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Politics of the United Kingdom

The politics of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland takes place in the framework of a constitutional monarchy, in which the Monarch is head of state and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of government. Executive power is exercised by the UK government and the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales and the Executive of Northern Ireland. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as in the Scottish parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature, though several senior judges are still members of the House of Lords, which is currently the highest court of the UK for civil cases and the highest court of England and Wales for criminal cases. Starting in 2009 however, the judicial role of the House of Lords will be scrapped under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

The UK is a multi-party system and since the 1920s, the two largest political parties have been the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Though coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of Parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties, though each has in the past century relied upon a third party to deliver a working majority in Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats, a party formed by the merger of the former Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party in 1988, is the third largest party in the British parliament. It seeks a reform of the electoral system to address the disproportionate dominance of the two main parties that results from the current system.

Growing support for 'Nationalist' parties in Scotland and Wales led to proposals for devolution in the 1970s though only in the 1990s did devolution actually happen. Today, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each possess a legislature and government alongside that of the United Kingdom, responsible for devolved matters. However, this increased autonomy and devolution of executive and legislative powers has not contributed to a reduction in support for full independence. Indeed, the principal pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party, won 20 extra MSPs at the 2007 Scottish parliament elections and now forms the Scottish Government, with plans to hold a referendum on negotiating for independence, before 2011. In Wales, the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, is the junior coalition partner in the Welsh Assembly Government. In Northern Ireland, the largest Pro-Belfast Agreement party, Sinn Féin, not only advocates Northern Ireland's reunification with the Republic of Ireland, but also abstains from taking their elected seats in the Westminister government, as this would entail taking a pledge of allegience to the British monarch.

The constitution is uncodified, being made up of constitutional conventions, statutes and other elements.

This system of government, known as the Westminster system, has been adopted by other countries as well, such as Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and Jamaica, countries that made up part of the British Empire.

Monarch

The head of state, theoretical and nominal source of executive, judicial and legislative power in the UK is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. However, sovereignty in the UK no longer rests with the monarch, since the English Bill of Rights in 1689, which established the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. Nonetheless, the monarch is still known as the sovereign.

The British sovereign possesses many powers, including the right to choose any British citizen to be her Prime Minister and the right to call and dissolve Parliament whenever she wishes. However, in accordance with the current uncodified constitution, the Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, and Parliament is dissolved at the time suggested by the PM. The monarch retains the ability to deny giving a bill Royal Assent, although in modern times this becomes increasingly more unlikely, as it would cause a constitutional crisis. Queen Anne was the last monarch to exercise this power, which she did on 11 March 1708 with regard to a bill "for the settling of Militia in Scotland". Other royal powers called royal prerogative, such as patronage to appoint ministers and the ability to declare war, are exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, with the formal consent of the Queen.

Today the sovereign has an essentially ceremonial role restricted in exercise of power by convention and public opinion. However the monarch does continue to exercise three essential rights: the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn. As a consequence of these ideals, Prime Ministers hold weekly confidential meetings with the monarch in which the sovereign holds the right to express her opinions.

In formal terms, the Crown in Parliament is sovereign even though in practical terms the political head of the UK is the Prime Minister (Gordon Brown since 27 June 2007). However, the real powers of position of the monarch in the British Constitution should not be downplayed. The monarch does indeed retain some power, but it has to be used with discretion. She fulfills the necessary constitutional role as head of state, and with the absence of a distinct separation of powers as in the American model and a strong second chamber, acts as a final check on executive power. If a time came to pass, for instance, when a law threatened the freedom or security of her subjects and citizens, the Queen could decline royal assent, free as she is from the eddies of party politics. Furthermore, armed removal of her by Parliament or Government would be difficult, as the monarch remains commander-in-chief of the armed forces, who swear an oath of allegiance to her.

Executive

Executive power in the United Kingdom is exercised on behalf of the Sovereign, in whom executive power is theoretically and nominally vested, by the UK government and the devolved Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

The monarch appoints a Prime Minister as the head of Her Majesty's Government, guided by the strict convention that the Prime Minister should be the member of the House of Commons most likely to be able to form a Government with the support of that House. In practice, this means that the leader of the political party with an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons is chosen to be the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then selects the other Ministers which make up the Government and act as political heads of the various Government Departments. About twenty of the most senior government ministers make up the Cabinet and approximately 100 ministers in total comprise the government. In accordance with constitutional convention, all ministers within the government are either Members of Parliament or peers in the House of Lords.

