Structure of UK political system

About these posts…

This is the first in a series of “broad overview” style posts that will be filling the void of the summer recess. As politics isn’t compulsory in UK schools, and in fact isn’t even an optional subject until A-level in most of them, there are a lot of voters out there who would be interested in finding out more about the political system without being dragged down a particular party line in the process. Understanding the basic systems can be hugely helpful in ensuring you can get the most from the system as both voter and constituent.

Constitutional monarchy

The UK is a constitutional monarchy, which in basic terms means that there is a royal family with the king or queen in the role as Head of State. In a constitutional monarchy, the Head of State does not change after there has been an election. They are a point of continuity and have an ambassadorial role, with many ceremonial and official duties. However, they have little political power and do not make or pass laws. That is left to three other constitutional elements: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

Executive, legislature and judiciary

These are the bodies within the UK that formulate, pass and enforce legislation. It is a relatively common structure within democratic systems. The executive puts forward propositions for new laws and formulates the budget, the legislature debates and either approves or rejects the new laws, and the judiciary enforces the laws.

This directly translates as:

executive = the government, led by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet

legislature = the Westminster Parliament, made up of two houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords

judiciary = the court system, led by the Lord Chief Justice

Critics of the UK system point to the fact that there is no clear separation of powers between the three institutions. That is to say, there are overlaps at each level. The members of the executive are also members of the legislature: our Prime Minister, Home Secretary etc. are both members of government and MPs. Judges who are peers in the House of Lords are members of both the legislature and judiciary. It is even possible to be a member of all three at the same time, if you are a judge in the House of Lords who is chosen by the Prime Minister to join his Cabinet (as was the case with Lord Falconer, as part of Tony Blair’s government).

How is the government formed?

In the UK, a new executive, or government, is formed after each General Election. It is up to the leader of the party who has won the greatest number of seats to form the government.

If any political party has won a clear majority, it is straightforward: the party leader will take up the post of Prime Minister and choose the other members of Cabinet and junior ministers from within his or her own party.

In outcomes where there is no clear majority, the party leaders have to seek to attain support from the majority of the legislature from their own party and others. This can either be through coalition, as was the case following the 2010 General Election, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats jointly forming a government and sharing Cabinet and ministerial posts between them, or through “confidence and supply”. In the case of confidence and supply, the executive is made up of one party, but they agree support with other parties within the legislature. This happened in 1977 with the “Lib-Lab pact”, where Callaghan’s Labour government arranged to adopt a small number of Liberal policies in exchange for the Liberals committing to support the Labour government in a confidence vote.

Due to convention, the appointment of the Prime Minister and his or her new government has to be formally approved by the Queen, as she remains the Head of State.

Next steps

Having looked at the overall structure, we can now focus in on some details. In my next post, I will look at how new laws are made, and at the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.


8 thoughts on “Structure of UK political system

  1. Might be helpful here to clarify on confidence and supply:
    Confidence motions are votes which allow MPs to express whether or not they support the Government. If the Government loses the vote, it has lost the confidence of the House, and a new Government must be formed.
    Supply votes are votes on bills which provide funds necessary to keep the public sector running. If the Government loses a supply vote then, again, they have lost control of the House and a new Government must be formed.
    So a confidence and supply agreement is a minimalist coalition, in a sense – it is an agreement to stop the Government from falling, but no more.


    • Thanks, that’s really useful and well put. Would an example of a lost supply vote be Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government having their King’s Speech rejected in January 1924?


      • I’m not sure – I would describe that as a Confidence vote, because it’s rejecting the Government’s *legislative* program, rather than defeating the budget or a specific spending bill. I haven’t been able to find an example of its actually happening, and the only modern example la Wik suggests is the Lords rejecting the “Peoples’ Budget” in 1909 forcing the eventual passage of the Parliament Act.


  2. Actually yes, it did turn into a vote of no confidence – in the debate on 21st January 1924 the opposition added the amendment “but it is our duty respectfully to submit to Your Majesty that Your Majesty’s present advisers have not the confidence of the House”, which caused Baldwin’s government to resign the next day. When Callaghan’s government got booted out it was much more directly, with the timetabled motion: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.”

    Looking into this more deeply has also led me to the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act (, and it is now the case that if a vote of no confidence is passed, a general election can only be triggered after 14 days if no viable government has been put forward in the meantime. So it will be initially the job of the existing legislature to form a new executive, and only pass back to the voters if they fail to do so.


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