UK Government

The UK Government is a complex structure that has evolved throughout history. Its chief components include the executive, a legislative body, and a judiciary. Each has a specific role and function. In this article, we will provide you with a general overview of the UK government, and detail the roles of each component and how these bodies interact with other branches of the government.

UK Government UK Government

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Table of contents

    What is a government?

    The Oxford dictionary defines a government as the group of people who are responsible for controlling a country or a state. In other words, a government is not necessarily a single individual but rather a collective body that makes decisions, and drafts and implements the laws that govern the state.

    UK Government: the Constitution

    The Constitution of the United Kingdom is essentially a set of laws that determines the responsibilities of the different branches of government. The constitution identifies the laws of the government, along with their boundaries, and also presents the status of a citizen in the country, including their rights and responsibilities.

    Important pieces of legislation that have impacted the Constitution of the United Kingdom include the Magna Carter (1215), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Acts of Union (1707), and the European Communities Act (1972).

    Magna Carter (1215)Bill of Rights (1689)Acts of Union (1707)European Communities Act (1972)
    This piece of legislation introduced the first set of restrictions on the monarch.This bill also imposed restrictions on the monarch, but also introduced a constitutional monarchy and established free elections. This piece of legislation combines England, Scotland, and Wales to make them the United Kingdom of Great Britain with a central government based in Westminster. This piece of legislation explained how the UK became part of the European Economic Community (now known as the European Union). Note: The UK officially left the EU in 2020.

    UK Government European Union flag StudySmarterFig. 1 - European Union flag

    The Constitution has three distinct characteristics:

    • It is uncodified: this means that unlike in other countries such as the United States, the law is not restricted to a single document.

    • It is not entrenched: this means that laws can be changed, removed, and altered if necessary. This is not possible in the US without several processes.

    • It is unitary: this means that one source has all the power: the UK Parliament.

    As we have established, the UK Constitution did not arise from a single document. Instead, there are a number of different sources:

    • Statute Law: Acts that the parliament passes.

    • Common Law: court decisions in the UK.

    • Convention: rules based on tradition. It's important to note they are not legally binding.

    UK Government in Parliament

    As mentioned before, parliament is the single source of power given by the UK Constitution. It consists of three entities: the Crown, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords.

    UK Government UK parliament at Westminster StudySmarterFig. 2 - UK Houses of Parliament at Westminster

    UK Government Structure Chart

    The main function of parliament is to pass laws. A bill has to go through rigorous readings by the House of Commons and House of Lords before it is passed into law. This process is necessary to ensure the law will benefit the citizens of the country, that no one is being taken advantage of, and responsible individuals are being fair and objective.

    The CrownHouse of CommonsHouse of Lords
    The monarchOfficials are elected by their respective constituents. These are officials chosen by the Lord Justice, who tend to come from a political background.

    It is important to note that the parliament we see today is not how it was when Britain was established. Firstly, parliament did not exist, and once it was established its members were generally upper-class men chosen by the monarch.

    Selecting members of Parliament

    In UK general elections, Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected using the First-Past-The-Post voting system. This is a winner-take-all method of voting, whereby the candidate from each constituency (there are currently 650) that receives the most votes (a plurality as opposed to a majority) wins the seat in parliament. The party that gains the most seats in the House of Commons gets to try and form the government.

    UK Government: the Executive

    In politics, the executive is the section of the government responsible for governing the state, as well as enforcing and making the law. The executive government is comprised of those who lead the UK, including the Prime Minister and their cabinet. They are known as primus inter pares, which means first among equals. In the UK, the prime minister and the cabinet are both the executive, and the PM is known as the head of the cabinet rather than being the lone executive.

    These are the current executives (April 2022):

