British politics has long been dominated by two parties, the Conservative Party and the Social Democratic Labor Party. Since May 2015, the UK has a Conservative government. The upper house has long been the country’s highest judicial body, but since 2009 the UK has a supreme court. In 1999, Scotland and Wales gained their own regional parliaments, which have since been given new powers. Among the Scots, support for an independent Scotland has grown in recent years. Following a peace agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland also has limited autonomy. However, the province has lacked government since the beginning of 2017.
Unlike most other states, Britain has no written constitution. Instead, the country is governed by laws established by parliament, customary law and international conventions and can thus be adapted to changing political conditions. New laws must not conflict with the commitments made by the UK within the EU. Since the British voted in 2016 to leave the EU (Brexit), this will cease once the divorce is a fact. It will be a long process to change the legislation after more than 40 years of UK EU membership.
- Countryaah: Total population and chart of United Kingdom for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024. Also covers population density, birth rate, death rate and population growth rates.
Short for UK by Abbreviationfinder, United Kingdom is a monarchy with the Queen / King as Head of State. Queen Elizabeth lacks formal political power and has largely representative duties. However, the monarch can exert some influence through regular meetings with the prime minister.
The Parliament is the supreme legislative body and consists of the upper house (House of Lords) and lower house (House of Commons). The lower house has long been the actual legislative assembly and has sole decision-making power in tax and appropriation matters.
In 2011, fixed mandate periods of five years were introduced for the lower house. In order for the government to announce new elections, it must be supported by at least two-thirds of the members of the lower house. New elections can also be held if the government falls in a vote of no confidence. In the past, the prime minister himself has been able to determine the timing of an election. However, no more than five years were allowed to pass between the elections. However, Theresa May, Prime Minister from July 2016, departed from this, when in spring 2017 she announced new elections in June of the same year (see Modern History and Current Policy). The same thing when Boris Johnson announced new elections in the fall of 2019.
The voting age is 18 years.
Since the 2010 election, the lower house has 650 members. They are elected in a single-majority election by simple majority. This means that the party whose candidate receives the most votes in a constituency wins the mandate, while the other parties are not represented at all. The election system is designed in a way that usually benefits the large parties, or a party that is strong in one or more regions.
The upper house consists of members who have inherited their title, senior church representatives, judges and members appointed for life by the queen on the government’s proposal. The political power of the upper house is limited, but it has the right to postpone the lower house’s decision for a certain time.
The issue of abolishing or changing the upper house has long been debated, but it was only when Labor came to power in 1997 that reform began. The number of lords who inherit their office has since decreased from 751 to 92. By the end of 2019, the upper house had about 800 members, but the number varies over time. In the fall of 2017, a multi-party committee recommended that the number of members in the long term be reduced to 600, and that those who are elected should sit on a 15-year term.
A similar reform has been discussed for the lower house, where there are far-reaching plans to reduce the number of members in the lower house to 600, by making all constituencies approximately equal. Today, the number of voters within a constituency varies, from 55,000 to 95,000. The changes are believed to benefit the Conservative Party at the Labor Party’s expense.
In 2014, new rules for registering voters were introduced. Previously, a person could register all voters who live in a household, but according to the new rules, each individual now has to register himself to vote. From December 2014 to December 2015, 1.4 million names disappeared from the voting lists. Since then, a large number of new voters have registered, most notably 2.5 million new names were added ahead of the 2016 EU vote.
Several smaller parties are pushing for the UK to change its electoral system, but they have had difficulty finding hearing for it. In 2011, the Liberal Democrats were able to push through a demand for a referendum on a new partially called Alternative Vote (AV), which was, however, rejected by a clear majority.
Political parties must openly report what financial contributions they receive. Members of Parliament are required to account for their financial assets and their income. The OSCE, which sent a small group of observers to monitor the 2017 parliamentary elections, nevertheless recommended in its final report that the UK should improve transparency regarding campaign contributions to parties or to individual candidates.
