United Kingdom Government and Politics

State and politics

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Britain emerged in 1707 when Scotland entered into a union with England and Wales, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1801, changed in 1922, when Ireland was divided, to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. All included areas are represented in the London Parliament. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are represented by special ministers in the British Government. Scotland, which previously had considerable self-government, has since 1999 established its own parliament in Edinburgh. Formally, the London Parliament still has the highest decision-making power, but in practice, the change will significantly increase Scottish autonomy. Under the new scheme, responsibility for certain defined areas (so-called reserved matters) remains in London, while the Scottish Parliament has the power to decide on all other issues. Economic policy is headed from London, but the Scottish Parliament has the right to vary the income tax rate decided for England and Wales by up to three percentage points. The areas where London has the main responsibility also include defense, foreign, social security and immigration issues. The Scottish Parliament (formally the Queen) appoints a Head of Government (First Minister), who in turn appoints a Government (Scottish Executive/Scottish Government). Since 1999, Wales also has its own decision-making assembly (The National Assembly for Wales, usually Welsh Assembly, Welsh Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru), located in Cardiff. The Welsh Assembly has more limited powers than the Scottish Parliament and cannot, among other things, vary the rate of income tax. The Assembly appoints a Head of Government (First Minister), who in turn appoints a Government (Cabinet).

Through the heritage of England, Britain has the world’s oldest unbroken constitutional tradition but not a written constitution that summarizes the principles of British rule. This is instead regulated partly by a number of laws for special areas, such as civil rights, the composition of Parliament, the powers of the upper house and the elections to the lower house, and partly by practices developed over the centuries. Historically, the British (really English) constitutional development has been characterized by monarchy, parliamentarism and democracy. Parliamentarianism, since the first half of the 18th century, meant that the monarch appointed his advisers among persons who could win support or at least be accepted by the lower house. Parliament essentially exercises the power of the monarch through the Cabinet.

Government and Cabinet

The British government consists of a total of about 100 people, most of whom have subordinate (junior) positions. The government’s inner circle, the Cabinet, consists of just over 20 people, some of whom or some usually come from the upper house. Only members of the British Parliament (upper or lower house) can be included in the government. All members of government, including those in the Cabinet, retain their seats in Parliament.

Alongside the prime minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defense always belong to the inner circle. A cabinet seat can also depend on a minister’s own political weight. Ministers are responsible to Parliament for the work of their ministries. Unlike in Sweden, the British government members are personally responsible for decisions made within their respective responsibilities and may be forced to resign due to mistakes made at the administrative level.

The Parliament

Parliament, according to the constitutional doctrine, consists of the Crown, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In practice, power is entirely concentrated in the lower house and, above all, in the political majority, a leading group formed by the Cabinet.

The upper house.In the last century, the question of abolition or reform of the upper house has been frequently debated. The hereditary element has been reduced. The first step was taken in 1886, when the upper house, which also serves as the supreme court, strengthened its legal competence with a number of Lords of Appeal appointed for life. During the post-war period, opportunities were opened partly for hereditary lords to forgo their dignity to become eligible for the lower house, and partly to appoint members of the house for life. In the fall of 1999, the upper house consisted of 758 hereditary pears (of which 17 women), 515 pears of a lifetime (101 women), 27 lords and 2 archbishops and 24 bishops. In November of the same year, the majority of the hereditary pearls were removed from their places, after which 92 remained. This meant that the number of members in the upper house was almost halved. This is to be regarded as a partial reform, and discussions are underway for further changes. In 2017, the number of members in the upper house was 805 members (598 men and 207 women).