As in some other parliamentary systems of government (especially those based upon the Westminster System), the executive (called "the government") is drawn from and is answerable to Parliament - a successful vote of no confidence will force the government either to resign or to seek a parliamentary dissolution and a general election. In practice, members of parliament of all major parties are strictly controlled by whips who try to ensure they vote according to party policy. If the government has a large majority, then they are very unlikely to lose enough votes to be unable to pass legislation.

In November 2005, the Blair government suffered its first defeat, on a proposal to extend the period for detaining terrorist suspects to 90 days. Before this, the last bill proposed by a government that was defeated in the House of Commons was the Shop Hours Bill in 1986, one of only three in the 20th century. Governments with a small majority, or coalition governments are much more vulnerable to defeat. They sometimes have to resort to extreme measures, such as "wheeling in" sick MPs, to get the necessary majority. Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and Tony Blair in 1997 were swept into power with such large majorities that even allowing for dissent within their parties, they were assured of winning practically all parliamentary votes, and thus were able to implement radical programmes of legislative reform and innovation. But other Prime Ministers who enjoy only slender majorities, such as John Major in 1992, can easily lose votes if relatively small numbers of their backbench MPs defy the whip and vote against the Government's proposals. Therefore, Governments with small majorities find it more difficult to implement controversial legislation and can become bogged down cutting deals with factions within their party or seeking assistance from other political parties.

The Government of the United Kingdom contains a number of ministries known mainly, though not exclusively as departments, e.g. Ministry of Defence. These are politically led by a Government Minister who is often a Secretary of State and member of the Cabinet. He or she may also be supported by a number of junior Ministers. In practice, several government departments and Ministers have responsibilities that cover England alone, where devolved bodies having responsibility for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, (for example - the Department of Health), or responsibilities that mainly focus on England (such as the Department for Children, Schools and Families).

Implementation of the Minister's decisions is carried out by a permanent politically neutral organization known as the civil service. Its constitutional role is to support the Government of the day regardless of which political party is in power. Unlike some other democracies, senior civil servants remain in post upon a change of Government. Administrative management of the Department is led by a head civil servant known in most Departments as a Permanent Secretary. The majority of the civil service staff in fact work in executive agencies, which are separate operational organizations reporting to Departments of State.

"Whitehall" is often used as a synonym for the central core of the Civil Service. This is because most Government Departments have headquarters in and around the former Royal Palace Whitehall.

Devolved national administrations

The Scottish Government is responsible for all issues that are not explicitly reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster, by the Scotland Act; including NHS Scotland, education, justice, rural affairs, and transport. It manages an annual budget of more than £30 billion. The government is led by the First Minister, assisted by various Ministers with individual portfolios and remits. The Scottish Parliament nominates a Member to be appointed as First Minister by the Queen. The First Minister then appoints his Ministers (now known as Cabinet Secretaries) and junior Ministers, subject to approval by the Parliament. The First Minister, the Ministers (but not junior ministers), the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General are the Members of the 'Scottish Executive', as set out in the Scotland Act 1998. They are collectively known as "the Scottish Ministers".

Legislatures

The UK Parliament is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom (i.e., there is parliamentary sovereignty), and Government is drawn from and answerable to it. Parliament is bicameral, consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. There is also a devolved Scottish Parliament and devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, with varying degrees of legislative authority.

UK Parliament

House of Commons

Each country of the UK is divided into parliamentary constituencies of broadly equal population by its Boundary Commission. Each constituency elects a Member of Parliament (MP) to the House of Commons at a General Elections and, if required, at by-elections. The number of constituencies will increase from the current 646 to 650 at the next general election. Of the current 646 MPs, all but one belong to a political party. In modern times, all Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have been drawn from the Commons, not the Lords. Alec Douglas-Home resigned from his peerages days after becoming Prime Minister in 1963, and the last Prime Minister before him from the Lords left in 1902 (the Marquess of Salisbury).

One party usually has a majority in Parliament, because of the use of the First Past the Post electoral system, which has been conducive in creating the current two party system. The monarch normally asks a person commissioned to form a government simply whether it can survive in the House of Commons, something which majority governments are expected to be able to do. In exceptional circumstances the monarch asks someone to 'form a government' with a parliamentary minority which in the event of no party having a majority requires the formation of a coalition government. This option is only ever taken at a time of national emergency, such as war-time. It was given in 1916 to Andrew Bonar Law, and when he declined, to David Lloyd George and in 1940 to Winston Churchill. It is worth noting that a government is not formed by a vote of the House of Commons, merely a commission from the monarch. The House of Commons gets its first chance to indicate confidence in the new government when it votes on the Speech from the Throne (the legislative programme proposed by the new government).

