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Political System in the UK

Info: 3111 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 3rd Oct 2017 in Politics

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United Kingdom has a unique parliamentary democracy which has been shaped by the country’s rich history which has created a political system that has had a fundamental continuity as its mainstay. Most political systems have been born out of revolutions and strife, but the United Kingdom has not experienced any invasion or revolution for over a thousand years (Barrington, 2012, p. 170). The 1642-1651 English Civil War, could be said to be the British revolution although its political consequence, the abolition of the monarchy lasted for a short period of eleven years however, the restored monarchy has lasted for over three hundred years, although it has undergone some considerable changes to date (Barrington, 2012, p. 171). Thus, the lack of revolutions, such as the French or the American revolutions means that the political development in Great Britain evolved gradually albeit in a different manner from the other world major democracies (Pryor, 2007, p. 79). One significant difference is that the United Kingdom is the one of three countries in the world without a written constitution, the other two being New Zealand and the State of Israel. The political system is a mixture of monarchy, lords, and commoners making it a very complicated system which may not always be democratic. However, much as change has been gradual, it has been largely pragmatic and based on consensus (Barrington 2012, p. 173).

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As a nation, United Kingdom has been involved in a quiet struggle to shift political power from the powerful monarchy, which claims that it’s power is derived from God to a national parliamentary system that is increasingly representative of the common people and accountable to ordinary people (Pryor, 2007, p. 81). This struggle has seen the achievement of considerable milestones towards full democracy with the monarchy being reduced to mere ceremonial roles in the political arrangement of the nation. The first Model Parliament was constituted in 1295 by King Edward the First, when he convened the first representative assembly (Ingle, 2008, p. 5) It can be observed that, unlike the other absolute monarchs in Europe, the King of England needed the approval of Parliament to institute taxation to the subjects, which literary means that the ability to raise funds was central to exercise of power (Ingle, 2008, p. 6). In 1341, the British political system achieved another milestone with the establishment of the bicameral Parliament (Barrington, 2012, p. 174). What this meant was that the parliament was to be made of two chambers, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. the Bills of Rights, which was enacted In 1689, laid down the limits of the power exercised by the monarchy and gave guidelines on the rights of parliament and rules governing freedom of speech in Parliament, called for regular Parliamentary elections, and importantly, the right to petition the Crown without victimisation (Barrington, 2012, p. 176).

The UK’s political system is headed by the monarch albeit in a ceremonial manner however, the monarch exercises power through the appointment of a member of Parliament, ordinarily, the leader of the party with most seats in the House of Commons to form the government (Pryor, 2007, p. 83). The monarch, albeit a ceremonial head of state, exercises subtle influences on the legislature through a provision in the constitution that requires senior members of the royal family to be consulted about legislation that could affect their private interests and accorded the opportunity to have a say on the amendment of such legislation(Ingle, 2008, p. 10).

The Monarch could be seen effective in terms of advice for successive governments though, this can be debated. One could say that, in contrast the monarchy is a relic of bygone society and that the most poignant role they play is exemplifying a class system. It’s effectiveness as a political branch is subjective. It’s historic value has great significance with operations such as the ceremonial roles mentioned; It gives us our unique identity as a sovereign state. If you believe in the ideals of Monarchy, ‘yes’ It provides continuity and plays a vital role in our constitution. If you don’t believe in it’s ideals, ‘no’ it’s simply an ineffective, overcomplicated relic and should be removed to simplify our political system.

Like in most democracies, the United Kingdom state is made up of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary (Pryor, 2007, p. 85). The separation of power, however, is not a clear as it would be expected in a democratic state, such as the United State of America, whose constitution demands a clear separation of power, for example the president cannot be a member of congress, and cabinet ministers cannot be appointed from elected members of Parliament (Barrington, 2012, p. 178). In the United Kingdom, all ministers are drawn from the legislature, whilst some senior judges sit in the upper house (House of Lords) of the Parliament, and the head of the judiciary is a minister.

The British Parliament is housed at the Palace of Westminster; hence, it is commonly referred to as Westminster. This a bicameral parliament, meaning it is composed of two chambers, the upper house, commonly referred to as the house of lords, and the lower house, or the house of commons (Ingle, 2008, p. 14). Most parliamentary authority rest with the Lower Chamber or the House of Commons, which is lead by a speaker, however, unlike many democracies, this position is non-political and political parties avoid contesting in the constituency held by the speaker (Barrington, 2012, p. 179). This means that the speaker is a politician since he represents a constituency in the House of Commons, but cannot play politics while he leads the House of Commons (Stater, 2004, p. 241). This obviously sounds very complicated, but that’s the way things are, and it works perfectly within the United Kingdom political system. Another deviation from most modern democracies, the United Kingdom parliament, does not operate with a fixed parliamentary term, meaning the general elections are called when the Prime Minister called for it. The Prime Minister does not have a term limit; rather, he can run for re-election so long as he has the support of his party (Barrington, 2012, p. 183).

