UK Political History

Why does the UK have the political structure that it does? Where does the parliament come from? Who were the Knights of the Shire? And, why is it called the House of Commons? When studying UK politics, it is always helpful to know and understand the origin of the political structures that we have today. A timeline will guide you through the Political History of the UK, so you then can explore the History of the British Government, the Constitution and the Political Parties of the UK!

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Table of contents

    UK Political History: A Brief Timeline

    The best way to understand political history is through a chronological timeline. Each event listed below has had a substantial effect on the UK’s political system and structure.

    The Thirteenth Century

    Let's have a look at the main events during the thirteen century.

    • 1215: the Magna Carta was signed. This was the first document that limited the powers of the monarch. When King John signed this document, he agreed that barons were allowed to advise and help the monarch reach a decision on political matters. Therefore, an increased degree of objectiveness was brought to political and legal decisions.

    • 1236: this year, the Great Council (in charge of advising the monarch) was referred to as the Parliament.

    • 1254: sheriffs of the individual counties around the UK were told to send representatives to the king to consult on matters of taxation. These representatives were known as ‘Knights of the Shire’. This is the first evidence of representative democracy, a system that plays a vital role in the political system the UK has today.

    Representative democracy

    A type of democratic system where local areas elect an individual to represent their views and beliefs. This allows for many individuals' beliefs to be represented in parliament without overcrowding it.

    • 1258: the Parliament agreed to meet regularly with representatives from all counties in the UK. This agreement was laid out in a document called the ‘Provisions of Oxford’.

    • 1265: the first Parliament with representatives from all counties and individual towns took place. This expanded the development of the representative democracy that the UK holds today.

    • 1278: the Clerk of the Parliament was allocated the role of recording acts and policies passed by Parliament. This is the first appearance of documented law within the UK's political history, and forms the basis for all the laws made today.

    • 1295: a model Parliament (with nobles, bishops, and two representatives from each town and county) was set up. This establishes the structure of parliament still used today.

    UK Political History Painting of the House of Lords StudySmarterFig. 1 Painting of the House of Lords

    The Fourteenth Century

    Here are the most important political developments of the fourteenth century.

    • 1327: from this date, the representatives of the counties (known as Knights of the Shire) and the representatives of the towns (known as Burgesses) were summoned to Parliament together.

    • 1332: the Knights of the Shire and the Burgesses meeting together were called the ‘Commons’. The House of Commons is the institution within parliament where the UK’s representatives meet.

    • 1362: a statute was passed for which parliament must rule on all taxation. This policy still exists today.

    • 1376: the Parliament with representatives was known as the ‘Good House of the Commons’. This year was the first time that the meeting was led by a speaker. This is still the structure for holding meetings in parliament.

    The Fifteenth Century

    Here we can find the main events of the fifteenth century.

    • 1413: a statute was drafted that insisted that Burgesses had to reside in the town that they were representing. Still today, those elected to represent their local area must live in the area, or close enough, to understand local issues.

    • 1414: it was ruled that both the House of Commons and the House of Lords must be consulted to make new laws. Again, this is an integral part of the current political system in the UK.

    • 1497: Parliament’s archives were created to store all the records of the new laws and policies, and all other proceedings of parliament.

    The Sixteenth Century

    Now, let's take a look at the political developments of the sixteenth century.

    • 1512: the Royal Family moved out of the Palace of Westminster and the parliament moved in. This was the first time Parliament was based in Westminster. It is still the central place of the UK Parliament.

    • 1523: the speaker of the Commons, Sir Thomas More, made the request for freedom of speech in Parliament. The request was not accepted, but it is the first evidence of today’s mandatory policy of freedom of speech in Parliament.

    • 1529–36: the Reformation Parliament drafted legislation that made Parliament and the King (through Parliament) the only sovereign law-making institutions and authority in the UK.

    UK Political History Palace of Westminster British Government StudySmarterFig. 2 Palace of Westminster before it burnt down in 1834

    The Seventeenth Century

    The seventeenth century saw the following events.

    • 1628: the Commons’ Petition of Right was sent forward by Charles I. It condemned arbitrary imprisonment and extra-parliamentary taxation. This principle is still in place today.

    • 1641: Acts were debated and passed that ensured that Parliament would remain a political authority and institution and declared illegal all non-parliamentary taxation.

    • 1646: the civil war between the King and Parliament ended with the King’s surrender. From then on, the Parliament has had superiority over the monarch.

    • 1694: A parliamentary statute was passed creating the Bank of England. Also, the Triennial Act was passed. It ensured that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and it's still in effect.

    The Eighteenth Century

    The eighteenth century brought us these political developments.

    • 1707: the Act of Union was drawn up and signed between England and Scotland, bringing Scotland into the UK. Soon after, Scottish representatives would join the MPs in Parliament. This Act of Union is still referred to today, but has been altered by devolution.

    • 1729: an act of Parliament known as the Bribery Act was passed to stop corruption in elections. This is still used to ensure that representation is fair and elected MPs are justly chosen by their local constituents.

    The Nineteenth Century

    Here are the three main political events of the nineteenth century.

    • 1872: the Ballot Act introduced secret voting in elections. This is still mandatory in the UK's political system to allow privacy when voting and to prevent being influenced by others.

