Who governs Britain? When the media talk about ‘the government’ they usually mean one of two things. The term ‘the government’ can be used to refer to all of the politicians who have been appointed by the monarch (on the advice of the Prime Minister) to help run government departments (there are several politicians in each department) or to take on various other special responsibilities, such as managing the activities of Parliament .There are normally about a hundred members off ‘ the government’ in this sense.Although there are various of ranks, each with their own titles, members of the government are usually known as ’ministers’. All ministers come from the ranks of Parliament , most of them from the House of Commons. Unlike in the USA and in some other countries in Europe, it is rare for a person from outside Parliament to become a minister. ( And when this does happen, the person concerned is quickly found a seat in one off the two Houses.)
The other meaning of the term ‘ the government’ is more limited. It refers only to the most powerful of these politicians of these politicians, namely the Prime Minister and the other members of the cabinet. There are us
Partly as a result of the electoral system, Britain, unlike much of western Europe, normally has ‘single-party government’. In other words, all members of the government belong to the same political party. Traditional, British politicians have regarded coalition government (with several parties involved) as a bad idea. Since the formation of modern political parties in the nineteenth century, Britain has had a total only twenty-one years of coalition governments .Even when, no single party a had majority of seats in the House of Commons, no coalition was formed. There was a ‘ minority government’ instead.
The habit of single-party government haas helped to establish the tradition known as collective responsibility for every policy made by the government, however junior, shares the responsibility for every policy made by the government. This is true even if, as is often the case, he or she did not play any part in making it. Of course, individual government members may hold different opinions, but they are expected to keep these private. By convention, no member of the government can criticize government policy in public. An
Britain is a democracy, yet its people are not, as one might expect in a democracy, constitutionally in control of the state. The constitutional situation is an apparently contradictory one. As a result of an historical process, the people of Britain are subjects of the Crown, accepting the Queen as the head of the state. Yet even the Queen is not sovereign in any substantial sense since she receives her authority from Parliament, and is subject to its direction in almost all matters. In short, she ‘reigns’ but does not rule. Technically, if confusingly, British sovereignty collectively resides in the three elements of Parliament: the Crown, and Parliament’s two chambers, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
This curious situation came about as a result of a long struggle for power between the Crown and Parliament during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1689 Parliament won that struggle, because it controlled most of national wealth. It agree to allow the Crown to continue to function within certain limits, and subject to Parliament’s control. No constitution written down either then or since, and the relationship between Crown, Parliament, and people-and their respective costitutional powers- has be
Parliamentary ’sovereignty’; an independent judiciary; and consolidation of law . Various elements of what is usually considered ‘the constitution’ appear in different laws and conventions, but they are not specified as such. The state- itself sometimes called Crown- operates on precedent, custom and convention, and on unwritten rules and assumptions.
Operating on precedent, custom and commonsense is a very British arrangement, and the British have traditionally felt uncomfortable with a constitution based either on logic or theory.
The reigning monarch is not only the head of state but also a symbol of the unity of the nation. The monarchy in Britain’s oldest secular institution, its continuity for over 1000 years broken only once by a republic that lasted a mere 11 years (1649-60). The monarchy hereditary, the succession passing automatically to the oldest male child, or in absence of males, to the oldest female offspring of the monarch .By Act (or law) of Parliament, the monarch must be a Protestant. Succession is automatic on the death of the monarch, confirmed later by a formal coronation ceremony. In law the monarch is head of the executive and of the judiciary, head of the Church of England, and co
The remaining powers of the monarch are basically to summon, suspend until the next session and dissolve Parliament: to give royal assent to legislation passed by Parliament; to appoint government ministers, judges, officers of the armed forces, governors, diplomats and bishops of the Church; to confer honours, such as peerages and knighthoods; to remit sentence passed convicted criminals; and finally to declare war on or make peace with an enemy power. In practice, of course, with the exception of a few exception of a few honours she is free to decide herself, the monarch discharges all these functions on the direction of the government. In most matters of state, the refusal of the Queen to exercise her power according to the direction of her Prime Minster would risk a serious constitutional crisis.