The formal power of the Lords has been limited mainly by practice but also by legislation, especially in 1911 and 1949. This means that a law of shorter or longer delay can also be established against the will of the upper house. In the political process, however, it has retained an essential function as mainly legal technical examiners. In practice, the upper house can still prepare the government some difficulties in passing controversial laws.

hOUSE OF COMMONShas 650 members. Of these, 533 represent England, 59 Scotland, 40 Wales and 18 Northern Ireland. The voting right age is 18 years, the eligibility age is 21 years. The election period is five years. Until 2011, decisions on new elections could be made at any time by the Prime Minister (formally by the Queen), but since then the term of office has been fixed at five years. However, a new election decision can be made with the support of two-thirds of all members of the House (including absentee), or after a vote of no confidence in the government, if no new government could be appointed within two weeks. Among other things, officials, judges, officers, police and most priests and members of the upper house are not eligible. The elections are held as majority elections in one-man elections. The system will limit the emergence of small batches. The United Kingdom is often claimed, somewhat pointedly, to have a permanent two-party system. However, it has usually had at least three parties, often more. But two parties have always dominated: tories against whigs, conservatives against first liberals and since the 1920s against Labor

After the Labor government took office in 1997, the issue of reform of the electoral system was brought up on the agenda. In 1998, the so-called Jenkins Commission, led by Lord Jenkins, presented a proposal for proportional electoral system. However, no concrete steps were taken afterwards. As part of the coalition agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats in 2010, the following year a referendum was held on a modification of the majority voting system. The proposal, which was based on the voter being able to rank the constituency candidates (“Alternative Vote”), was voted down by just over two thirds of the votes (voting participation 42 percent). Since then, the debate on the electoral system has been limited.

The work of the lower house is dominated by the Government’s proposals. Individual members ‘bills (private members’ bills and motions) are few. Members are primarily profiled through questions to the government. The British questioning institution has become an often envied role model in many other parliaments, not least in the Swedish parliament. Committee consideration is included as a mandatory part of a bill’s consideration. This can be done either in Standing Committees with alternating composition, depending on the nature of the cases, or in special committees (Select Committees), which are appointed ad hoc for a specific issue. Not infrequently, and always in budgetary matters, the entire House of Commons is constituted as a committee (Committee of the Whole House). The House’s working methods indicate that it controls more by constantly debating and questioning the government than by finger-checking its proposals. The debates can be particularly loud during the Prime Minister’s Question Time, and accompanied by bureaucracy and applause.

Division and self-government

In Englandthe municipal self-government is not uniform and is in the early 2000s in a period of change, most recently through the Local Government Acts of 1999 and 2000. Following a 1995 reform, there are four different forms of municipal self-government. Greater London is divided into 32 Borough Councils. In addition, since July 1, 2000, there is a common decision level for the Greater London Authority (Greater London Authority). This consists of a people-elected assembly and directly elected mayor. Six other densely populated areas (Metropolitan Counties: Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle and surrounding areas) are divided into a total of 36 independent Metropolitan District Councils. Furthermore, 55 areas are governed by uniform Unitary Authorities. The surface of most of England is governed by a two-level system, consisting of 27 County Councils and 201 Districts. All these bodies have a term of four years. In some places, all members are elected at the same time; in other areas, one third of the mandate is renewed every year. In recent years, certain cities have, following a referendum, introduced special elections of mayors. The smallest municipal area is in England parish (‘parish’, of which there are about 10,000; however, they do not exist everywhere). A parish may, at its discretion, call itself town. however, they do not exist everywhere). A parish may, at its discretion, call itself town. however, they do not exist everywhere). A parish may, at its discretion, call itself town.

Scotland has since 1999 had its own elected parliament based in Edinburgh. Since 1995, there is mainly a municipal level in Scotland, totaling 32 councils. The election period is four years. At lower levels, there are community councils in some places, which, however, have extremely limited powers.

Since 1999, Wales has its own elected assembly with its seat in Cardiff. In Wales, there have been 22 municipalities since 1996. The election period is four years. The smallest municipal unit in Wales is Community (over 800 in number)

In general, the degree of municipal self-government in the United Kingdom is low, although in recent years there has been a trend towards increased powers. Some areas of responsibility rest on non-elected bodies, so-called Quangos. There is no municipal income tax. However, the municipal bodies levy a Council Tax, which has eight levels, based on the residents’ living space.