House of Lords

The House of Lords was previously a hereditary, aristocratic chamber. It is currently mid-way through extensive reforms, the most recent of these being enacted in the House of Lords Act 1999. The house currently consists of two parts, the Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual. Lords Temporal include appointed members (life peers with no hereditary right for their descendants to sit in the house) and the remaining 92 hereditary peers. The Lords Spiritual represent the established Church of England and consists of 26 members, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury and the 24 most senior Bishops of the church. It currently acts to review legislation formed by the House of Commons, with the power to propose amendments, and exercises a suspensive veto. This allows it to delay legislation if it does not approve for twelve months. However, the use of vetoes is limited by convention and the operation of the Parliament Acts: the Lords may not veto the "money bills" or major manifesto promises (see Salisbury convention). Persistent use of the veto can also be overturned by the Parliament Act by the Commons. Often governments will accept changes in legislation in order to avoid both the time delay, and the negative publicity of being seen to clash with the Lords. However the Lords still retain a full veto in acts which would extend the life of Parliament beyond the 5 year term limit introduced by the Parliament Act 1911.

The House of Lords is currently also the final court of appeal on civil cases within the United Kingdom, although in practice only a small subset of the House of Lords, known as the Law Lords, hears judicial cases. In accordance with the legal doctrine of stare decisis, the House of Lords supersedes all civil and criminal courts in England & Wales. (The House of Lords has no role in criminal case appeals in Scotland.) The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 outlines plans for a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to replace the role of the Law Lords.

Devolved national legislatures

Though the UK parliament remains the sovereign parliament, Scotland also has its own parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have assemblies. De jure, each could have its powers broadened, narrowed or changed by an Act of the UK Parliament. However, Scotland has a tradition of popular sovereignty as opposed to parliamentary sovereignty and the fact that the Scottish parliament was established following a referendum would make it politically difficult to significantly alter its powers without popular consent. The UK is therefore a unitary state with a devolved system of government. This contrasts with a federal system, in which sub-parliaments or state parliaments and assemblies have a clearly defined constitutional right to exist and a right to exercise certain constitutionally guaranteed and defined functions and cannot be unilaterally abolished by Acts of the central parliament.

All three devolved institutions are elected by proportional representation:the Additional Member System is used in Scotland and Wales, and Single Transferable Vote is used in Northern Ireland.

England, therefore, is the only country in the UK not to have a devolved English parliament. However, senior politicians of all main parties have voiced concerns in regard to the West Lothian Question, which is raised where certain policies for England are set by MPs from all four constituent nations whereas similar policies for Scotland or Wales might be decided in the devolved assemblies by legislators from those countries alone. Alternative proposals for English regional government have stalled, following a poorly received referendum on devolved government for the North East of England, which had hitherto been considered the region most in favour of the idea, with the exception of Cornwall, where there is widespread support for a Cornish Assembly, including all five Cornish MPs. England is therefore governed according to the balance of parties across the whole of the United Kingdom.

The government has no plans to establish an English parliament or assembly although several pressure groups are calling for one. One of their main arguments is that MPs (and thus voters) from different parts of the UK have inconsistent powers. Currently an MP from Scotland can vote on legislation which affects only England but MPs from England (or indeed Scotland) cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is an MP for a Scottish constituency, introduces some laws that only affect England and not his own constituency. This anomaly is known as the West Lothian question.

The policy of the UK Government in England was to establish elected regional assemblies with no legislative powers. The London Assembly was the first of these, established in 2000, following a referendum in 1998, but further plans were abandoned following rejection of a proposal for an elected assembly in North East England in a referendum in 2004. Unelected regional assemblies remain in place in eight regions of England.

Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament is the national, unicameral legislature of Scotland, located in the Holyrood area of the capital Edinburgh. The Parliament, informally referred to as "Holyrood" (cf. "Westminster"), is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members who are known as Members of the Scottish Parliament, or MSPs. Members are elected for four-year terms under the mixed member proportional representation system. As a result, 73 MSPs represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the plurality ("first past the post") system, with a further 56 returned from eight additional member regions, each electing seven MSPs.

