Politics — How Britain is Run
The Queen’s Working Day
When The Queen is in residence at Buckingham Palace, every day is a working day both for her and for the Duke of Edinburgh. They meet for a quick breakfast at half-past eight when they will discuss each other’s daily programme but, unless they have joint engagements, they frequently do not see each other again until late evening. By 9.30 am Her Majesty is at her desk ready to start the day’s routine.
A digest of the day’s newspapers will have been prepared for her by the Press Secretary with items of particular interest marked or cut out. When Parliament is sit-ting, a report on the previous day’s proceedings will have been delivered by the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household.
Throughout the working day a number of visitors will call ranging from incoming or outgoing diplomats to Her Majesty’s dressmakers, who may arrive to discuss the wardrobe for a forthcoming overseas tour.
Once a month a meeting of the Privy Council is held in order that the Royal Assent may be given to various items of government legislation.
At the end of the morning Her Majesty usually lunches alone and then in the afternoon she will often have an engagement in the London area. On her return she may well hold important domestic discussions with the Master of the Household, for Her Majesty is not only the Sovereign but also mistress of the house — the largest house in the country. Towards the end of the day there is always another pile of official papers, government documents and reports to be read, initialed or acted upon. Even when the members of the Royal Household have all gone home for the night there is often one light still burning: it is The Queen’s, for whom the business of a constitutional monarchy never ends.
As a constitutional monarch, the Queen’s powers are in theory awesome. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are strictly speaking her servants and all government work is carried out in her name — ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’. She is head of the judiciary, Commander-in-Chief of all the armed forces and the temporal head of the established Church of Trooping the Colour takes place on Horse Guards Parade in June each year. The regimental flag was originally displayed to the soldiers for instant recognition in battle.
The Queen could sell all the ships in the navy or disband the army. It is in her name that war is declared and it is her personal ambassadors who represent the United Kingdom abroad and, in addition, it is to her Court of St James’s that ambassadors from other countries are accredited. In practice, of course, all these decisions are taken in true democratic style by the elected government of the day: in effect the Queen reigns but does not rule.
As Defender of the Faith Her Majesty is responsible for setting an example to her people. When she was anointed with holy oils at her coronation, Her Majesty accepted a sacred trust, one which she believes she must hold for life.
The Queen has no power in a political sense yet she is an integral part of the parliamentary system. Each year at the Stale Opening of Parliament she reads the speech outlining her government’s proposals for the coming session. No bill becomes law until Royal Assent has been granted, and decisions under Royal Prerogative receive her approval at Privy Council meetings. A former United Kingdom Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, once remarked: ‘No practising politician could possibly hope to be more deeply and widely informed about domestic, Commonwealth and international affairs than The Queen. She has sources of information available to nobody else.’
In November The Queen leads other members of the Royal Family in paying tribute to the dead of two World Wars and numerous smaller conflicts at the annual Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
The Queen has occupied the throne for over 40 years and has travelled more widely than any, other British monarch. Every year she undertakes at least two major overseas State Visits, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, with shorter official tours in between, such as visiting Normandy in 1994 for the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Her Majesty has made great use of the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was launched by her in 1953, the year of the coronation, and which has since travelled over 1,000,000 miles. Britannia has served as a royal residence and a setting for official entertainment by The Queen and members of the Royal Family, and has also been used for the promotion of British commercial interests overseas.
The Royal Yacht has the distinction of being the last ship in the Royal Navy whose sailors slept in hammocks. In June 1994 it was announced that HM Yacht Britannia would be dc-commissioned in 1997 in view of her age and the expense of maintaining her. She is the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy, only Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, being older.
Whenever the Queen or any other member of the Royal Family travels on land, either by road or rail, the arrangements are made by the Crown Equerry, whose office is located in the Royal Mews. The Crown Equerry is responsible for the 30 horses used in State processions and which are kept in the royal stables, as well as for the magnificent collection of State coaches and carriages. He also looks after the five Rolls-Royce limousines kept in the Mews. Whenever Her Majesty is travelling in one of her official cars a solid-silver mascot depicting St George and the Dragon is fixed to the limousine bonnet.
A favourite method of travel for all the Royal Family is the Royal Train which is owned and operated by British Rail. Prince Charles designed part of the interior of his quarters and the Duke of Edinburgh frequently uses the train for business meetings for one of his many organizations. All royal journeys are charged to the Privy Purse (The Queen’s treasury) who reimburse British Rail for every mile travelled.