See further Scotland (Political conditions) and Wales (Political conditions). See also Northern Ireland (Political conditions).


The recent election announced by Theresa May on June 8, 2017 was in the light of the ongoing Brexit process, whereby May wanted to strengthen her power in the British Parliament and thus her position in the negotiations with the EU. The election turned out to be a strategic mistake as no party got its own majority in parliament (so-called hung parliament). The phenomenon is unusual in countries with majority voting systems. It has previously happened in the UK in 2010 and at the February 1974 election.

Despite a decline of 13 mandates could Conservative Party (Conservative Party) and Theresa May be left with the support of the Northern Ireland’s Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

However, the government’s documentation was fragile, and the years 2017-19 were characterized by instability. In the fall of 2018, Theresa May negotiated an exit agreement with the EU, which in January 2019 was rejected by Parliament with a large majority. Despite some modifications, May’s Brexit agreement suffered further defeat in Parliament, and her political position became increasingly untenable. At the end of May, May announced her departure, but she remained as prime minister until July 24 when she was succeeded by Boris Johnson.

Johnson also initially had problems with the unclear parliamentary situation. In October 2019, he negotiated a new exit agreement with the EU. The agreement was accepted in an initial vote, but after Parliament subsequently rejected Johnson’s timetable for Brexit, the process stopped again.

The locked political situation led Boris Johnson to announce new elections. Opposition parties had previously opposed a new election, partly because the Conservative Party led the polls. After some debate, including on the election date, the opposition agreed that new elections should be held on Thursday, December 12.

The election campaign came to a great extent on EU exit. The Conservative campaign’s slogan “Get Brexit Done” focused on implementing the exit agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson with a deadline set to January 31, 2020.

The newly formed Brexit Party, led by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, was critical of Johnson’s agreement and advocated an EU exit without agreement. Farage threatened to put up a large number of candidates across the country, which risked the split of Brexitan supporters. However, Boris Johnson rejected all forms of cooperation with the Brexit Party. Faced with the threat of being able to cause a rearrangement of Brexit, Farage brought with him, and only put up candidates in constituencies that were not held by the Conservatives.

The Labor Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, went to elections with the promise of a renegotiation of the exit agreement, which would then be followed by a new referendum with the possibility of remaining in the EU.

The Liberal Democratic Party (Liberal Democrats) initially demanded the repeal of Article 50. The party also advocated that the UK should remain in the EU, without a new referendum. They came later during the campaign to accept a new referendum on EU membership, a position also adopted by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, as well as the Green Party.

The election result was a great success for the Conservative Party, and a personal victory for Boris Johnson. The Conservatives received 43.6 percent of the vote, the highest proportion since 1979. The number of Conservative seats was 365, the highest since 1987, which meant a satisfactory own majority. Among other things, the Conservatives won a number of constituencies in Northern England, which had previously been strong Labor parties but whose voters largely voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.

For Labor, the election meant a great decline. The 32.2 percent vote share was the lowest since 1987, and the 203 seats were the lowest since 1935. The hardship could be partly attributed to the party’s policy regarding the EU exit, which many considered unclear, but also party leader Jeremy Corbyn who lost a large part of the popularity he had in connection with the 2017 elections. Broadly speaking, Corbyn sought to reiterate the campaign strategy of 2017. The tone of the left-wing electoral program lay on economic redistribution and increased welfare, with elements of nationalization and criticism of Johnson’s government, portrayed by Labor as a threat to the public healthcare system (NHS).

The Liberal Democrats received 11.5 percent of the vote, some success compared to 2017, but at the same time made a net loss with a mandate. Among other things, party leader Jo Swinson lost his seat in parliament.

The Scottish Nationalists SNP received 45 percent of the Scottish vote and took 48 of the 59 Scottish mandates, which raised the issue of a new Scottish independence vote.

In Northern Ireland, the DUP returned with two terms, while the Catholic SDLP and the interfaith alliance party had some successes. The Greens and Welsh nationalists remained on the same number of terms as before. The Brexit party took two percent of the vote and was left without a mandate.

