the Edwardian Age (1901-

1910) or the age of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Edward was the only British monarch

who reigned for nine years at the beginning of the modern age in the early years of the 20th century.

He was replaced on his death by King George V (1865-1936), who replaced the German- sounding title with that of the English Windsor during the First World War. Actually, the Windsor title remained in the family under the figure of Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor (1894-

1972) and, as we know, the family name is still present in the current Royal Family. At present,

the British monarchy is represented by the Queen Elizabeth II and the Windsor Age.

Historically speaking, the English Crown up to the Union of the Crowns in 1603 is long and varied. The concept of a single ruler unifying different tribes based in England developed in the eighth and ninth centuries in figures such as Offa and Alfred the Great, who began to create centralised systems of government. Following the Norman Conquest (1066), the machinery of government developed further, producing long- lived national institutions including Parliament.

The Middle Ages saw several fierce contests for the Crown, culminating in the Wars of the Roses, which lasted for nearly a century. The conflict was finally ended with the advent of the Tudors, the dynasty which produced some of England’s most successful rulers and a flourishing cultural Renaissance. The end of the Tudor line with the death of the ‘Virgin Queen’ in 1603 brought about the Union of the Crowns with Scotland.

The Scottish Crown has a ric h and complex history. From a number of local rulers governing separate territories and peoples, a single king emerged by the beginning of the twelfth century to govern most of what is today’s Scotland. The thirteenth century was a time of instability for the Scottish Crown in the face of internal fighting and the Wars of Independence with England. A

sense of nationhood and a stable monarchical succession really developed from the fourteenth century onwards, culminating in the Stewart dynasty. In 1603 a member of this dynasty, King James VI, succeeded to the English Crown.

The Union of the Crowns was followed by the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. Although a new Scottish Parliament now determines much of Scotland’s legislation, the two Crowns remain united under a single Sovereign, the present Queen. The last four hundred years have seen many changes in the nature of the Monarchy in the United Kingdom, and from the end of the 17th century, monarchs lost executive power and they increasingly became subject to Parliament, resulting in today’s constitutional Monarchy. Actually, the main royal prerogatives within British politics are:

(1) the Queen has the right to appoint and dismiss a Prime Minister. However, in the present century this is convention as opposed to reality. In fact, after an election, the Queen chooses the leader of the majority party to lead the Commons. Theoretically, the monarch can exercise powers of appointment and dismissal.

(2) The monarch has other powers of appointment for ministers, peers, senior officials, head of BBC, and senior civil servants, who are chosen by the Prime Minister; only the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit are at the personal disposal of the Queen. Therefore, a vast amount of power with regards to senior appointments rests with the Prime Minister.

(3) The Queen opens and dissolves Parliament.

(4) She also approves all statutes of law. Actually, the date of a general election is set by the Prime Minister and the Queen, in the State Opening of Parliament, simply reads out the proposed bills for the next 5 years of a government and plays no part in deciding them. No monarch has refused to give the Royal Assent to a government bill (passed at this stage by both the Commons and Lords) since 1707. Now it would appear to be completely untenable that the Queen would refuse to sign a government bill that had passed the Commons, select committees, the Lords etc.

(5) The monarch has the right to grant pardons and input some sentences although this power is actually exercised by the Home Secretary.

(6) The monarch, via proclamations or Orders in Council, may declare war or treaties, without the input of the Houses of Commons or Lords, although the declaration of war and the signing of treaties is done by the Prime Minister acting on behalf of the Crown. For instance, the 2003 declaration of war against Iraq was done by a Prime Minister and not by

the monarch. One is a democratically elected politician accountable to the electorate via an election; the other is in the position by a quirk of birth.


History is one of the most salient aspects of educational activity since it is going on for most of the time. Yet, what do students know about British history in this period and in particular about Brit ish politics? At this point it makes sense to examine the political background of Great Britain within its history so as to provide an appropriate context for current politicians who are familiar to students through the media in their own country. However, the question is ‘How much do students know about the British political system?’ or ‘How can we make British politics relevant to students in the classroom?’

In fact, Spanish students are expected to know about the political field of Britain and its influence in the world through the image of outstanding political figures, such as Tony Blair at present in relationship to the Spanish ones. Currently, action research groups attempt to bring about change in classroom learning and teaching through a focus on social events under two premises. First, because they believe learning is an integral aspect of any form of activity and second, because education at all levels must be conceived in terms of history. The basis for these assumptions is to be found in an attempt, through the use of historical events, to develop understanding of students’ shared but diverse social and physical environment.

