A Parliamentary Democracy Great Britain, or the U.K., is an island nation that includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is small in area, but has the 3 rd largest population in Europe. Our nation began as 13 English colonies. As a result, we share a common language, history and culture with Great Britain. However, our gov’ts are very different.
continued Britain is a constitutional monarchy. Today, Queen Elizabeth II serves a ceremonial and symbolic role. The real power rest with the elected Parliament. Britain’s constitution is not a single document. It is a collection of written and unwritten guides to the law. They include the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights as well as the whole body of British laws, court decisions and traditions.
continued Britain developed the parliamentary system. Most of its former colonies patterned their gov’ts after Britain’s. The British Parliament is divided into the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The members of the Commons are the main lawmakers. They are elected directly by voters in their districts.
continued Most bills are introduced in the Commons by the majority party. Members debate bills and send them to standing committees to work out details. Committees must submit every bill to the Commons for a vote. A majority vote passes a law.
continued The House of Lords has little power. Most members are “life peers” appointed by the prime minister as a reward. A few are nobles with inherited titles. This body debates bills and can delay passage, but cannot block passage by the Commons.
continued Britain’s main parties are the Conservatives and Labour. Like our Republican Party, the Conservative Party supports private enterprise and minimal gov’t intervention and attracts upper-class voters. Like our Democratic Party, the Labour Party favors a more active role for gov’t and attracts working-class voters.
continued The party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons selects the prime minister. Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party, became prime minister in 1997. No limits are set on how long elected officials may serve. Parliamentary elections must be held at least every five years, but no fixed dates are set. The prime minister usually calls for elections when their party has strong support.
continued England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own separate legal systems. Different courts hear civil cases and criminal cases. A committee of the House of Lords is the highest court of appeal. British judges are appointed for life.
Regional Governments Until recently, Great Britain has a unitary system in which power is centralized. Most political decisions were made in London, the capital. Local gov’ts mostly provided services paid for with central funds. In the late 1900s, Britain began a policy of devolution – transferring power to local authorities. Elected assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now govern regional matters. The people from those regions still elect members to Parliament.
continued In Northern Ireland, many Catholics oppose the Protestant majority and seek independence from Britain. Violence between the two groups continues to plague Northern Ireland. At one time, the British empire included nearly 1/5 th the world. Today, the empire is gone, but Britain remains a key player on the world stage.
continued Britain is the 4 th largest economy in the world and London is a leading financial center. Britain is also one of our closest allies. Britain also belongs to the European Union, whose 15 members cooperate in economics and trade, social and foreign policy, security and justice. So far, Britain has not switched to the Euro, but may do so in the future.