In total, the parties that advocated a new referendum on EU membership received just over 50 percent of the vote, but due to the split of votes, they received scarce dividends in mandate. The Conservatives and the Brexit Party together gained 45.6 percent, but managed to a much greater extent to avoid voting, largely due to the Brexit Party’s decision not to run in constituencies defended by the Conservatives.

The total sex ratio in the lower house after 2209 elections was 220 women (33.8 percent) and 430 men.

Results in parliamentary elections

Voting and mandate distribution in elections to parliament’s lower house since 1983

1983 1987 1992 1997 2001 2005 2010 2015 2017 2019
KP 42.4 (397) 42.2 (376) 41.9 (336) 30.7 (165) 31.6 (166) 32.4 (198) 36.1 (306) 36.8 (330) 42.3 (317) 43.6 (365)
LP 27.6 (209) 30.8 (229) 34.4 (271) 43.2 (418) 40.7 (413) 35.2 (355) 29.0 (258) 30.4 (232) 40.0 (262) 32.1 (203)
LD 25.4 (23) 1 22.6 (22) 1 17.8 (20) 16.8 (46) 18.3 (52) 22.0 (62) 23.0 (57) 7.9 (8) 7.4 (12) 11.5 (11)
SNP 1.1 (2) 1.3 (3) 1.9 (3) 2.0 (6) 1.8 (5) 1.5 (6) 1.7 (6) 4.7 (56) 3.0 (35) 3.9 (48)
UUP 0.8 (11) 0.8 (9) 0.8 (9) 0.8 (10) 0.8 (6) 0.5 (1) 0.3 (0) 2 0.4 (2) 0.3 (0) 0.3 (0)
DUP 0.5 (3) 0.3 (3) 0.3 (3) 0.3 (2) 0.7 (5) 0.9 (9) 0.6 (8) 0.6 (8) 0.9 (10) 0.8 (8)
SDLP 0.4 (1) 0.5 (3) 0.5 (4) 0.6 (3) 0.6 (3) 0.5 (3) 0.4 (3) 0.3 (3) 0.3 (0) 0.4 (2)
Plaid Cymru 0.4 (2) 0.4 (3) 0.5 (4) 0.5 (4) 0.7 (4) 0.6 (3) 0.6 (3) 0.6 (3) 0.5 (4) 0.5 (4)
Feel fine 0.3 (1) 0.3 (1) 0.2 (0) 0.4 (2) 0.7 (4) 0.6 (5) 0.6 (5) 0.6 (4) 0.7 (7) 0.6 (7)
GP 0.3 (0) 0.5 (0) 0.2 (0) 0.6 (0) 1.0 (0) 0.9 (1) 3.8 (1) 1.6 (1) 2.7 (1)
Other 3 1 1 1 3 1 4 4 3 2 1

1 Social Democratic Party-Liberal Party Alliance
2 Valllians in Northern Ireland with Conservative Party
3 Mandate only

KP = Conservative Party
LP = Labor Party
LD = Liberal Democratic Party
SNP = Scottish National Party
UUP = Ulster Unionist Party
DUP = Democratic Unionist Party
SDLP = Social Democratic and Labor Party
GP = Green Party

The Conservative Party’s electoral success, which meant a reassuring majority of its own, meant that now, without regard to other parties or dissenters within its own party, Johnson’s exit agreement could be passed through Parliament.

January 31, 2020 was set as the date of departure. Thereafter, a transitional period began until 31 December 2020. During the transitional period, the consequences of the UK EU exit will be limited for British citizens. The changes are noticeable mainly in the EU institutions, such as Parliament and the Commission.

The UK remains in the common market during the transitional period and is subject to decisions by the EU institutions, but without being able to influence the content of the decisions themselves. Trade and customs work in the same way as before, as does the student exchange program Erasmus. Free movement remains. For travel between other EU countries and the UK, as before, passports are required, but not visas.