Following the referendum on EU membership, it has been established that two campaign groups on the Brexit side violated the rules on the amount of campaign grants they received (see Calendar).
Self-government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
In 1999, Scotland and Wales gained some autonomy. In Scotland, however, there are strong forces that want to form an independent state. In September 2014, however, 55 percent of Scots voted no to independence, although the margins between the yes and no sides were less than expected (see Scotland). The Welsh Parliament has fewer powers than the Scottish (see Wales). Northern Ireland also has limited self-government (see Northern Ireland).
Ahead of the referendum in Scotland, the government promised new powers to the Scottish Parliament. However, then-Prime Minister David Cameron linked this to a new order that would limit the influence that Scottish, Northern Ireland and, in some cases, Welsh Members of Parliament in London have over matters that only concern England (and Wales).
The background was the dissatisfaction, especially in conservative circles in England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland having its own parliaments, where English voters have no say, while Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs have had to decide which only concerns England in the British Parliament. The law amendment passed in 2015 means that English, and in some cases Welsh, members have the right to veto a bill – or parts of it – that only affects England (and sometimes Wales).
The “English question” has been discussed since the 1970s, but it has been difficult to find a solution to it. One problem is that some of the decisions that just seem to be about England indirectly affect other parts of the country.
Since then, Scottish self-government has been given the right, among other things, to increase the reimbursement levels for child support, unemployment benefit and other grants, as well as to design new forms of grants in the areas it is responsible for. The Scottish Board has since 2016 been responsible for income taxes in Scotland. The parliaments of Northern Ireland and Wales would also be given new powers. However, the Scottish Government believes that London will increase its power at Scotland’s expense when powers are to be taken home from Brussels after the Brexit.
In the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014, 16-year-olds were also allowed to vote. The following year, the voting age was also lowered in elections to the Scottish Parliament. Wales is also planning a similar reform, for municipal elections. It should also include foreign nationals who are written in Wales.
The Isle of Man as well as Guernsey and Jersey also have extensive self-government, with their own legislative assemblies and courts. They have since had a special position, since they formally do not belong to the state of the United Kingdom but are directly under the British crown. However, defense and foreign policy are handled by the British government.
The UK is divided into over 400 local units. The London region has, since 2000, a elected Assembly (Greater London Authority, GLA) with the right to decide on local issues. In the same year, the Londoners were elected mayor and GLA’s 25 members.
Forces in the UK is highly centralized, and the government in London has a great influence even on the local policy, not least because the local authorities (Local Authorities) are a large part of their money from the state. At the same time, a process is underway in which government grants are reduced and local authorities are expected to raise more money themselves.
In order to counteract the strong tensions that exist between the country’s richer southern parts and the poorer in the north, efforts have been made to create a “Northern Powerhouse”, one of the former finance minister George Osborne’s heart project. The Greater Manchester area was given greater powers when it came to handling such things as transport, health and housing. In May 2017, the residents of the city were allowed to elect their own mayor (even though the voters had previously voted no for direct election by the mayor).
The British electoral system favors large parties and parties with a strong regional electoral base. The system is designed to create strong governments and governmental coalitions are unusual.
Political power usually alternates between the Labor Party and the Conservative Party. In the 2010 election, none of them got their own majority in the lower house. The Conservative Party, which had then become the largest party, formed government with the Liberal Democrats, the first coalition government in Britain since 1945 (see Modern History). However, after the May 2015 elections, the Conservatives were able to govern on their own. However, in the new election announced by Theresa May in June 2017, the ruling party lost its majority in the House of Commons, then winning a substantial majority under Boris Johnson in 2019 (see Current Policy).