The Prime Minister, who is normally chosen by the head of state, in the case of United Kingdom the head of state is the monarch, from among the elected members of the legislature, is the chief member of the cabinet and as such, the head of the government (Stater, 2004, p. 242). The Prime Minister is normally the leader of the party which controls the house of common. Historically, the Prime Minister office evolved from the growing assertive power of Parliament in the seventeenth century and as the power of the Prime Minister grew, that of the monarch declined (Barrington, 2012, p. 187). It is the practice within the British parliament that the Prime minister appears before the House of Commons to respond to questions from the members of Parliament as part of his accountability to the members of Parliament and by extension to the electorate. In a presidential system, such a practice only happens at the pleasure of the President since he is not directly responsible to parliament on account of having been elected directly by the voters (Stater 2004, p. 243). This is an example on the differences between a parliamentary and presidential system of government.

There are many ways in which parliament holds the executive to account. One of the ways is through parliamentary select communities. These are comprised of 11 MP’s and are a group that can investigate any issue they give credence to. They usually investigate matters of public interest and can seek to resolve issues in any department directly linked or has ties with government. Parliamentary select committees could enter into party politics disrupting any proper investigations into conduct of government. It’s also could be seen as difficult to get a honest, coherent and straight answers from people they interview.

Furthermore, Liaison Committees which are group of chairmen from all the select committees. The committee will meet with the Prime Minster twice a year and ask questions on pressing issues. This ensures that the Prime Minster, part of the executive, is held to account.

These features help keep order within the structure of government and ensure nothings gets overlooked. There may be some flaws in the level of scrutiny, but the whole system doesn’t work to appease or manipulate our democracy but ensures some credibility. An Idea to improve could be if a larger, independent and solely dedicated force could scrutinise the executive.

The House of Lords is the upper chamber but with little authority, with its main duties being to revise legislation and watch over the government. It is characteristically British and has no parallel in the world. The membership is not fixed and sometime they can be as many as eight hundred active members (Turpin & Tomkins, 2011, p. 57). Historically, the House of Lords was composed of the hereditary peers, who essentially were drawn from the aristocracy. Membership to the House of Lords is by nomination, unlike the membership of the House of Commons, which is by election, originally done by the monarch, but in modern times this is done by the Prime Minister (Stater, 2004, p. 244). Once an aristocrat is appointed to the House of Lords it became an entitlement to that family and the membership was passed from one generation to the other, a practice that goes against the principles of democracy (Turpin & Tomkins, 2011, p. 58). The Labour Government has, however, abolished these rights hereditary peers to sit in the House of Commons (Morrison, 2013, p. 134). This left what is referred to as life peers, who are members appointed by the monarch on the advice of the government of the day, however, unlike the hereditary peers, they can sit in the House of Lords for life but cannot bequeath the same to progeny (Stater, 2004, p. 246). Most of the life peers are drawn from retired senior politicians, distinguished achievers in various fields such as education and health, and Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England (Turpin & Tomkins, 2011, p. 60). The House of Lords is being subjected to massive reforms with a prospect of enacting legislation to have membership of the House of Lords being through election. Many people disagree with a system of hereditary peer-ship and do not think that hereditary peers have any right to a say in the running of the country, feeling they are appointed by blood rather than achievement. Moreover, the fact they are appointed and not elected by the public is another aspect of criticism for the House of Lords.

The British voting systems or electoral systems are the elective methods through which representatives for the various parliamentary and municipal are elected to office. The electoral system basically determines the rules that govern the election exercise both at the party and national level (Morrison, 2013, p. 134). The First–Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system is used for the election of Members of Parliament and for local elections in Wales and England. Under this system, the country or the local authority is divided into small voting regions such as constituencies for members of parliament and wards for local authority (Cabinet Office, 2013, par. 4) The voters are issued with a ballot paper with the names of the candidates at the voting centre and they just put a cross adjacent to their preferred candidate and deposit the market ballot in the ballot box (Morrison, 2013, p. 135).. The ballots are tallied and the candidate with the highest votes is declared as duly elected to represent the ward or constituency. Each constituency has one vote in parliament and the party that achieves the number of seats for a majority wins (Cabinet Office, 2013, par. 8). The advantage of FPTP voting system is that it is an easy system to administer and ensures that to a large degree that one party wins the majority in parliament avoiding coalition’s governments (Turpin & Tomkins, 2011, p. 65). The system enhances the production of a two party system which in turn produces one party government which does not have to rely on the coalition partners to pass registration (Catterall, Kaiser & Walton-Jordan 2000, p. 45). It also enhances the linkage between the representative and the constituents consequently, giving a better geographical accountability and collaboration. FPTP is a straight forward system allowing for faster voting and quick tallying of votes which helps in giving faster declaration of winners (Catterall, Kaiser & Walton-Jordan, 2000, p. 46).