During the transition period, a new trade agreement is negotiated between the EU and the UK. The practical consequences of leaving the EU, when the transitional period has ended, will be greatly affected by this agreement. Formally, the transition period can be extended, but the government’s position is that no such extension is relevant.

After Boris Johnson fell ill in covid-19, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab (born 1974) stepped in early April to take over some of the prime minister’s duties. Johnson, however, formally continued to lead the country. There is no post as Deputy Prime Minister.

UK and EU

Britain became an EU member in 1973. The country had 73 seats in the European Parliament which was as many as Italy. Only Germany and France had more.

The UK has long had a split relationship with the EU. When the European Coal and Steel Community, one of the three Western European cooperation organizations that together formed the EC, entered into force in 1952, unlike France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy, was not included.

It was not until the 1960s, when the United Kingdom showed signs of being economically exhausted and in a bad position to endure international competition, that the first British recognition was made when Britain sought entry into the EC, an attempt which, however, was stranded by French President Charles de Gaulle’s resistance. It was not until 1973 that Britain joined, together with Denmark and Ireland.

In the shadow of the negative economic cycles of the 1990s, a discussion was held about a possible approach to a European Union in the field of monetary affairs. Margaret Thatcher, despite declining industrial productivity, stuck to a hard line against Brussels. Her attitude, however, faced increasing dissatisfaction within the party and contributed to her case to some extent.

The successor of John Major’s board was judged to be competent but not inspiring and weakened by internal struggles in the European issue. In the 1997 elections, the Conservatives lost big to the reformed Labor Party under the charismatic Tony Blair. Labor on the European issue expressed itself more favorably than its representative. However, European policy continued to create tensions between, and within, the two major parties. Blair stuck to an EU-friendly line, but always had a skeptical people’s opinion to deal with. In June 2003, the government decided that five criteria for membership in EMU were not met. In principle, they continued to advocate for membership, but in practice the issue was addressed in the future.

In June 2004, the government participated in the drafting of a new constitution for the EU. Blair had previously stated that the EU constitution would be put to a referendum, but this process stopped when France and the Netherlands voted against the constitution in 2005.

Blair was succeeded in June 2007 by Finance Minister Gordon Brown. He immediately carried out extensive government reform. However, no major changes took place in the Labor government’s policy, and Brown soon ended up on the defensive, squeezed by, among other things, strained state finances and the UK-sensitive EU issue where the question of a possible referendum on the Lisbon Treaty gave rise to major divisions even within the ruling party.

Pressed by a growing EU-skeptical fallacy within the Conservative Party, the late Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on continued EU membership if he was re-elected in 2015, something he also became. However, after a deal with the EU, according to which Britain could deny immigrants from other EU countries certain social benefits during a transitional period, Cameron advocated that the country stay in the EU.

After the 2016 referendum on the resignation, the Conservative Party was thrown into a leadership crisis when Cameron announced that he was leaving the post of party leader and thus also the Prime Minister’s post. After a quick selection process, Theresa May was appointed new party leader and on July 13 also appointed prime minister.

See also United Kingdom (Politics).


The United Kingdom, in principle, does not have a uniform legal system, but consists of three geographical jurisdictions (England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), each with its own legal system and its judicial organization. However, the number of common laws and regulations has increased significantly, not least since Britain joined the EC in 1973. English law also exerts a strong influence in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. See also England (Justice) and Scotland (Justice). The death penalty was abolished in 1973 for crimes committed during war or war-like conditions and in 1998 for all crimes; the last execution took place in 1964.


(For regents before 1707, see tables at England and Scotland, respectively.)

The house Stuart
1707-14 Anna *
The house Hanover
1714-27 Georg I
1727-60 Georg II
1760-1820 Georg III
1820-30 Georg IV
1830-37 William IV
1837-1901 Victoria
House Saxony-Coburg-Gotha
(since 1917 Windsor)
1901-10 Edvard VII
1910-36 Georg V
1936 Edvard VIII
1936-52 Georg VI
1952- Elizabeth II

* Anna Stuart became queen of England and Scotland in 1702.

