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Great Britain’s Constitution and Government

How does Britain elect its government ?

Parliament, the law-making body of the British people, consists of three elements: the Monarchy, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They meet together only on occasions of ceremonial significance, such as the state opening of Parliament, although the agreement of all three is normally required for legislation.

The House of Commons consists of 659 elected members called Members of Parliament or MPs. Its main purpose is to make laws by passing Acts of Parliament, as well as to discuss current political issues. Elections to the House of Commons are an important part of Britain's democratic system.

The roles, powers and functions of the second chamber, the House of Lords have been the subject of a Royal Commission, established in February 1999 under the chairmanship of Lord Wakeham. Its report, published in January 2000, recommended a number of reform measures, including a totally independent appointments system with a remit to bring in representatives from all sectors of society; a statutory minimum (30%) for both women and men; fair representation for members of ethnic groups and a broader range of religious representation.

General elections are held after Parliament has been 'dissolved', either by a royal proclamation or because the maximum term between elections - five years - has expired. The decision on when to hold a general election is made by the Prime Minister. For electoral purposes Britain is divided into constituencies, each of which returns one MP to the House of Commons. The British electoral system is based on the relative majority method - sometimes called the 'first past the post' principle - which means the candidate with more votes than any other is elected.

Right to vote: All British citizens together with citizens of other Commonwealth countries and citizens of the Irish Republic resident in Britain may vote, provided they are aged 18 years or over and not legally barred from voting. People not entitled to vote include those serving prison sentences, peers and peeresses who are members of the House of Lords, and those kept in hospital under mental health legislation. Voting is by secret ballot. The elector selects just one candidate on the ballot paper and marks an 'X' by the candidate's name. Voting in elections is voluntary. On average about 75 per cent of the electorate votes.

Right to stand for election: Any person aged 21 or over who is a British citizen or citizen of another Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic may stand for election to Parliament, provided they are not disqualified. People disqualified include those who are bankrupt, those sentenced to more than one year's imprisonment, members of the clergy, members of the House of Lords and a range of public servants and officials. Approved candidates are usually selected by their political party organisations in the constituency which they represent, although candidates do not have to have party backing. The leader of the political party which wins most seats (although not necessarily most votes) at a general election, or who has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons, is by convention invited by the Sovereign to form the new government.

What does devolution mean for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

The Scotland Act 1998 provided for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Executive, following endorsement of the UK Government's proposals on devolution in a referendum held in 1997. The result was 1,775,045 votes (74.3%) in favour and 614,400 votes (25.7%) against. In the first election to the new parliament in May 1999, 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) were elected for a fixed four-year term.

The Scottish Parliament's devolved responsibilities include health, education and training, local government, housing, economic development, home affairs and many aspects of civil and criminal law, transport, the environment, agriculture, fisheries and forestry, sport and the arts. In these areas it can amend or repeal existing Acts of Parliament and pass new legislation.

Government proposals for devolution in Wales were endorsed in a referendum in 1997 by 559,419 votes (50.3%) to 552,698 votes (49.7%). The new Welsh Assembly, elected in May 1999, has 60 members, 40 from local constituencies and 20 elected by the system of proportional representation from electoral regions.

On 1 July 1999, the Assembly took over virtually all the functions formerly held by the Secretary of State for Wales. Foreign affairs, defence, taxation, overall economic policy, social security and broadcasting are the main functions for which responsibility has remained with the Government in London.

Multi-party talks in Belfast concluded in April 1998 with what became known as the 'Good Friday Agreement'. Legislation was passed at Westminster authorising a referendum on the settlement in Northern Ireland and permitting elections to a new Northern Ireland Assembly. In May1998, referendums were held in both parts of Ireland and the Agreement received a clear endorsement. Northern Ireland voted 71.1% in favour and 28.8% against, while in the Irish Republic the result was 94.3% and 5.6% respectively.

A new Northern Ireland Assembly was elected in June 1998 and met for the first time the following month. Legislation to implement the settlement and formally institute devolved administrative powers was introduced in the Westminster Parliament in July 1998 and received Royal Assent the following November. However, the decommissioning of weapons remained an obstacle to implementation and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, temporarily suspended the Assembly in February 2000. When the Irish Republican Army (IRA) issued a statement committing itself to "a process that will completely and verifiably put arms beyond use" the Assembly was restored on 22 May 2000.

What are the origins of the names of the main political parties?

The Conservative and Unionist Party dates back to the Tory Party of the late eighteenth century. This broadly represented the interests of the country gentry, merchant classes and official administerial groups. After Britain's 1832 (electoral) Reform Act, members of the old Tory Party began forming conservative associations. The name Conservative was first used as a description of the Party in the Quarterly Review of January 1830 -'conservative' because the Party aims to conserve traditional values and practices.

The original title of the Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee, makes the origins of the party clear - to promote the interests of the industrial working class. In 1900 the Trades Union Congress (TUC) co-operated with the Independent Labour Party (founded 1893) to establish The Labour Representation Committee with Ramsay MacDonald as First Secretary. This took the name Labour Party in 1906.

The Liberal Party emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a successor to the historic Whig party. 'Whig' was originally a Scottish Gaelic term applied to horse thieves! In the late eighteenth century the Whig Party represented those who sought electoral, parliamentary and philanthropic reforms. After 1832 the mainly aristocratic Whigs were joined by increasing numbers of middle-class members. By 1839 the term Liberal Party was being used, and the first unequivocally Liberal government was formed in 1868 by William Gladstone. In 1988 the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) merged into a single party called the Liberal Democrats.


The texts presented here have been placed with friendly approval of the British embassy on non-commercial basis. You find further information about Great Britain and the UK on the web pages of the British embassy named below.
Contact: British Embassy, Wilhelmstr. 70-71,
10117 Berlin, Germany Tel +49 (0)30 20457-0