The current Scottish Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998 and its first meeting as a devolved legislature was on 12 May 1999. The parliament has the power to pass laws and has limited tax-varying capability. Another of its jobs is to hold the Scottish Government to account. The "devolved matters" over which it has responsibility include education, health, agriculture, and justice. A degree of domestic authority, and all foreign policy, remains with the UK Parliament in Westminster.

The public take part in Parliament in a way that is not the case at Westminster through Cross Party Groups on policy topics which the interested public join and attend meetings of alongside Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).

The resurgence in Celtic language and identity, as well as 'regional' politics and development, has contributed to forces pulling against the unity of the state. This was clearly demonstrated when- although some argue it was influenced by general public dillusionment with Labour- the Scottish National Party became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament by one seat. Alex Salmond (leader of SNP) has since made history by becoming the first First Minister of Scotland from a party other than Labour. The SNP rule as a minority government at Holyrood. Nevertheless, recent opinion polls have suggested that nationalism (i.e. a desire to break up the UK) is rising within Scotland and England. However, the polls have been known to be inaccurate in the past (for example, in the run up to the 1992 General Election). Moreover, polls carried out in the 1970s and the 1990s showed similar results, only to be debunked at elections. While support for breaking up the UK was strongest in Scotland, there was still a clear lead for unionism over nationalism. However, an opinion poll in April 2008 suggested the result of any referendum on Scottish independence could be close as support for independence had reached 41% with just 40% supporting retention of the Union.

Welsh Assembly

The National Assembly for Wales is a devolved assembly with power to make legislation in Wales, and is also responsible for Welsh Assembly Government departments in Wales. The Assembly was formed under the Government of Wales Act 1998, by the Labour government, after a referendum in 1997 (also supported by Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats) approved its creation.

There is now a legal separation of the legislative and executive functions of the National Assembly, since the passing of the Government of Wales Act 2006. The Act created a separate executive called the "Welsh Assembly Government" which performs the day to day running of government affairs and contains members of the highest elected party of the Assembly chamber. The act also made the National Assembly for Wales a separate entity from the Welsh Assembly Government, and this entity scrutinizes the government in power. The "Assembly Commission" was also created to ensure the smooth running of resources and gathering of accurate facts for the Assembly to deal with.

As of the passing of the Government of Wales Act 2006, the National Assembly for Wales now has its own legislative powers known as Assembly Measures. Each Assembly Measure derives its power from a Legislative Competency Order which has to be passed by the Assembly and two Houses of Parliament. Before the 2006 Act, the Assembly did not have such legislative power and only had the right to develop Subordinate legislation off primary legislation made by the UK Parliament.

Northern Ireland assembly

The current government of Northern Ireland was established as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This created the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly is a unicameral body consisting of 108 members elected under the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. The Assembly is based on the principle of power-sharing, in order to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist, participate in governing the region. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas and to elect the Northern Ireland Executive (cabinet). It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.

The Assembly has authority to legislate in a field of competences known as "transferred matters". These matters are not explicitly enumerated in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but instead include any competence not explicitly retained by the Parliament at Westminster. Powers reserved by Westminster are divided into "excepted matters", which it retains indefinitely, and "reserved matters", which may be transferred to the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly at a future date. Health and education are "transferred" but criminal law and police are "reserved" and royal succession, defence and international relations are all "excepted".

While the Assembly was in suspension, due to issues involving the main parties and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), its legislative powers were exercised by the UK government, which effectively had power to legislate by decree. Laws that would normally be within the competence of the Assembly were passed by the UK government in the form of Orders-in-Council rather than legislative acts.

There has been a significant decrease in violence over the last twenty years, though the situation remains tense, with the more hard-line parties such as Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists now holding the most parliamentary seats (see Demographics and politics of Northern Ireland).

Judiciary

The United Kingdom does not have a single legal system due to it being created by the political union of previously independent countries with the terms of the Treaty of Union guaranteeing the continued existence of Scotland's separate legal system. Today the UK has three distinct systems of law: English law, Northern Ireland law and Scots law. Recent constitutional changes will see a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom come into being in October 2009 that will take on the appeal functions of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, comprising the same members as the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth countries, the UK overseas territories, and the British crown dependencies.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Both English law, which applies in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland law are based on common-law principles. The essence of common-law is that law is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of legal precedent (stare decisis) to the facts before them. The Courts of England and Wales are headed by the Supreme Court of Judicature of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (usually just referred to, as "The House of Lords") is presently the highest court in the land for both criminal and civil cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and any decision it makes is binding on every other court in the hierarchy.