The Conservative and Unionist Party, also known as the Tories, was founded in the 1870s. Conservatives are strongest in England, while support is low in Wales and Scotland. The party has the most supporters among older voters. Within the Tories, there has long been a strong faction that has pleaded for the country to leave the EU. When then-party leader David Cameron in 2013 promised to hold a referendum on British EU membership (see Modern History), it was largely an attempt to appease that faction in order to keep their own party together. Following the defeat in the 2016 referendum, Cameron resigned and was succeeded as party leader and prime minister by his interior minister, Theresa May (see Modern History). After that, the party took a clear step to the right, to take another as Boris Johnson took over the party leader post in July 2019. One of the right-wing factions most notable is Social Conservative Jacob Rees Mogg, who heads the European Research Group, which brings together conservative politicians who want to push through a “hard Brexit”. In the summer of 2019, the Conservative Party had about 180,000 members.
The Labor Party (Labor Party) was founded in 1900. Up until the early 1990s, it was a traditional left-wing party where trade unions had a strong influence. Under the leadership of Tony Blair, 1994–2007, and Gordon Brown, 2007–2010, a shift toward the political center occurred and the party began to compete with the Conservatives over middle-class voters. As a sign of renewal, Blair began talking about the party as New Labor. However, many of Labour’s traditional members found strong opposition to the party’s new policy. Labor made a clear left turn in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was appointed new party leader. Corbyn could win because it was the grass roots of the party that decided for the first time who it would be. In connection with the 2015 party election, the number of party members rose from 388,000 in January 2016 to 485,000 in July 2019 (and is thus the British party with the most members). The party, and especially Corbyn, made a good election campaign in 2017 and the party received 29 new seats. grassroots movementThe momentum that was created after Corbyn was elected Labor leader is believed to have played an important role in the success by persuading several young voters to vote. One counter force, Open Labor, stands for a more moderate left-wing policy that is largely focused on reaching the middle voters. Labor made its worst election in 2019 since 1935 and Corbyn announced after he resigned as party leader. He was replaced by Keir Starmer in April 2020, which is expected to strengthen the center forces within the party.
The EU-friendly Liberal Democrats have the strongest support among intellectuals and the lower middle class. The Liberal Democrats had to pay a high price for government cooperation with the Conservative Party in 2010–2015 and lost big in the elections in 2015. A minor recovery took place in the 2017 election, while the party lost a mandate in the election held two years later. Jo Swinson lost his seat in the House of Commons in the 2019 election and resigned as party leader. She was replaced so far by Ed Davey and Sal Brinton.
The Scottish Nationalist Party (Scottish National Party, SNP) has been working for an independent Scotland since 1934. Politically, the party stands slightly to the left of Labor. The SNP has been led since the end of 2014 by Nicola Sturgeon, who is also the Scottish Head of Government (see Scotland). SNP made a strong choice in the 2015 elections, and has since been its third largest party in the lower house. After losing the mandate in 2017, the SNP managed to win 13 new seats in the British parliamentary elections in 2019. Even in terms of number of members, the SNP is the UK’s third largest party, in 2018 the party had 125,500 members.
The Social Democratic Wales Party (Plaid Cymru), which works for an independent Wales, is also represented in the British lower house. Party leader is Adam Price.
Of the Northern Ireland parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has long opposed the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, has the most mandate. Earlier, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) dominated politics in Northern Ireland. Both the DUP and the UUP are bourgeois parties and have the strongest support among provincial unionists, usually Protestants who want Northern Ireland to keep ties to the rest of the UK. The DUP was given a key role after the 2017 election, when the Conservative Party needed its support to gain a majority in the British lower house. After Boris Johnson became prime minister, the DUP lost that position (see Current Policy). Since 2015, DUP has been led by Arlene Foster.
The second largest of the Northern Irish parties today is Sinn Féin (meaning We ourselves), previously described as the political branch of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) (see Modern History and Towards Peace). Its successes have largely been at the expense of the Social Democrats and Labor (Social Democratic and Labor Party, SDLP), which has always sought changes with peaceful means. Sinn Fein and the SDLP have their strongest support among nationalists, that is, mainly Catholics who want a united Ireland. Sinn Féin calls itself a socialist party but has in recent years toned down its leftist rhetoric. In 2018, a historic shift of power occurred when Gerry Adams who led the party since 1983 handed over the party leader post to Mary Lou McDonald. The Northern Ireland branch of the party is led by Michelle O’Neill. The party does not occupy its seats in the British lower house, as its members refuse to recognize its supremacy over Northern Ireland.
