British politics

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Politics in the United Kingdom takes place within the context of a democratic parliamentary system dominated by three major parties.

The political culture of the UK tends to be more liberal than that of the United States, but less so than that of many other European nations.

Institutions

Parliament

See also Parliament

The cornerstone of the unwritten British constitution is Parliamentary supremacy, or Parliamentary sovereignty.

Britain is one of a small number of nations without a written constitution, and the British legislature, Parliament, is free to legislate however it pleases. In British law, the only authority higher than parliamentary legislation is the law of the European Union, and Britain is subject to EU law only by virtue of the fact that Parliament has chosen to accept it.

Parliament consists of the Queen, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The Queen today takes no part in active politics (the last time that a monarch refused to ratify a law passed by the Lords and Commons was in 1714). While the House of Lords is considered to be the more prestigious chamber, the Commons is dominant by virtue of the fact that its members are elected rather than appointed. The Lords can only delay rather than veto legislation, though the Commons rarely chooses to push through laws against the Lords' wishes (it has done so only five times since the Lords' absolute veto was removed in 1911).

Reform of the House of Lords is a current political issue in the UK. The House of Commons has resolved to make it more democratic, so that 80% or 100% of its members are elected rather than appointed.

The Executive

The British Government operates in the name of the Queen (or the "Crown"), but power lies in practice with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. The British Prime Minister has one of the most powerful roles of any democratic head of government or head of state (though some, like the French President, have similar or more extensive powers).

National and regional legislatures

Scotland has its own legislature, the Scottish Parliament, which is headed by the First Minister. It is elected every four years: the last elections took place in May 2007.

Wales too has its own legislature (the National Assembly for Wales), with somewhat more restricted powers than the Scottish Parliament.

Northern Ireland also has its own legislature and executive, which operate under a complicated system designed to ensure balance between the Protestant/pro-UK and Catholic/pro-Irish communities.

Local government

Each locality in the UK has its own local authority: there are councils of various sorts, as well as a number of elected mayors (most notably in London, whose current mayor is the popular but controversial left-wing politician Ken Livingstone). The powers of local authorities have been declining for many years, but it is believed that they are due for a significant revival.

It should be noted that most mayors in Britain are relatively powerless officials who serve as mere figureheads (rather like the Queen). However, a number of cities, such as London, have powerful mayors with a full executive role.

Parties

The three main parties

The British political spectrum has historically been dominated by the Labour Party on the left, the Conservative Party on the right, and the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) in the centre between them ("liberal" in British political terminology is often used to mean "centrist" or "moderate", rather than "left-wing").

In recent times, there has been a perception that the main parties are crowding together on the centre ground. In the 1990s, Labour moved decisively away from the traditional left (angering many of its more traditionally-minded supporters), to the point where it was perceived by many as being less left-wing than the Liberal Democrats. Since the advent of David Cameron as its leader in 2005, the Conservative Party has moved away from the territory of the traditional right (in this case too, angering many of its more strongly conservative or Thatcherite supporters).

The Labour Party

The Labour Party is the current party of government in the UK. It is also the largest party in the Welsh legislature and the second-largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

Following its defeat by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives in 1979, the Labour Party adopted a strongly left-wing, socialist program. Following a catastrophic defeat in the 1983 general election, more moderate politicians took charge of Labour and slowly moved it closer to the centre ground of British politics, a process started by Neil Kinnock in the mid-1980s and carried forward enthusiastically by Tony Blair after his election as leader in 1994. Many more traditional, left-wing Labour supporters see Tony Blair as an usurper whose policies are too right-wing for comfort. This has been the case in particular following the Iraq War.

Blair's policies can arguably be seen as a mixture of left (e.g. higher taxes, higher government spending, greater integration with the European Union, support for the homosexual agenda) and right (e.g. pro-market reforms in the public services, retention of Lady Thatcher's labor laws, support for the War on Terror and George W. Bush's foreign policies).

The Conservative Party

British conservatism has traditionally been a pragmatic, moderate, non-ideological creed: its heroes include such moderate, middle-of-the-road figures as Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century and Sir Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli in the nineteenth century. These figures contrasted with contemporary conservatives from other European countries such as the French thinker Joseph de Maistre, who were often strong, ideologically-minded supporters of absolute monarchy and Roman Catholicism.

The Conservative Party became strongly ideologically conservative during the leadership of Margaret Thatcher (1975-1990). Since Lady Thatcher resigned in 1990s, the strongly conservative element within the party has been more or less eclipsed. It had some influence in the 1990s during the leadership of Sir John Major (1990-1997), but the current Conservative leader, David Cameron, has moved decisively away from "Thatcherism", to the dismay of many Conservative activists.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats (or "Lib Dems") were formed in 1988 by the merger of the old centrist Liberal Party with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP). Their current leader is the Scottish trial lawyer Sir Menzies Campbell, who took over when his predecessor, Charles Kennedy, was publicly exposed as an alcoholic in early 2006.

The Liberal Democrats were opposed to the Iraq War, and have capitalized on Tony Blair's waning popularity to reiterate and strengthen its anti-war position.

Minor parties

The largest "minor" party is the Scottish National Party, which is in fact a major force in Scottish politics, being the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. It advocates independence for Scotland.

There is also a Welsh nationalist party, called Plaid Cymru, or simply Plaid.

Northern Ireland has a number of political parties:

  • The Democratic Unionist Party (strongly pro-British/Protestant)
  • Sinn Fein (strongly pro-Irish/Catholic)
  • The Ulster Unionist Party (moderately pro-British/Protestant)
  • The Social Democratic and Labour Party (moderately pro-Irish/Catholic)

There are several other minor British parties worthy of mention:

  • The UK Independence Party advocates the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union and other more strongly conservative policies than those supported by the official Conservative Party.
  • The Green Party campaigns for protection of the environment, decentralisation and social justice.
  • RESPECT is a strongly left-wing, socialist party led by the maverick ex-Labour politician George Galloway.
  • The British National Party is generaly seen as an extreme right-wing or fascist party. It advocates the repatriation of non-white people from the UK to the countries of their or their families' origin.
  • The Monster Raving Loony Party is a 'joke' party, which however often receives significant numbers of protest votes especially in high-profile by-elections (which may attract a large number, sometimes dozens, of other not entirely serious candidates).