    The Right Honourable Boris Johnson MPPrime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Union, Minister for the Civil ServiceThe Right Honourable Dominic Raab MPDeputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for JusticeThe Right Honourable Rishi Sunak MPChancellor of the ExchequerThe Right Honourable Elizabeth Truss MPSecretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs; Minister for Women and EqualitiesThe Right Honourable Priti Patel MPSecretary of State for the Home Department
    The Right Honourable Ben Wallace MPSecretary of State for DefenceThe Right Honourable Michael Gove MPSecretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; Minister for Intergovernmental RelationsThe Right Honourable Sajid Javid MPSecretary of State for Health and Social CareThe Right Honourable Steve Barclay MPMinister for the Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of LancasterThe Right Honourable Kwasi Kwarteng MPSecretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
    The Right Honourable Ben Wallace MPSecretary of State for DefenceThe Right Honourable Anne-Marie Trevelyan MPSecretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of TradeThe Right Honourable Therese Coffey MPSecretary of State for Work and PensionsThe Right Honourable Nadhim Zahawi MPSecretary of State for EducationThe Right Honourable George Eustice MPSecretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs
    The Right Honourable Grant Shapps MPSecretary of State for TransportThe Right Honourable Brandon Lewis MPSecretary of State for Northern IrelandThe Right Honourable Alister Jack MPSecretary of State for ScotlandThe Right Honourable Simon Hart MPSecretary of State for WalesThe Right Honourable Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Privy Seal
    The Right Honourable Nadine Dorries MPSecretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and SportThe Right Honourable Lord Frost CMG Minister of StateThe Right Honourable Oliver Dowden CBE MPMinister without Portfolio

    Executives receive their power from three main sources:

    • Convention: this is the way something is usually done. In this case, a power that has developed over time.

    • Being the leader of the majority party: this indicates that citizens voted in favour of the executive and feel that they are the best suited to lead them.

    • Royal prerogative: the monarch has permitted the prime minister to practise on their behalf.

    Prime Ministers of the UK Government

    The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that won the most seats during a general election, which is usually held every five years. Once the government is formed, the prime minister selects their cabinet members from the House of Commons and House of Lords.

    It is important to note that prime ministers can serve for as many terms as they are elected for. This is in contrast to, for example, the US president, who can only serve two four-year terms.

    The Prime Minister has four main duties:

    1. Setting the agenda: the PM determines what legislation needs to be created and passed through parliament, and its importance.

    2. The direction of policies: the PM decides what issues will be discussed in parliament.

    3. Foreign policy: the PM represents the UK internationally, holding meetings with other foreign leaders and attending global conferences like the G7.

    4. Representing their party: prime ministers drive policies in favour of their party and its manifesto.

    The role of Prime Minister was established in 1712 with Sir Robert Walpole as the first Prime Minister of the UK.

    UK Government: devolution

    Devolution can be described as the decentralisation of government powers to regional and local authorities. The Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the National Assembly of Wales are three examples of legislative bodies that were provided devolved powers.

    UK Government Scottish parliament in Edinburgh StudySmarterFig. 3 - Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

    These governments have specific powers which they can enact in their nations.

    Devolution

    The transfer of power to a lower or regional level does not mean that the governments that receive these devolved powers are fully autonomous. Often these powers have limits. For example, devolved nations often have the power to choose their own health policies.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, Scotland did not have to follow the same rules that Boris Johnson set out for those living in England. Other policy areas where you are likely to see devolved powers exercised are social care, education, local government, agriculture, public safety, and transport. Importantly, in the United Kingdom, Westminster reserves the right to determine the direction of larger policy issues related to national defence, foreign affairs, immigration, and trade policy.

    UK Government - Key takeaways

    • The constitution in the UK is essentially a set of laws that set out the responsibilities of the different branches of the government.
    • Parliament is the single source of power given by the UK Constitution.
    • The main function of Parliament is to pass laws.
    • The executive is known as the branch of government responsible for governing the state, enforcing, and making laws.
    • The executive government is comprised of those who lead the UK, which includes the Prime Minister and their cabinet.
    • The Prime Minister is the leader of the government.
    • Devolution can be described as the decentralisation of the government to regional and local authorities.
    Frequently Asked Questions about UK Government

    What is the administrative system of the UK government?

    Unlike the US, in the UK there is no separate federal and state law. Instead, the whole of the UK follows the Westminster government, except for some cases where devolved nations have their own laws, for example, regarding health. 

    How does the UK government exercise control?

    The UK government is responsible for all legislature in the country and is elected by the citizens of the UK.

    What is the history of the UK government?

    The UK government has no specific start date but can be regarded as having evolved over time. The government itself was allowed to impose restrictions on the power of the monarch following the Magna Carter (1215).

    What type of government and policies does the UK operate?

    The government of the UK is a constitutional monarchy. The government and the monarch both have power.

    How important is the UK government?

    The UK is a leading nation in the world. It has major influence and has one of the biggest economies, which makes it very important. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the executive responsible for?

    What is a party chief?

    What are prerogative powers?

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