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The Development of British Democracy

Overview of the UK's Parliament

The UK is a parliamentary democracy with the monarch as the head of state. In this democratic system, various institutions play a role, and individuals can actively participate in the democratic process.
Democracy allows the entire adult population to have a say in the government. This can be achieved through direct voting or by choosing representatives to make decisions on their behalf.

British Goverment in the early 19th Century

In the early 19th century, Britain did not have the democracy we see today. Voting rights were limited to a small group of men who were over 21 years old and owned a certain amount of property. Elections were held to select Members of Parliament (MPs), but the franchise was restricted.
However, over the course of the 19th century, the franchise expanded, allowing more people to vote. Political parties began to involve ordinary men and women as members, contributing to a more inclusive democratic process.
In the 1830s and 1840s, a group called the Chartists campaigned for political reform in the UK. They advocated for six changes, which included granting every man the right to vote, annual elections, equal representation in all regions, secret ballots, allowing any man to stand as a Member of Parliament (MP), and paying MPs for their service.
Although the Chartist movement was initially seen as a failure, by 1918, most of their proposed reforms had been implemented. Voting rights were extended to women over 30, and in 1928, to men and women over 21. In 1969, the voting age was further reduced to 18 for both men and women.

The British constitution

The British constitution refers to the principles and institutions that govern the country. Unlike countries like the United States or France, the UK does not have a single written constitution. Instead, its constitution is described as "unwritten." This is because the UK's institutions and laws have developed over a long period of time without a revolutionary overhaul of the system. Some people argue for a written constitution, while others believe that an unwritten constitution provides more flexibility and effective governance.
The UK government is composed of several different parts. The main ones include:

  • The monarchy: The monarch is the head of state in the UK, representing the continuity and tradition of the country.
  • Parliament: Parliament consists of two houses - the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is made up of Members of Parliament (MPs) who are elected by the public, while the House of Lords is composed of appointed members, including life peers, bishops, and hereditary peers.
  • The Prime Minister: The Prime Minister is the head of government and is usually the leader of the political party with the most seats in the House of Commons.
  • The Cabinet: The Cabinet is a group of senior government ministers chosen by the Prime Minister. They are responsible for making important policy decisions.
  • The judiciary: The judiciary consists of the courts and judges who interpret and apply the law. They ensure justice is upheld and disputes are resolved fairly.
  • The police: The police are responsible for maintaining law and order, preventing and investigating crime, and ensuring public safety.
  • The civil service: The civil service is the administrative branch of the government that supports and advises ministers in implementing government policies and delivering public services.
  • Local government: Local government refers to the elected bodies and authorities that govern specific regions, such as local councils and mayors.

The Role of the Monarchy

King Charles III is the head of state in the UK and also serves as the monarch for other countries in the Commonwealth. The UK has a constitutional monarchy, which means that the monarch's role is primarily symbolic and ceremonial. The monarch appoints the government based on the democratic election results. The leader of the party with the most MPs or the leader of a coalition is invited to become the Prime Minister. While the monarch has regular meetings with the Prime Minister and can provide advice and encouragement, the actual decisions on government policies are made by the Prime Minister and the cabinet.
The King has important ceremonial roles, such as opening the new parliamentary session each year and delivering a speech that outlines the government's policies. All Acts of Parliament are made in his name.
Internationally, the King represents the UK and engages in diplomatic activities. He receives foreign ambassadors and high commissioners, hosts visiting heads of state, and undertakes state visits to strengthen diplomatic and economic relationships with other countries.
The King provides stability and continuity as the head of state, even as governments and Prime Ministers change. He serves as a unifying figure and a symbol of national identity and pride for the UK.
The National Anthem of the UK is "God Save the King." It is played at important national occasions and events attended by the King or the Royal Family.

"God save our gracious King! Long live our noble King! God save the King! Send her victorious, Happy and glorious, Long to reign over us, God save the King!"

New citizens swear or affirm loyalty to the King as part of the citizenship ceremony. Oath of allegiance
I (name) swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty King Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law. Affirmation of allegiance
I (name) do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty King Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law. System of government

The UK's Government Structure

The system of government in the UK is a parliamentary democracy. The country is divided into parliamentary constituencies, and voters in each constituency participate in General Elections to elect their Member of Parliament (MP). The House of Commons is formed by all the elected MPs. The majority party in the House of Commons forms the government, and if no party has a majority, two or more parties can form a coalition government.
The House of Commons is considered more significant than the House of Lords because its members are democratically elected. Most members of the cabinet, including the Prime Minister, are MPs. Each MP represents a specific parliamentary constituency, which is a small geographic area within the country. MPs have various responsibilities, including:

  • Representing the interests of everyone in their constituency.
  • Participating in the creation of new laws.
  • Scrutinizing and commenting on the actions of the government.
  • Engaging in debates on important national issues.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament. Its members, known as peers, are not elected by the public and do not represent specific constituencies. The role and composition of the House of Lords have undergone changes in recent decades.
Prior to 1958, all peers in the House of Lords were either hereditary peers, who inherited their titles, or held their positions as senior judges or bishops of the Church of England.
Since 1958, the Prime Minister has had the power to nominate individuals for life peerages. These life peers are appointed for their lifetime and are often distinguished individuals who have made significant contributions in politics, business, law, or other professions. The monarch appoints life peers on the advice of the Prime Minister, and nominations can also come from leaders of other political parties or an independent Appointments Commission.
Since 1999, hereditary peers have lost their automatic right to attend the House of Lords. Instead, they now elect a limited number of representatives to sit in the House of Lords.
The House of Lords is generally more independent from the government compared to the House of Commons. It can suggest amendments and propose new laws, which are then debated by MPs. The House of Lords also scrutinizes laws passed by the House of Commons to ensure their effectiveness. It holds the government accountable and plays a role in representing the interests of the people. Some peers in the House of Lords are experts in specific areas, and their knowledge is valuable in lawmaking and scrutiny processes. While the House of Commons can override the House of Lords, this is not a common occurrence.

The Speaker

Debates in the House of Commons are presided over by the Speaker, who is the chief officer of the House. The Speaker is a neutral position and does not represent a political party, although they are an MP and represent a constituency like other MPs. The Speaker is elected by other MPs through a secret ballot.
The Speaker's role is to maintain order during political debates, ensuring that the rules are followed. They also ensure that the opposition has a guaranteed amount of time to debate issues of their choosing. The Speaker represents Parliament on ceremonial occasions as well.

UK elections

Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected through General Elections, which are held at least every five years. If an MP resigns or passes away, a by-election is held in their constituency to elect a new representative.
The electoral system used in the UK is called 'first past the post'. In each constituency, the candidate who receives the most votes is elected as the MP for that constituency. The political party that wins the majority of constituencies forms the government. If no party secures a majority, parties may form a coalition to create a government.
It is possible to contact elected members, such as MPs, Senedd members (SMs), and Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), to voice concerns or discuss issues. Contact details for representatives and their parties can be obtained from your local library or the official Parliament website ( Additionally, contact information for MPs can be found in The Phone Book published by BT. MPs, SMs, and MSPs often hold regular local "surgeries" where constituents can meet them in person to discuss matters of concern. These surgeries are usually advertised in local newspapers.

Make Sure You Understand

  • How democracy has developed in the UK
  • The meaning of a constitution and how the UK's constitution differs from most other countries
  • The responsibilities of the monarch
  • The roles of the House of Commons and House of Lords
  • The duties of the Speaker
  • The process of electing MPs and MEPs in the UK