Scotland

Scots law, a hybrid system based on both common-law and civil-law principles, applies in Scotland. The chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (usually just referred to as "The House of Lords") presently serves as the highest court of appeal for civil cases under Scots law but only if the Court of Session grants leave to appeal or the initial judgement was by a majority decision. Sheriff courts deal with most civil and criminal cases including conducting criminal trials with a jury, known as Sheriff solemn Court, or with a Sheriff and no jury, known as (Sheriff summary Court). The Sheriff courts provide a local court service with 49 Sheriff courts organised across six Sheriffdoms.

Electoral systems

Various electoral systems are used in the UK:

Unlike many European nations, the United Kingdom uses a first-past-the-post system to elect members of Parliament. Therefore, elections and political parties in the United Kingdom are affected by Duverger's Law, which causes the agglomeration of related political ideologies into a few large parties with many small parties rarely winning representation.

In the last few general elections, voter mandates for Westminster in the 40% ranges have been swung into 60% parliamentary majorities. No government has won a majority of the popular vote since the National Government of Stanley Baldwin in 1935. Twice since World War II (in 1951 and February 1974) the party with fewer popular votes actually came out with the larger number of seats. One reason for all the quirks is that Britain has many political parties, making it possible to win individual constituencies on less than 50% of the vote due to the opposition votes being divided.

Electoral reform has been considered for general elections many times, but after the Jenkins Commission report in October 1998, which suggested the Alternative vote top-up for general elections was effectively ignored by the government, there have been no further government proposals for reform. It is highly unlikely that electoral reform will happen unless there is a significant change in the balance of power and Labour loses its large majority. The broad-based Make Votes Count Coalition continues to campaign for reform.

Low turnout is a concern, as the percentage of the electorate who voted in the last general election was just 61%.

Political parties

Historically, the United Kingdom had two major political parties, though currently three parties dominate the political landscape. Originally, the Conservatives and the Liberals dominated British politics, but the Liberal Party collapsed in the early twentieth century and was largely replaced by the Labour Party. In the 1980s, the Liberals merged with the Social Democratic Party and, as the Liberal Democrats, are viewed as the third major party. Other parties, often called minor parties (in UK terms at least) contest elections but few except those which are based in single countries of the United Kingdom win seats in Parliament. The Scottish National Party has had MPs continuously since 1967, and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists, has had MPs continuously since 1974. All 18 MPs elected from Northern Ireland are from parties that just contest elections in Northern Ireland (or in the case of Sinn Féin, the island of Ireland.)

In the most recent general election in 2005, the Labour Party won re-election on a reduced majority, with both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats making gains.

Labour

The Labour Party won the majority of seats in the House of Commons at the 2005 general election,with 356 MPs

The history of the Labour party goes back to 1900 when a Labour Representation Committee was established which and it changed its name to The Labour Party in 1906. After the First World War, this led to the demise of the Liberal Party as the main reformist force in British politics. The existence of the Labour Party on the left of British politics led to a slow waning of energy from the Liberal Party, which has consequently assumed third place in national politics. After performing poorly in the elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924, the Liberal Party was superseded by the Labour Party as the party of the left.

Following two brief spells in minority governments in 1924 and 1929–1931, the Labour Party had its first true victory after World War II in the 1945 "khaki election". Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, Labour governments alternated with Conservative governments. The Conservatives were in power for most of the time, with the Labour Party suffering the "wilderness years" of 1951-1964 (three straight General Election defeats) and 1979-1997 (four straight General Election defeats).

During this second period, Margaret Thatcher, who became leader of the Conservative party in 1975, made a fundamental change to Conservative policies, turning the Conservative Party into an economic neoliberal party. In the General Election of 1979 she defeated James Callaghan's troubled Labour government after the winter of discontent.

For most of the 1980s and the 1990s, Conservative governments under Thatcher and her successor John Major pursued policies of privatization, anti-trade-unionism, and, for a time, Monetarism, now known collectively as Thatcherism.