The UK Independence Party (UKip) received a boost in opinion in 2012 as it could benefit from EU-critical sentiments. In May 2014, with 24 seats, Ukip became the largest British party in the European Parliament elections. In two general elections in 2014, the party won its first term in the British parliament, but only managed to retain one in the 2015 elections. The then party leader Nigel Farage played a pivotal role in the campaign ahead of the 2016 EU vote. worse in 2019.
Green Party (Green Party) has since 2010 a seat in the lower house. Party leaders are Jonathan Bartley and Siân Berry.
A cross-political group was formed in the spring of 2018 to run a campaign, People’s Vote (People’s Vote), to give the British electorate a referendum on a Brexit agreement. It is led by Chuka Umunna, from Labor, and Anna Soubry from the Conservative Party (however, both left their parties in early 2019 to form the Independent Group). The group also includes politicians from the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, as well as several EU-friendly groups. In mid-April, they form a new political party, the Change UK − Independent Group (Change UK − The Independent Group). Already in June of the same year, the party split, when six of eleven MPs, including Umunna, resign (see Calendar). None of Change-UK’s candidates managed to enter the lower house in 2019.
In early 2019 formed Brexitpartiet (Brexit Party) by Catherine Blaiklock, who left UKIP year. Seven British members of the European Parliament will then join the new party. It will be formally launched by Nigel Farage in April 2019, who will also become party leader. The Brexit Party will be the largest British party in the EU elections in May 2019 (see Calendar). In the British parliamentary elections that year, it receives only 2 percent of the vote. This is partly because Farage does not run for office and the party refrained from running in constituencies where the Conservative party had MPs.
Alien hostile parties / groups
The xenophobic British Nationalist Party (BNP) joined the European Parliament in 2009, but has otherwise had its greatest success at the municipal level. However, the right-wing party has done poorly in the last five local elections. The party also lost its two seats in the European Parliament in the elections in May 2014. Defenders from GDP formed a new party in 2011, Britain First, which, like several other groups on the far right, including the English Defense League, plays on anti-Muslim sentiments. The neo-Nazi group National Action , formed in 2013, became 2016 the first right-wing extremist group banned by the authorities since World War II.
The judicial system differs between the regions and is rather poorly designed. In England and Wales there are two types of criminal courts. Minor crimes are handled as burglaries and thefts are sentenced by a magistrate court whose judges (also called justices of the peace) need not have any formal legal training. Serious crimes such as murder, rape and robbery often go to Crown Court which also handles appeals from the court. There, a jury of up to twelve people will decide whether the accused is guilty or not. Civil court cases are handled by county courts and cases involving families such as divorces, custody disputes and adoptions are handled by family courts (Family Court). Some hardcore targets moving on to the Higher Court (High Court). There is also an appeals court that addresses both criminal and civil cases.
Scotland retained its own judicial system when the Union was formed in 1707. Minor crimes are handled by Justice of the Peace Courts, led by a peace judge who has a legally trained notary at his side, while 49 sheriff courts handle criminal cases. Here, too, there is a High Court in Edinburgh responsible for particularly serious cases, which is decided by a judge and 15 jurors. It is the highest instance for criminal cases tried in Scotland.
The statutes of the upper house were formerly the highest legal body, but in 2009 a Supreme Court was introduced, the Supreme Court. It also includes the Privy Council, which is the highest judicial body for territories and crown colonies outside Europe, and for about 10 Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean and Oceania. With regard to Scotland, the Supreme Court will only decide in cases involving the Scottish Government or the Scottish Parliament acting outside its remit.
READING TIP: read more about the UK in UI’s publication Foreign magazine:
Brexit raises the idea of a united Ireland (2019-02-20)