Nevertheless, the function of monarch is politically important. For as someone who reigns but does not rule, the sovereign separates the ‘magic’ of sovereignty, publicly visible in many ceremonies, from the power of the executive head of state. This contrasts with executive presidential systems of government. Away from the public gaze, the monarch plays a more practical role. The Queen is visited regularly by her Prime Minister to receive an account of Cabinet decisions and to be consulted on matters of national life. Since 1952the Queen has given weekly audience, as it is called, to 11 Prime Ministers, some of whom have highly valued these meetings.
WHITEHALL-THE SEAT OF GOVERNMENT
‘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, in the absence of an overall majority) party represented in the Commons, to form a government on her behalf. Government ministers are almost invariably members of the House of Commons, but infrequently members of the House of Lords are appointed. There are at a disadvantage since it is in the Commons that the government is expected to explain its conduct of affairs. All government ministers, even the Prime Minister, who are members of the Commons, continue to represent the parliamentary ’constituencies ‘ which elected them .Unless the government is a coalition. Most governments consist of about 100 ministers, but the essential core in the Cabinet, the 20 or so most senior ministers invited by the Prime Minister to belong to it. Within the Cabinet the Prime Minister is meant to be first among equals.
Obviously, no government wants an important member of its party to start criticizing it. This would lead to division in the party. Therefore, the leading politicians in the governing party usually become members of the cabinet, where they are tied to government policy by the convention of collective responsibility.
The cabinet meets once a week takes decisions about new policies, the implementation of existing policies and the running of the various government departments. Because all government members must be seen to agree, exactly who says what at these meetings is a closely guarded secret. Reports are made of the meetings and circulated to government departments. They summarize the topics discussed and the decisions taken, but they never refer to individuals or what they said.
THE PRIME MINISTER
The position of a British Prime Minister 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 PM, on the other hand, appears to have much power but in realty has a very great deal indeed.
From one point of view, the PM is more than the foremost of Her Majesty’s political servants. The traditional phrase describes him or her as primus inter pares( Latin for’ first among equals’). But in fact the other ministers are not nearly as powerful. There are several reasons for this. First, the monarch’s powers of patronage (the power to appoint people to al kinds of jobs to confer honours on people) are, by convention, actually the PM’s powers of patronage. The fiction is that the Queen appoints people to government jobs’ on the advice of the Prime Minister’. But what actually happens is that the PM simply decides. Everybody knows this.
The strength of the PM’s power of patronage is apparent from the modern phenomenon known as the’ cabinet reshuffle’. A few cabinet members are dropped, and a few new members are brought in, but mostly the existing members are shuffled around, like a pack of cards, getting a new department to look after.
The second reason for a modern PM’s dominance over the ministers is the power of the PM’s public image. Everybody in the country can recognize the Prime Minister, while many cannot put a name to the faces of the other ministers.
Although government is essentially political, it depends upon a permanent body of officials, the Civil Service, to administer the decisions of ministers, and to keep the wheels of government- in its broadest sense- turning. The Civil Service, employing almost 500 000 people, is expected to discharge its responsibilities in a politically impartial way. Civil servants must be as loyal to an incoming government as to the outgoing one, however much as private individuals they may be pleased or dismayed at the change of government. Those civil servants wishing to stand for Parliament must first resign from the Civil Service.
The heart of the Civil Service is the Cabinet Office, whose Secretary is he most senior civil servant at any given time. The responsibilities are considerable, including the proper and smooth running of the whole Civil Service as well as serving ministers collectively in the conduct of Cabinet business and ensuring the coordination of policy of the highest leveling each ministry or department the senior official, or Permanent Secretary, and his or her immediate subordinates, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, remain responsible for assisting their minister in the implementation of government policy.
The activities of Parliament in Britain are more or less the same as those of the Parliament in any western democracy. It makes new laws, gives authority for the government to raise and spend money, keeps a close eye on government activities and discusses those activities.
The British Parliament works in a large building called the Palace of Westminster ( popularly known as ‘ the House of Parliament’). This contains offices, committee rooms, restaurants, bars, libraries and even some places of residence. It also contains two larger rooms. One of these is where the House of Lords meets, the other is where the House of Commons meets. The British Parliament is divided into two ‘houses’, and its members belong to one or other of them, although only members of Commons are normally known as MPs. The Commons is by far the more important of the two houses.