The Labour Party elected left-winger Michael Foot as their leader after their 1979 election defeat, and he responded to dissatisfaction with the Labour Party by pursuing a number of radical policies developed by its grass-roots members. In 1981 several right-wing Labour MPs formed a breakaway group called the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a move which split Labour and is widely believed to have made Labour unelectable for a decade. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party which contested the 1983 and 1987 general elections as a centrist alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. After some initial success, the SDP did not prosper (partly due to its unfavourable distribution of votes in the FPTP electoral system), and was accused by some of splitting the anti-Conservative vote.

The SDP eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Support for the new party has increased since then, and the Liberal Democrats (often referred to as LibDems) in 1997 and 2001 gained an increased number of seats in the House of Commons.

The Labour Party was badly defeated in the Conservative landslide of the 1983 general election, and Michael Foot was replaced shortly thereafter by Neil Kinnock as leader. Kinnock expelled the far left Militant tendency group and moderated many of the party's policies. Yet he was in turn replaced by John Smith after Labour defeats in the 1987 and 1992 general elections.

Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party after John Smith's sudden death from a heart attack in 1994. He continued to move the Labour Party back towards the 'centre' by loosening links with the unions and embracing many of Margaret Thatcher's liberal economic policies. This, coupled with the professionalising of the party machine's approach to the media, helped Labour win a historic landslide in the 1997 General Election, after 18 years of Conservative government. Some observers say the Labour Party had by then morphed from a democratic socialist party to a social democratic party, a process which delivered three general election victories but alienated some of its core base.

Conservatives (Tories)

The Conservative Party won the second largest number of seats at the 2005 general election and remained the official opposition, a position they have held continuously since they lost power at the 1997 general election.

The Conservative party can trace its origin back to 1662, with the Court Party and the Country Party being formed in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Country Party soon became known as the Tories, a name that has stuck despite the official name being 'Conservative'. The term "Tory" originates from the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678-1681 - the Whigs were those who supported the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Duke of York from the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland, and the Tories were those who opposed it. Both names were originally insults: a "whiggamore" was a horse drover (See Whiggamore Raid), and a "tory" (Tóraidhe) was an Irish term for an outlaw, later applied to Irish Confederates and Irish Royalists, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Generally, the Tories were associated with lesser gentry and the Church of England, while Whigs were more associated with trade, money, larger land holders (or "land magnates"), expansion and tolerance. Both were still committed to the political system in place at that time. Neither group could be considered a true political party in the modern sense.

The Rochdale Radicals were a group of more extreme reformists who were also heavily involved in the cooperative movement. They sought to bring about a more equal society, and are considered by modern standards to be left-wing.

After becoming associated with repression of popular discontent in the years after 1815, the Tories underwent a fundamental transformation under the influence of Robert Peel, himself an industrialist rather than a landowner, who in his 1834 "Tamworth Manifesto" outlined a new "Conservative" philosophy of reforming ills while conserving the good.

Though Peel's supporters subsequently split from their colleagues over the issue of free trade in 1846, ultimately joining the Whigs and the Radicals to form what would become the Liberal Party, Peel's version of the party's underlying outlook was retained by the remaining Tories, who adopted his label of Conservative as the official name of their party.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats won the third largest number of seats at the 2005 general election, winning 62. The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal Party with the Social Democratic Party, but can trace their origin back to the Whigs and the Rochdale Radicals who evolved into the Liberal Party. The term 'Liberal Party' was first used officially in 1868, though it had been in use colloquially for decades beforehand. The Liberal Party formed a government in 1868 and then alternated with the Conservative Party as the party of government throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Scottish and Welsh Nationalists

Members of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru work together as a single parliamentary group following a formal pact signed in 1986. This group currently has 10 MPs.

The Scottish National Party has enjoyed parliamentary representation continuously since 1967 and had 6 MPs elected at the 2005 election. It has since added to this number following its by-election win in Glasgow East. Following the 2007 Scottish parliament elections, the SNP emerged as the largest party with 47 MSPs and formed a minority government with Alex Salmond the First Minister.

Plaid Cymru has enjoyed parliamentary representation continuously since 1974 and had 3 MPs elected at the 2005 election. Following the 2007 Welsh Assembly elections, they joined Labour as the junior partner in a coalition government.

Northern Ireland parties

The Democratic Unionist Party had 9 MPs elected at the 2005 election. Founded in 1971 by Ian Paisley, it has grown to become the larger of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland. Other Northern Ireland parties represented at Westminster include the SDLP (3 MPs), the Official Unionist Party (1 MP) and Sinn Fein (5 MPs), though the Sinn Fein MPs are barred from taking their seats as they refuse to swear the oath to the Queen.

