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The UK Government

The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister (PM) is the leader of the political party that is currently in power. The PM appoints the members of the cabinet and has authority over important public appointments. The official residence of the Prime Minister is 10 Downing Street in central London, close to the Houses of Parliament. The Prime Minister also has a country house called Chequers, located outside London.
The Prime Minister can be changed if the Members of Parliament (MPs) in the governing party decide so or if the Prime Minister decides to resign. Typically, the Prime Minister resigns if their party loses in a General Election.

The Cabinet

The Prime Minister selects around 20 senior Members of Parliament (MPs) to serve as ministers in charge of specific government departments. Some important positions include:

  • Chancellor of the Exchequer – responsible for the economy
  • Home Secretary – responsible for crime, policing, and immigration
  • Foreign Secretary – responsible for managing relationships with other countries
  • Other ministers (known as 'Secretaries of State') responsible for areas such as education, health, and defense.
Together, these ministers form the cabinet, which meets regularly to make important decisions regarding government policies. Many of these decisions require debate and approval from Parliament.
Each department also has additional ministers, such as Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, who oversee specific areas of the department's work.

The Opposition

The second-largest party in the House of Commons is known as the opposition. If the opposition party wins the next General Election, their leader usually becomes the Prime Minister.
The leader of the opposition and their party highlight what they consider to be the failures and weaknesses of the government. One important opportunity for this is during Prime Minister's Questions, which takes place weekly while Parliament is in session. The leader of the opposition also appoints senior MPs from their party as 'shadow ministers'. They form the shadow cabinet and their role is to challenge the government and propose alternative policies.

The Party System

Anyone who is 18 years or older can run for election as a Member of Parliament (MP), but it is unlikely that they will win unless they have been nominated by one of the major political parties. These parties include the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as parties representing Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish interests.
There are a few MPs who do not belong to any of the main political parties. They are called "independents" and usually represent an issue that is important to their constituency.
The main political parties actively seek members of the public to join their debates, contribute to their funding, and assist during elections for Parliament or local government. They have branches in most constituencies and hold annual conferences to shape their policies.
Pressure and lobby groups are organizations that try to influence government policies. They play an important role in politics. Some of these groups represent specific organizations, such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) which represents the views of British businesses. Others focus on campaigning for specific issues, such as the environment (e.g., Greenpeace) or human rights (e.g., Liberty).

The Civil Service

The civil service provides support to the government in developing and implementing its policies, as well as delivering public services. Civil servants are accountable to ministers and are selected based on merit, not political affiliation. They are politically neutral and not appointed based on political considerations. People can apply to join the civil service through a standard application process, similar to other jobs in the UK. Civil servants are expected to carry out their duties with dedication and uphold the core values of the civil service, which include integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality, including political neutrality.

Local Government

Towns, cities, and rural areas in the UK are governed by elected councils known as "local authorities." Some areas have separate district and county councils with different responsibilities, while larger towns and cities have a single local authority.
Local authorities are responsible for providing various services in their areas and are funded through central government grants and local taxes.
Many local authorities have a mayor who serves as the ceremonial leader of the council. In some towns, an elected mayor serves as the administrative leader. In London, there are 33 local authorities overseen by the Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London, who coordinate policies for the capital. Local elections for councilors are typically held in May each year, and many candidates run as members of political parties.

Devolved Administrations

Since 1997, certain powers have been transferred from the central UK government to the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. This devolution of power aims to give people in these regions more control over issues that directly affect them. The Welsh Assembly, now known as the Senedd, and the Scottish Parliament were established in 1999. There is also a Northern Ireland Assembly, although it has been suspended at times.
While defense, foreign affairs, social security, and most taxation policies and laws remain under the control of the central UK government, the devolved administrations have authority over many other public services, including education.
Each devolved administration has its own civil servants to support its governance and policy-making processes.

The Welsh Government

The Welsh government and the Senedd are located in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. The Senedd consists of 60 Members of the Senedd (MSs), and elections are held every four years using a proportional representation system. Members have the option to speak in either Welsh or English, and all publications of the Senedd are available in both languages.
The Senedd has the authority to enact laws in 21 areas that include education and training, health and social services, economic development, and housing. Since 2011, the National Assembly for Wales has been able to pass laws in these areas without the approval of the UK Parliament. The Welsh Assembly building was inaugurated in March 2006.

The Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 and is located in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament comprises 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) who are elected through a proportional representation system. The Scottish Parliament has the authority to pass laws for Scotland in all areas that are not specifically reserved to the UK Parliament. Some of the matters on which the Scottish Parliament can legislate include civil and criminal law, health, education, planning, and additional tax-raising powers.

The Northern Ireland Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly, also known as Stormont, was established after the Belfast Agreement in 1998. It operates under a power-sharing agreement among the main parties and consists of 90 elected members called MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly). The Assembly has the authority to make decisions on various issues including education, agriculture, the environment, health, and social services.
The UK government has the power to suspend all devolved assemblies, and this has been used in Northern Ireland during periods of difficulty in local political cooperation.
In the UK, parliamentary proceedings are broadcast on television and published in official reports called Hansard. Newspapers, television, radio, and the internet are the primary sources of information for most people regarding political issues and events. The UK has a free press, which means that newspapers are not under government control. However, some newspaper owners and editors have strong political opinions and may run campaigns to influence government policy and public opinion.
Radio and television coverage of political parties in the UK must be balanced by law, ensuring equal time is given to rival viewpoints.

Make Sure You Understand

  • The role of the Prime Minister, cabinet, opposition and shadow cabinet
  • The role of political parties in the UK system of government
  • Who the main political parties are
  • What pressure and lobby groups do
  • The role of the civil service
  • The role of local government
  • The powers of the devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
  • How proceedings in Parliament are recorded
  • The role of the media in keeping people informed about political issues