The design and layout of the inside of the meeting room of the House of Commons differ from the interior of the parliament buildings in most other countries. These differences can tell us a lot of about what is distinctive about the British Parliament.
Seating arrangement: there are just two rows of benches facing each other. On the left are the government benches, where the MPs of the governing party sit. On the right are opposition benches. There is no opportunity in this layout for a reflection of all various shades of opinion (as there is with a semi-circle). According to where they sit, MPs are seen to be either ’for’ the government (supporting it) or against it. This physical division is emphasized by the table on the floor of the House between the two rows of benches. The Speaker’s chair which is raised some way off the floor, is also here. From this commanding position, the Speaker controls the debates. The arrangement of the benches encourages confrontation between government and opposition. It also reinforces psychologically the reality of the British two-party system. There are no ‘cross-benches’ for MPs who belong neither to the government nor to the main opposition party. In practice, these MPs sit on the opposition benches furthest from the Speaker’s chair.
The Commons has no ‘front’, no obvious place from which an MP can address everybody there. MPs simply stand up and speak from wherever they happen to be sitting. There are no desks for the MPs. The benches where they sit are exactly and only that-benches, just as in a church. This makes it physically easy for them to drift in and out of the room, which is something that they frequently do during debates. The House is very small. In fact, there isn’t enough room for all the MPs. There more than 650 of them, but there is seating for less than 400. a candidate at an election is said to have won ’a seat’ in the Commons, but this ‘seat’ is imaginary. MPs do not have their ‘own’ place to sit. No names are marked on the benches. MPs just sit down wherever (on ‘their’ side of the House) they can find room.
All these features result in a fairly informal atmosphere. Individual MPs, without their own ’territory’ (which a personal seat and desk would give them), are encouraged to co-operate. Moreover, the small size of the House, together with the lack of a podium or dais from which to address it, means that MPs do not normally speak in the way that they would at a large rally. MPs normally speak in a conversational tone, and because they have nowhere to place their notes while speaking, they do not normally speak for very long either. It is only on particularly important occasions, when all the MPs are present, that passionate oratory is sometimes used.
One more thing should be noted about the design of House of Commons. It is deliberate. Historically, it was an accident: In medieval times, the Commons met in a church and churches of that time often had rows of benches facing each other. But after the House was badly damaged by bombing in 1941, it was deliberately rebuilt to the old pattern.
The ancient habits are preserved today in the many customs and detailed rules of procedure which all new MPs find that they have to learn. The most noticeable of theses is the rule that forbids MPs to address one another directly or use personal names. All remarks and questions must go’ through the Chair’. An MP who is speaking refers to or asks a question of ’ the honourable Member for Winchester’ or ‘ my right honourable friend’. The MP for Winchester may be sitting directly opposite, but the MP never says ‘you’. These ancient rules were originally formulated to take the ‘heat’ out of debate and decrease the possibility hat violence might break out. Today, they lend a touch of formality which balances the informal aspects of the Commons and further increases the feeling of MPs that belong to a special group of people.
THE PARTY SYSTEM IN PARLIAMENT
Most divisions take place along party lines. MPs know that they owe their position to their party, so they always vote the way that their party tells them to. The people who make sure that MPs do this are called the Whips. Each of the two major parties has several MPs who perform this role. It is their job to inform all MPs in their party how they should vote. By tradition, if the government loses a vote in Parliament on a very important matter, it has to resign. Therefore, when there is a division on such a matter MPs are expected to go to the House and vote even if they have not been there during the debate.
The Whips act as intermediaries between the backbenchers and the frontbench of a party. They keep the party leadership informed about backbench opinion. They are powerful people. Because they’ have the ear’ of the party leaders, they can have an effect on which backbenchers get promoted to the front bench and which do not. For reasons such as this, ‘ rebellions’ among a group of a party’s MPs are very rare.
Sometimes the two major parties allow a ‘free vote’, when MPs vote according to their own beliefs and not according to party policy. Some quite important decisions, such as the abolition of the death penalty and the decision to allow television cameras into the Commons, have been made in this way.