Prime Ministers *

1721-42 Sir Robert Walpole (w) **
1742-43 Lord Wilmington (Spencer Comton)
1743-54 Henry Pelham (w)
1754-56 The Duke of Newcastle (Thomas Pelham-Holles) (w)
1756-57 Duke of Devonshire (William Cavendish) (w)
1757-62 Duke of Newcastle (w)
1762-63 Lord Bute (John Stuart)
1763-65 George Grenville (w)
1765-66 Lord Rockingham (Charles Watson Wentworth) (w)
1766-68 William Pitt d.
1768-70 Duke of Grafton (Augustus Henry Fitzroy)
1770-82 Lord North (Frederick North) (t)
1782 Lord Rockingham (w)
1782-83 Lord Shelburne (William Petty-Fitzmaurice)
1783 Duke of Portland (William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck) (w)
1783-1801 William Pitt dy
1801-04 Lord Sidmouth (Henry Addington)
1804-06 William Pitt dy
1806-07 Lord Grenville (William Wyndham Grenville) (w)
1807-09 Duke of Portland (W)
1809-12 Spencer Perceval (t)
1812-27 Lord Liverpool (Robert Banks Jenkinson) (t)
1827 George Canning (t)
1827-28 Lord Goderich (Frederick John Robinson) (t)
1828-30 Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley) (t)
1830-34 Lord Gray (Charles Gray) (w)
1834 Lord Melbourne (William Lamb) (w)
1834 Duke of Wellington (t)
1834-35 Sir Robert Peel (k)
1835-41 Lord Melbourne (w)
1841-46 Sir Robert Peel (k)
1846-52 Lord Russell (John Russell) (w)
1852 Lord Derby (Edward Geoffrey Stanley) (k)
1852-55 Lord Aberdeen (George Hamilton Gordon)
1855-58 Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple) (w)
1858-59 Lord Derby (w)
1859-65 Lord Palmerston (w)
1865-66 Lord Russell (w)
1866-68 Lord Derby (k)
1868 Benjamin Disraeli (k)
1868-74 William Gladstone (l)
1874-80 Benjamin Disraeli (from 1876 Lord Beaconsfield) (k)
1880-85 William Gladstone (l)
1885-86 Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil) (k)
1886 William Gladstone (l)
1886-92 Lord Salisbury (k)
1892-94 William Gladstone (l)
1894-95 Lord Rosebery (Archibald Philip Primrose) (l)
1895-1902 Lord Salisbury (k)
1902-05 Arthur James Balfour (k)
1905-08 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (l)
1908-16 HH Asquith (l)
1916-22 David Lloyd George (l)
1922-23 Bonar Law (k)
1923-24 Stanley Baldwin (k)
1924 Ramsay MacDonald (lab)
1924-29 Stanley Baldwin (k)
1929-35 Ramsay MacDonald (lab)
1935-37 Stanley Baldwin (k)
1937-40 Neville Chamberlain (k)
1940-45 Winston Churchill (k)
1945-51 Clement Attlee (lab)
1951-55 Sir Winston Churchill (k)
1955-57 Sir Anthony Eden (k)
1957-63 Harold Macmillan (k)
1963-64 Sir Alec Douglas-Home (k)
1964-70 Harold Wilson (lab)
1970-74 Edward Heath (k)
1974-76 Harold Wilson (lab)
1976-79 James Callaghan (lab)
1979-90 Margaret Thatcher (k)
1990-97 John Major (k)
1997-2007 Tony Blair (lab)
2007-10 Gordon Brown (lab)
2010-16 David Cameron (k)
2016-19 Theresa May (k)
2019- Boris Johnson (k)

* The title of Prime Minister began to be used under Queen Anna (1702-14) but became official name of the head of government only in 1905.
** Before the middle of the nineteenth century, the parties were soon alliances of groups or noble families. In the table above, the party designation (where applicable) refers to the Prime Minister’s party affiliation.
Abbreviations. k: conservative; l: liberal; lab: labor; t: tory; w: whig.

United Kingdom Head of Government

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