Other parliamentary parties

The Respect party, a left-wing group that came out of the anti-war movement has one MP, George Galloway, and a small number of seats on local councils across the country.

United Kingdom Independence Party has as of yet not won a single House of Commons seat at an election, but on 22 April 2008 welcomed the defection of Bob Spink MP for Castle Point, to date its only MP. The party also has two Lords in the House of Lords who defected from the Conservative Party and has the third largest British block of MEPs in the European Parliament. Two UKIP members were elected to the London Assembly in 2000, but they quit the party in February 2005 to join Veritas which they quit in September 2005 to sit as One London members. They were not re-elected in 2008.

There are also a few independent politicians with no party allegiance. This normally occurs only when an MP decides to break with his party in mid-session. Since 1950 only two MPs have been elected as genuine independents, though others have been elected after breaking away from their party:

  • Martin Bell represented the Tatton constituency in Cheshire between 1997 and 2001. He was elected following a "sleaze" scandal involving the sitting Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton -- Bell, a BBC journalist, stood as an anticorruption independent candidate, and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties withdrew their candidates from the election.
  • Dr. Richard Taylor MP was elected for the Wyre Forest constituency in the 2001 on a platform opposing the closure of Kidderminster hospital. He later established Health Concern, the party under which he ran in 2005.

Non-Parliamentary political parties

Other minor UK political parties exist, but generally do not succeed in returning MPs to Parliament.

The Green Party of England and Wales has seats in the European Parliament as well as two seats on the London Assembly.

The Scottish Green Party has 2 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament and a number of local councillors.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has several MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly and a number of local councillors.

Veritas has one Member of the European Parliament (MEP), its founder and former leader Robert Kilroy Silk, though he was elected for UKIP (which he later left).

The British National Party (BNP) has a seat on the London Assembly as well as a number of councillors.

Other parties include: the English Democrats, the Socialist Workers Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Liberal Party, Mebyon Kernow (a Cornish nationalist party) in Cornwall, and the Communist Left Alliance (in Fife).

Several local parties contest only within a specific area, a single county, borough or district. Examples include the Better Bedford Independent Party, one of the dominant parties in Bedford Borough Council, led by Bedford's current Mayor, Frank Branston. The most notable local party is Health Concern, which controls a single seat in the UK Parliament.

Current political landscape

Since the 2005 General Election, each of the main political parties has changed party leader: David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservatives in 2005, Gordon Brown was elected unopposed to lead the Labour Party (and therefore become Prime Minister) in June 2007, and Nick Clegg was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in December 2007.

The Conservatives under David Cameron have seen their popularity grow, as shown by their success at the Local Elections in May 2008, the London Mayoral Election and opinion polls which show a strong lead over Labour. They also won a by election in Crewe and Nantwich with a swing of 17.6%.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has been making strong advances, winning the Scottish general election in May 2007 and gaining support in national opinion polls since then. In July 2008, the SNP achieved a remarkable by-election victory in Glasgow East, winning the third safest Labour seat in Scotland with a swing of 22.54%.

Local Government

The UK is divided into a variety of different types of Local Authorities, with different functions and responsibilities.

England has a mix of two-tier and single-tier councils in different parts of the country. In Greater London, a unique two-tier system exists, with power shared between the London borough councils, and the Greater London Authority which is headed by an elected mayor.

Unitary Authorities are used throughout Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

European Union

The United Kingdom is a member of the European Union (EU). As such, UK citizens elect Members of the European Parliament to represent them in the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg. The UK elects 78 MEPs.

In recent years, there have been divisions in both major parties as to whether the UK should form greater ties within the EU, leave things as they are, or reduce the EU's supranational powers. Opponents of greater European integration are known as Eurosceptics, supporters Europhiles. Divisions over Europe run deep in both major parties. The Conservative Party is seen as most split over this issue, whilst in Government up to 1997, and today in opposition. However the Labour Party is also split, with conflicting views within Cabinet over UK adoption of the euro, and on ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon.

UK nationalists have long campaigned against EU integration. The strong showing of the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2004 European Parliament elections has shifted the debate over UK relations with the EU.

British lawmakers rejected calls 5 March 2008 to give the public a vote on adopting the Treaty of Lisbon, sealed 18 December 2007.

International organization participation

See also

Notes



External links

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