Learning involves a process of transformation of participation itself which has far reaching implications on the role of the teacher in the teaching- learning relationship. This means that historical events, for our purposes, political ones, are an analytic tool when making students aware of the relevance of British politics in the world, and in particular, in Spain regarding current events (Aznar and Blair’s friendship). Moreover, today’s new technologies (the Internet, DVD, videocamera) and the media (TV, radio, cinema) may provide a new direction to language teaching as they set more appropriate context for students to get key information.

So, motivation and involvement are enhanced by means of new technologies and the media. Hence the history of the period may be approched in terms of films and drama representations in class, among others, and in this case, by means of books, newspapers, magazines or TV news, among others. But how do twenty-first-century British politics tie in with the new curriculum? Spanish students are expected to know about the international panorama and the influence of the

British political system in Europe, regarding its main policy or the main political figures (politicians, political parties, the Queen). The success partly lies in making this reality closer to students so as to recreate as much as possible the whole social and political environment in the classroom. Some of this motivational force is brought about by eliciting information about recent events in which Britain has been involved.

Hence it makes sense to examine relevant figures such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Queen Elizabeth II, among others so as to compare them with the corresponding figures in Spain and their roles in both British and Spanish politics. This is to be achieved within the framework of the European Council (1998) and, in particular, the Spanish Educational System which establishes a common reference framework for the teaching of foreign languages where students are intended to locate social, political and cultural events within a particular historical period (B.O.E., 2004).

In short, the knowledge about British culture (history and literature) should become part of every literary student’s basic competence (B.O.E., 2004). There are hidden influences at work beneath the textual surface: these may be sociocultural, inter and intratextual. Students have to discover these, and wherever necessary apply them in further examination. The main aims that our currently educational system focuses on are mostly sociocultural, to facilitate the study of cultural themes, as our students must be aware of their current social and political reality within the European framework.


On reviewing the issue of Unit 63, we have tried to provide an overall view of the British institutions, namely the Parliament, the Government, the main political parties and the British electoral system, and finally, the Monarchy. Hence we have started by locating the British institutions within a European framework so as to move on to analyse British politics and, therefore, each political body.

So, Chapter 2 has examined the main British institutions individually, that is, the Parliament in terms of historical background and its political elements, that is, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the monarch. Then, we have reviewed the Government, in terms of central government, regarding the Cabinet, the figure of the monarch, and the Civil Services; and then the local government. Moreover, we have also approached the main political parties and the British electoral system, by reviewing the main political parties (Conservative Party, Labour

Party, Liberal Democrats, and other lesser parties) and the British electoral system; finally, we have examined the role of the current Monarchy within British politics.

In Chapter 4 we have established a link between the British institutions and the classroom, that is, a link between the political situation in Britain and the main educational implications in language teaching regarding the introduction of this issue in the classroom setting and how to make our students aware of how much they know about the political history of Great Britain. At this point, we hope to offer fruitful conclusions on this presentation, and we shall close it by presenting all the bibliographical references used to develop this account of the British institutions.

So far, we have attempted to provide the reader in this presentation with a historical, social and cultural background on the British political panorama throughtout the centuries. This information is relevant for language learners, even ESO and Bachillerato students, who do not automatically establish similiarities between British and Spanish political reality. So, learners need to have these associations brought to their attention in cross-curricular settings through the media. As we have seen, understanding how history reflects the main events of a country is important to students, who are expected to be aware of the richness of English culture at a general level.


B.O.E. 2004. Consejería de Educación y Cultura. Decreto N.º 116/2004, de 23 de enero. Currículo de la Educación Secundaria Obligatoria en la Comunidad Autónoma de la Región de Murcia.

B.O.E. 2004. Consejería de Educación y Cultura. Decreto N.º 117/2004, de 23 de enero. Currículo de Bachillerato en la Comunidad Autónoma de la Región de Murcia.

Bromhead, Peter. 1962. Life in Modern Britain. Longman.

Cook, C. and J. Paxton. 2001. European Political Facts of the Twentieth Century.


Council of Europe (1998) Modern Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. A Common European Framework of reference.

Palmer, R. 1980. Historia Contemporánea, Akal ed., Madrid.

van Ek, J.A., and J.L.M. Trim, 2001. Vantage. Council of Europe. Cambridge

University Press.

Other sources:

Enciclopedia Larousse 2000. 2000. Editorial Planeta.

“British Empire.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica

Premium Service. 28 May 2004