    • 1883: the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act was passed. This is still in place today to prevent all corrupt activities in elections.

    • 1876: the role of full-time professional judges was created by Parliament in the Appellate Jurisdiction Act. The role of a professional judge play a vital role in both the UK political and legal system.

    The Twentieth Century

    Lastly, these are the most significant political developments of the twentieth century.

    • 1911: the Parliament Act was passed, which removed the right held by the House of Lords to refuse a bill passed in the Commons. This doesn't exclude bills that propose to extend the life of Parliament. This rule is still in place today, and the Parliament Act is still a considerable part of the law ruling over Parliament.

    • 1928: Representation of the People Act grants women voting rights on the same terms as men in England, Wales and Scotland.

    • 1949: the Parliament Act was rewritten, and it reduced the Lords' ability to delay any bill that has been passed in the House of Commons. It was initially two years, but was reduced to a period of one year. This time limit is still in place.

    History of the British Government

    The British Government was set up by the King’s Council and developed over time.

    King's Council was established in the early 1600s, it comprised a group of barons or highly authoritative individuals who would advise the monarch on matters of politics and law.

    The King’s Council became known as the Cabinet, which is led today by the Prime Minister in power.

    UK Political History Coat of arms UK government StudySmarterFig. 3 - The UK Coat of Arms

    History of the British Government: The Constitution

    The history of the British Government is linked to the creation of the Constitution.


    A document containing the ruling principles that a country has to follow. It rules over Parliament and the government, keeping them in check and ensuring they don’t abuse their power.

    In the UK, the Constitution is uncodified but still holds power over the government. Unlike the US Constitution, the principles, and rules contained in the UK’s uncodified Constitution are spread out over a range of different documents.

    An uncodified constitution is a constitution that is not written up into one single document, but is spread across various legal and political documents.

    The four main historic documents that are part of the UK constitutions are:

    • The Magna Carta; signed in 1215, this was the first document to establish the idea of a Constitution for the UK.

    • The Bill of Rights, passed in 1689, states what rights individuals have in the country.

    • The Acts of Union in 1707 brought Scotland into the UK. It created the rules that guide the relationship between the two countries.

    • The European Communities Act of 1972, sets out the UK’s relationship with the European Community (now known as the EU). After Brexit, The UK no longer adheres to this act. However, it is still referred to in the Constitution as it helped develop the British Government through implementing European law and principles.

    Brexit refers to the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, which took place in 2020.

    History of the British Government: The Prime Minister

    The role of the Prime Minister was first established in 1712. The introduction of a Prime Minister is historically notable as it is a role that helps lead parliament and the country as a whole. Sir Robert Walpole was the first UK Prime Minister and led parliament throughout his five-year term.

    The Prime Minister runs the government and all areas of its control. This power means that the developments of government are highly influenced by the Prime Minister's actions and views.

    UK Political History Sir Robert Walpole as part of the British government StudySmarterFig. 4 Sir Robert Walpole

    History of the UK political parties

    Finally, let’s briefly discuss the history of UK political parties.

    History of the Conservative Party

    In the 1700s and 1800s, the Tories were the forbearers of what is now the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party was established after the Reform Bill of 1832. It's one of the most prominent political parties in the UK today. It has always had a great deal of support from the population and has sat as the majority in parliament on numerous occasions.

    History of the Labour Party

    The Labour Party was created in the early 1900s. They traditionally represented the working class and aimed to balance wealth inequalities throughout the UK. Labour was created with the goal of uniting the interests of socialists, trade unionists, and workers into one single political party. Today, the Labour Party is the second leading political party in the country.

    History of other UK Political Parties

    Looking at the UK's two main political parties, you can see that parties develop when there is a need for them - i.e. a misrepresentation of groups in society. Other political parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have developed when their concerns have grown to the extent that representation is necessary. Today, there also are other smaller parties that seek to gain a foothold in UK politics.

    Find out more about UK Political parties by checking out our explanations on the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.

    UK Political History - Key takeaways

    • The UK's political structure has been developing since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
    • Since the thirteenth century, many political decisions were made that are still in place today.
    • The Government has developed alongside the UK's Constitution with documents like the Magna Carta and the European Communities Act.
    • The role of Prime Minister was created in 1712 when Sir Robert Walpole was the first British Prime Minister.
    • The three main political parties are the Conservative Party, The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat.


    1. Fig. 1 - Painting of the House of Lords by Thomas Rowlandson Yale Centre for British Art CC0 Wikimedia Commons
    2. Fig. 2 - Palace of Westmninster before it burnt down in 1834 Drawn by J. Shury & Son, Printed by Day & Haghe PD Wikimedia Commons
    3. Fig. 3 - The UK Coat of Arms by Unknown Author, PD Wikimedia Commons
    4. Fig. 4 - Sir Robert Walpole Workshop of Jean-Baptiste van Loo PD Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about UK Political History

    What kind of political system did the UK have before?

    A political system of common law created through practices and decrees made by the monarch. 

    When did the UK become democratic?

    In 1694 the electoral process was decided. 

    When did political parties start in the UK?

    After the reform bill in 1832 political parties started to emerge. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who was the first Prime Minister?

    When was the Magna Carta drawn up?

    When was the UK Conservative Party created?


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