Government. Political life and Law
The electoral system.
The party system.
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Government. Political life and law

1. Government. Political life and Law


Great Britain is a democracy in which the
constitutional situation is a contradictory
one. The people of Britain are subjects of
the Queen. Yet the Queen receives her
authority from the parliament, she reigns
but does not rule. Technically British
sovereignty resides in the three elements of
Parliament: the Crown, and Parliament’s
two chambers, the House of Lords and the
House of Commons.


The curious situation is the result of the
struggle between the Crown and the
Parliament which ended in 1689 when the
Parliament agreed to allow the Crown to
continue its function within certain limits,
and subject to Parliament’s control. In law
the monarch is head of the executive and
the judiciary, head of the Church of
England, and commander-in-chief of the
armed forces.


The country has no written constitution.
The state – itself sometimes called the
Crown – operates on precedent, custom
and conventions, and on unwritten rules
and assumptions.


‘Her Majesty’s Government’ governs in the
name of the Queen and its hub, Downing
Street, lies in Whitehall, a short walk from
Parliament. Following a general election
the Queen invites the leader of the majority
or largest party represented in the
Commons to form a government on her
behalf. Government ministers are members
of the House of Commons, though
sometimes members of the House of Lords
are invited.


Ministers, the Prime Minister included,
continue to represent the parliamentary
constituencies which elected them.
Government consists of about 100
members, 20 or so of most senior ministers
comprise the Cabinet – the essential core.
Government being essentially political
depends on a permanent body of officials,
the Civil Service which administers the
decisions of the Government. The Civil
Service employs 500,000 people and is
expected to discharge its responsibilities in
a politically impartial way.


The civil servants wishing to stand for
Parliament must resign first from the Civil
Service. The Cabinet Office is the heart of
the Civil Service. Its Secretary who runs
the Civil Service is the most senior civil
servant at any given time.

8. Parliament.

Her Majesty’s Government derives its
authorities from its party representation in
Parliament. While the Government is often
referred to as Whitehall, Parliament dating
from the 13th century is known as
Westminster as it is housed in the Palace of
Westminster. The House of Lords was initially
created to provide a council of the nobility
for the king, the Commons were summoned
to provide the king with the money.


From the 17th cent. the House of Commons
gained power in finance, legislation.
Parliament is the supreme legislation body.
659 members of the House of Commons
represent 529 constituencies in England, 40
in Wales, 72 in Scotland, 18 in Northern
Ireland. The Commons having places
forv370 members is rectangular, with the
Speaker’s (the presiding MP) chair at one
end, and either side of it fife rows of
benches running the length of the


On one side, to the Speaker’s right sits Her
Majesty’s Government and its supporters, and
on the other Her Majesty’s Opposition. The front
benches on both sides are reserved for
members of the Cabinet and other Ministers,
and Opposition spokesmen, known as ‘Shadow
Cabinet’. Behind them MPs from their own
party sit known as ‘back benches’. A red line
on the floor in front of each front bench marks
the limit (a little more than two swords’ length)
beyond which a Member may not approach
the opposite bench. This mark hints at
traditional two-party system. The Speaker is
assisted by three Deputy Speakers.


The upper chamber consists of four
categories of peer: 1,197 members in 1996.
The majority are hereditary peers (750 now).
About 400 are life peers a quarter of which
are women. Nine of the most senior judges,
the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (Law Lords)
sit there as well. Alongside secular peers,
the Lords Temporal, are the 26 most senior
bishops and archbishops of the Church of
England, the Lords Spiritual.


Those peers who do not support any
party have ‘cross-benches’ across the
back of the chamber to sit upon. The
House is presided over by the Lord
Chancellor, the senior law officer of the
state who is responsible for the
administration of justice and is also an
automatic member of the Cabinet.

13. The electoral system.

The country is divided into constituencies,
each electing a MP to sit in the House of
Commons. All British citizens may vote if
they are 18, registered and not disqualified
by insanity, membership of the House of
Lords or by being sentenced prisoners. The
candidate who gains most votes is returned
as Member of the Commons. This is called
first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. A byelection takes place if a Member of
Parliament resigns, dies or is made a peer.

14. The party system.

The political party system has been mainly a
two-party system since the 19th century.
Today, this contest is between the
Conservative Party still known as the ‘Tories’
and the Labour Party which appeared at
the end of the 19th century as a result of the
introduction of universal male suffrage. The
Liberal Party or the ‘Whigs’ merged with the
new Social Democratic Party in 1988 to
become Liberal Democrats.


The legal system of England and Wales
does not have a criminal or civil code and
is based on Acts of Parliament or statute
Law and common law which is the
outcome of past decisions. Since 1986 a
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has
examined the evidence on which the
police have charged a suspect to decide
whether to bring the case to the court. Two
main types of court for criminal cases are
Magistrates’ Courts (‘courts of first instance’)
which deal with 95% of criminal cases, and
Crown Courts for more serious offences.


All criminal cases above the level of
Magistrates’ Courts are held before a jury.
Civil cases are dealt with in County Courts
(family matters, property). The High Court
deals with complicated civil cases. It is
divided into: Family Division (divorce,
adoption, family law), Chancery (corporate
and personal insolvency, trusts, wills), and
the Queen’s Bench (tort cases, maritime,
commercial law). Magistrates’ Courts are
served by unpaid Justices of the Peace
(JPs) chosen from community members
and appointed by the Lord Chancellor.


A Crown Court is presided over by the
judge but the verdict is reached by a
jury of 12 citizens randomly selected. A
person convicted in a Magistrates’ Court
can appeal to the Crown Court. If
unsatisfied he appeals to the Court of
Appeal(Criminal Division).


Traditionally legal profession is divided
into two practices: only solicitors deal
directly with the public, and only
barristers may fight a case in the higher
courts. The former are united by the Law
Society, the latter are members of the
Bar. Barristers are fewer in number and
are the senior branch of the legal
profession. To become a barrister a
candidate should enter one of four Inns
of Court (law colleges dating from the
Middle Ages) complete the course and
pass the bar examination.


The government of the United States is based
on a written constitution which consists of a
Preamble, seven Articles, and 27 Amendments.
The amendment process is such that while not
easily amended, US citizens are able to make
necessary changes over time.
The Constitution created three separate
branches of government. Each branch has its
own powers and areas of influence. At the
same time, the Constitution created a system
of checks and balances that ensured no one
branch would reign supreme.


The three branches are:
Legislative Branch consists of the Congress
which is responsible for making the federal
laws. Congress consists of two houses: the
Senate and the House of Representatives.
Executive Branch includes the President of
the United States who is given the job of
executing, enforcing, and administering the
laws and government. The Bureaucracy is
part of the Executive Branch.
Judicial Branch – consists of the Supreme
Court and the federal courts. Their job is to
interpret and apply US laws through cases
brought before them. Another important
power of the Supreme Court is that of
Judicial Review whereby they can rule laws


While the Constitution sets up the system
of government, the actual way in which
the offices of Congress and the
Presidency are filled are based upon the
two-party political system (the
Democratic and Republican parties).
The parties act as coalitions and attempt
to win elections which occur in the
United States at all levels including local,
state, and federal.


There are numerous differences from
locality to locality and state to state.
Even when determining the presidency,
there is some variation with how the
electoral college is determined from
state to state. While voter turnout is
barely over 50% during Presidential
election years and much lower than that
during midterm elections.
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