British Government Basics
Can you name the British Head of State? Can you identify the two houses of Parliament? Do you know the name of the highest court in Britain? Don't worry if you had to answer with a firm 'no'. After studying this lesson, you'll know the answers to all these questions and more, for in the next few minutes, we're going to take a little tour of the government of the United Kingdom.
First off, you need to know that the United Kingdom is both a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. That sounds like quite a mouthful, doesn't it? Let's break it down. In a parliamentary democracy, citizens elect a legislative body called a Parliament to represent their interests and carry out their will. This is one layer of the British government. Britain is also a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch serves as Head of State but is limited in power and must work in conjunction with the Parliament.
Second, you must understand that Britain has three arms, or branches, of state: the legislative, which debates and passes laws; the executive, which carries out the laws and runs the country on a day-to-day basis; and the judicial, which enforces the laws. In Britain, these three branches often overlap, and their powers sometimes fuse together when government officials belong to more than one branch at a time. For instance, many members of Parliament also serve as ministers in the executive branch.
Before we talk more about the three branches, let's take a quick look at the person that stands above them all: the monarch. The British monarch, although limited in power, is the official Head of State and the Head of the Nation. As such, he or she serves as Britain's public face and a national icon and performs official and ceremonial duties, like opening each session of Parliament, appointing the Prime Minister and other government officials, regularly meeting with the Prime Minister, honoring the achievements of British citizens, representing Britain in the international community, and making appearances at events and festivities.
The Legislative Branch
Let's turn our attention now to the three branches of the British government. We'll talk about the legislative branch first. Parliament is the British legislative body. It is made up of two houses - the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It performs four primary duties: passing laws, authorizing taxes and government budgets, scrutinizing and investigating government administration, and debating current issues.
The House of Commons, Parliament's lower house, consists of about 650 Members of Parliament (MPs), who are elected by British citizens. These MPs make laws, control the government's finances, and keep a close eye on government administration. The House of Lords, Parliament's upper house, consists of over 700 Lords. Some are bishops and archbishops; others are hereditary peers, whose seats have passed down through the generations; and still others are peers appointed by the monarch for their specialized knowledge in areas useful to the government. The House of Lords participates in the lawmaking process, scrutinizes government administration, and independently investigates matters of public interest.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch of the British government is commonly known as His/Her Majesty's Government (HMG). It is made up of a collection of about a hundred ministers who carry out the laws made by Parliament and who run the government and the country day-to-day.
Most of these ministers are also members of the majority party in the House of Commons. They are led by the Prime Minister, who is the leader of the majority party and is appointed by the monarch to form and lead the new government after an election.
The Prime Minister assumes responsibility for all the decisions and policies of the British government. He or she appoints other government officials; organizes and oversees government departments and agencies; acts as a liaison with the monarch; participates in the House of Commons; and represents the United Kingdom internationally.
The Prime Minister is assisted by his or her Cabinet, a committee that analyzes issues, makes decisions, and sets governmental policy. Cabinet ministers, who are appointed by the Prime Minister, also serve as heads of various government departments.
The Judicial Branch
Finally, the judicial branch enforces the laws made by Parliament and carried out daily by His/Her Majesty's Government. The 2005 Constitutional Reform Act made major changes to this branch of government, making it mostly independent from the other two branches.
The Lord Chief Justice oversees the training and performance of judges and communicates with Parliament about judicial issues. He is assisted by the Judicial Executive Board. Further, the Judicial Appointments Commission is responsible for recommending potential judges to the Secretary of State for Justice, who, in turn, presents them to the Prime Minister or the monarch for approval.
The British court system is extremely complex and consists of a variety of courts, magistrates, and tribunals to handle different types and levels of cases. At the top of the judicial branch, however, sits the Supreme Court, which began operations as the highest court of appeal in 2009. The Supreme Court, which assumes a role that once belonged to the House of Lords, hears appeals and makes final decisions in the most important and high-profile criminal and civil cases.
Let's review. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, in which citizens elect a legislative body called a Parliament to represent their interests and carry out their will. It is also a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch serves as Head of State and Head of Nation but is limited in power and must work in conjunction with the Parliament. The monarch serves as Britain's public face and a national icon and performs official and ceremonial duties.
The British government has three branches. The legislative branch is made up of the two houses of Parliament, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Parliament performs four primary duties: passing laws, authorizing taxes and government budgets, scrutinizing and investigating government administration, and debating current issues. The executive branch is commonly known as His/Her Majesty's Government (HMG). It is led by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and is made up of a collection of about a hundred ministers who carry out the laws made by Parliament and who run the government and the country day-to-day.
The judicial branch enforces the law. It is headed by the Lord Chief Justice with the assistance of the Judicial Executive Board and the Judicial Appointments Commission and is made up of a complex network of courts, magistrates, and tribunals with the Supreme Court standing at the top as the highest court of appeal.
Once this lesson ends, you could showcase your readiness to:
- Name the type of government that runs Britain
- Interpret the role of the British monarch in politics
- Point out the two houses of the legislative branch of the British government
- Explain the composition of the United Kingdom's executive branch
- Discuss the role and organization of the judicial branch of the UK
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Overview of the UK Government Quiz
Instructions: Choose an answer and click 'Next'. You will receive your score and answers at the end.
Which branch of the British government is led by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet?
Writing Prompts About the UK Government:
Writing Prompt 1:
Pretend that you are the personal assistant to the British monarch. Construct a detailed list of all the duties the monarch must perform in the upcoming month. Be as specific as possible.
Writing Prompt 2:
Pretend that you are a member of Parliament's upper house, the House of Lords. Put together a resume that lists your background and how you came to be a Lord, and describe your duties as a Lord. Be as detailed as possible.
Cover Letter Prompt 1:
Imagine that you are seeking a position within the Prime Minister's Cabinet. Write a cover letter explaining everything you know about the duties of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet members. Describe to the Prime Minister why you want to be part of the Cabinet and what qualities and experiences you have that make you qualified to be in the Cabinet. Also, be sure to explain your thorough knowledge of the UK's government and how it works, taking special care to expound on your knowledge of parliamentary democracies and constitutional monarchies.
Poster Prompt 1:
Create a poster that illustrates and defines the three branches of the United Kingdom's government. Explain what each branch does and who comprises each branch.
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