The Queen is the country’s official hostess entertaining, on behalf of her people, guests from all over the world. She has been described as the most generous hostess in the world with no other Head of State entertaining on quite the same scale. Her Majesty welcomes visiting monarchs, princes, sheiks and presidents to her palaces, castles, the Royal Yacht and even to her private homes at Balmoral and Sandringham, where they are treated to a unique hospitality.
In addition to the State Banquets required by protocol to be held in honour of visiting Heads of State, The Queen will host numerous official dinners and lunches throughout the year. At Windsor Castle close friends are invited to a continuous house party throughout Royal Ascot week each June.
Windsor is also the scene of The Queen’s large Christmas party where the family gathering has now expanded to include more than 40 people. New Year is spent at Sandringham where the Duke of Edinburgh hosts a series of shooting parties, and in August the royal couple move to Scotland where, once again, a large number of guests arrive at Balmoral. A tradition has grown whereby the Prime Minister and his wife are invited for a weekend, which usu-ally includes several hours discussing affairs of State.
When the Court moves to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh for one week in July, another round of parties then begins with an official dinner every evening and a Garden Party for 6,000 guests held in one of the most attractive settings in Britain.
Politics — How Britain is Run
The system of Britain—or, more accurately, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland— is a constitutional monarchy.
It has a monarch—either a king or a queen—as its Head of State, but the monarch has very little power. The Queen reigns but she does not rule. Parliament and the existing government have the power.
The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution or printed set of rules for governing the country.
The rules have developed over the centuries. The constitution (or the present unwritten set of rules) has been formed in three ways:
1. by all the laws and decrees that have been made for centuries,
2. by the way these laws have been interpreted in the Law Courts in the past and arc now reinterpreted from time to time,
3. by the way things have been done for centuries, although some of these practices have never been formally written down.
If there is enough pressure from the public for change, it is comparatively easy to change such a flexible constitution.
How the system works
Britain is a democracy, men and women over 18 years have a vote. Voting is not compulsory. They have the right to elect a representative to Parliament. The representative is their Member of Parliament or M.P. An M.P. tries to be of use to all the people living in his electoral area but he does not take orders from them.
At the opening of Parliament the Queen reads a speech from the throne in the House of Lords. Her speech has been written by the Prime Minister. It outlines the Government’s plans for the new session of Parliament. M.P.s from the House of Commons are summoned to the House of Lords to stand and listen to the speech. This is one of the few occasions when the whole Parliament—Queen and both Houses of Parliament—meet together.
Parliamentary elections must be held:
if the government loses its majority support in the House of Commons.
if the Prime Minister decides to hold an election, or
if the Parliament is coming to the end of a five-year period.
The House of Commons
There are 650 M.P.s elected to the House of Commons but only 370 seats in the debating chamber for them to sit on; they do not have their own special scats or desks there. The size of the Commons has deliberately been kept small. Even so, the Chamber is very rarely full.
M.P.s are paid a not very generous salary plus expenses. The Prime Minister and his or her Ministers are paid on a higher scale. The Leader of the Opposition also receives a good salary.
The House of Lords
Who sits in the Lords?
1. All peers (lords) and peeresses who have inherited their titles have the right to take their seal in the House of Lords. But not everyone does so.
2. Distinguished men and women who have been made peers for their lifetime. Their titles cannot be inherited.
3. Certain clergy of the Church of England: the two Archbishops and 24 Bishops (called ‘the Lords Spiritual’).
4. Some judges (called ‘the Law Lords’).
On average, 280 members attend the House of Lords daily. They receive expenses but no salary for the days they attend.
What work does the House of Lords do? It does not have the same power as the House of Commons. Even so, many people want to abolish it because the members have not been elected by the people. The House of Lords can:
1. Pass Bills sent to it from the House of Commons.
2. Amend Bills and send them back to the
3. Delay Bills for a limited time.
4. Start its own Bills, but it must send them to the Commons for approval. The House of Lords is also the highest Court of Law in Britain. The Law Lords hear appeals against judgments made in lower courts.
Bills must pass both Houses of Parliament and then receive the Royal Assent (be signed by the Queen) before they become Acts of Parliament and are the law of the land.
After an election a Government is formed. A Government must have a majority of supporters in the House of Commons. Therefore the Queen asks the leader of the largest political party in the House of Commons to form ‘Her Majesty’s Government’. She appoints him (or her) Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister selects his Ministers. A group of about 20 of the most important ones forms the Cabinet.
The Cabinet decides Government policies and laws which Parliament will agree to support or reject.
The Queen opens Parliament.
Where the members of Parliament sit in the House of Commons and where the Government’s proposals (called Bills ) for new laws are debated.