The disadvantages of the FPTP system are that it is disproportionate to the actual share of votes won, allowing for a party to get a large percentage of votes cast but not win majority seats in parliament. The system also makes it impossible for small parties to win seats in parliament (Smith, 2010, p. 46). The system enhances the production of a two party system which in turn produces one party government which does not have to rely on coalition partners to pass registration. The system encourages the setting aside of marginal and safe seats, with safe seats being less competitive than marginal seats since they are guaranteed (Ruhnau, 2013, p. 8). Voter turn out for safe seats is normally low reducing the overall voter turn-out tally. The system has been accused of restricting voter’s choices since parties are coalitions of different interest groups and viewpoints. The voters with differing views from the elected candidate do not have a way of expressing those sentiments. The system rewards the popular parties and not the candidates (Turpin & Tomkins, 2011, p. 65).

Much as the FPTP system is favoured in Britain because it reduces electoral competition to two parties, the 2010 election did not produce a winner with majority votes, necessitated the formation of a coalition government, the first since 1930s (Ruhnau, 2013, p. 9). This occurrence has reignited the debate on electoral reform with the coalition government mooting the idea of holding a referendum on whether Britain should replace the FPTP electoral system with the Alternative Vote system (Cabinet Office, 2013, par. 9). Those who support the FPTP system argue that the general purpose of holding elections is to get a crop of leaders who represent the views of the majority of the citizenry which supposedly are reflected by the popularity of the winning party. They point out that when people are unhappy with a government, they replace it with the other party who may have gained popularity at the expense of the government in power policies (Ruhnau, 2013, p. 9). However, such an arrangement only gives the party in power enough strength to legislate their favoured policies ignoring good ideas and policies from a representative from the opposing party.

Much as the argument for proportionate representation as found in the FPTP system is desirable and at face value seem to represent the will of the majority, it, however, denies the citizens independent representation by individuals who can effectively and actively put the government to account for its actions (Ruhnau, 2013, p. 10). This system only manages to recycle the two competing parties by removing one party from power because they are unhappy with it and replacing it with the opposing party, not because they have better governance policies but purely on the demerit of the incumbent (Ruhnau, 2013, p. 10). This scenario has seen the clamour for changes to the FPTP electoral system and replaces it with Alternate Vote system. The AV system is a complicated voting system that calls for voters to rank the candidates with their preferred candidate being ranked first and so on. Candidates are perceived to be elected if they garner more than half of the preference votes cast (Ruhnau, 2013, p. 12). If such on outcome does not happen, the candidate with least votes is dropped and their votes tallied again to the next marked preference. The tallying process continues till one candidates get the requisite fifty percent of preference votes, and that would be the candidate the AV system declares the winner and duly elected representative of the given constituency. The discussion on the changes to the election system was put to a referendum in 2011 where the United Kingdom citizens were asked whether the electoral system should be changed from First Past the Post with Alternative Voting system, the referendum returned a resounding no vote against the Alternative Voting system.


Barrington, L 2012, Comparative Politics: Structures and Choices, Boston, Cengage Learning.

Cabinet Office, 2013, Reforming the constitution and political system


Catterall, P, Kaiser, W & Walton-Jordan, U 2000, Reforming the Constitution: Debates in Twentieth-century Britain, Oxford, Psychology Press.

Hockman, S & Bogdanor, V n.d., Towards a codified Constitution.

http://www.6pumpcourt.co.uk/files/articles/Towards a codified constitution[1].pdf

Ingle, S 2008, The British Party System: An introduction, Routledge.

Morrison, J 2013, Essential Public Affairs for Journalists, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Pryor, J 2007 Unwritten constitutions? European Journal of English Studies, Vol. 11 no. 1, pp.79-92

Ruhnau, S 2013, The British Electoral System – A Democratic One? Munich, GRIN Verlag.

Smith, R 2010, The American Anomaly: U.S. Politics and Government in Comparative Perspective, London, Taylor & Francis.

Stater, V 2004, The House of Commons 1690-1715, Seventeenth Century News, Vol. 62 nos. 2-3, pp. 241-246,

Turpin, C & Tomkins, A 2011, British Government and the Constitution: Text and Materials, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


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