Sealing arrangements in the House of Commons
1. From his chair the Speaker presides over meetings of the House and keeps order.
2. The Government sits on this side of the House. Cabinet Ministers sit on the Front Bench with other Ministers in charge of departments seated behind them.
3. Members of the Opposition sit on this side. The Shadow Cabinet sits on its front bench.
4. The rest of the M.P.s (called ’back benchers’) sit on the remaining seats on the side of the House they support.
The Party System
The British democratic system depends on political parties. At one time there were two parties. Conservative and Liberal. When one party won more seats than the other in an election, it formed the Government; the other рапу opposed the Government—it was ‘ in opposition’. But during the first half of the 20th century the Labour Party arose to represent the interests of the working class. Support for the Liberal Party declined. The two main parties are now Conservative (sometimes called ‘Tory’) and Labour. In 1981, there was a split in the Labour Party and the Social Democratic Party was formed. After disappointing election results, the Social Democratic Party merged with the Liberals to form a centre party called the Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP). But some Social Democrats continued on their own.
The Working of the House of Commons
The two Houses of Parliament, the Lords and the Commons, share the same building, the Palace of Westminster. The Lords occupy the southern end, the Commons the rest, which includes some hundreds of rooms, among which are the library, restaurants, committee rooms, and private or shared offices for M.P.
The Commons debating chamber is usually called ‘the House’. It has seats for only about 370 of its total membership of 650. It is rectangular, with the Speaker’s chair at one end, and with five straight rows of benches (divided by a gangway) running down one side along its whole length, and five rows on the other side, so that the rows of benches face each other across the floor. One side of the House is occupied by the Government and the M.P. who support it, the other, facing them, by Her Majesty’s Opposition — all the M.P. who are opposed to the Government of the day and who hope that at the next general election their party will be in a majority so that they can form the Government. The arrangement of the benches suggests a two-party system.
Each chamber has galleries, parts of which are kept for the use of the public, who are described, in the language of Parliament, as ‘strangers’. It is usually possible to get a seat in the Strangers’ Gallery of the House of Lords at any time, but it is not so easy to get into the House of Commons Gallery, particularly in the summer, when London is full of visitors. In order to get a place for the beginning of a day’s business at 2.30 p.m., in time for the question hour, it is usually necessary to write in advance to an M.P. for a ticket, though foreign visitors can sometimes get tickets through their embassies. A person who comes without a reservation usually has to wait for a long time, one, two or three hours, until a place becomes free, though very late in the evening it is often possible to get in without waiting. Television cameras were first admitted to the Chamber in 1989.
The choice of an M.P. as Speaker is made by a vote of the House after the party leaders have consulted their supporters and privately agreed beforehand on a particular person. A Speaker is customarily reappointed to his office in each new Parliament, even if the majority in the House has changed. Although first elected to Parliament as a party M.P. a Speaker must abandon party politics until retirement to the House of Lords. Three other Members hold office as deputy- speakers, and they take turns in occupying the Chair. The three deputies abstain from all party activity or so long as they hold office, but may — and sometimes do — return to ordinary political activity after a time.
At the end every debate the Speaker asks the House to vote on the motion that has been debated. If there is disagreement, there is a ‘division’ and Members vote by walking through corridors called ‘lobbies’, being counted as they do so. The names of Members voting are recorded and published. The ‘Aye’ (yes) lobby runs down one side of the outside wall of the chamber, the ‘No’ lobby down the other side. Six minutes after the beginning of the division the doors leading into the lobbies are locked. The practice of allowing six minutes before Members must enter their lobbies gives enough time for them to come from any part of the Palace of Westminster. Bells ring all over the building to summon Members to the chamber to vote. Members often vote without having heard a debate, and even without knowing exactly what is the question; they know which way to vote because Whips (or party managers) of the parties stand outside the doors, and Members vote almost automatically with their parties.
Membership of the House of Lords
There is no simple answer to the question ‘how many members of the House of Lords are there?’ Nearly 1,200 people, including more than sixty women, are entitled to membership. Nearly two-thirds have inherited their peerages from their fathers or earlier ancestors in direct line of descent, and are described as ‘peers by succession’. But when a person inherits a peerage on the death of a father, uncle or cousin, he (or she) must first prove a right to the succession. In most, but not all, cases this is quite simple. Once this has been done, the new peer receives a ‘writ of summons’ from the Queen, commanding attendance at Parliament, and may then go to the House to be formally admitted as a member, with some ceremony.
It is estimated that nearly a hundred people who would be entitled to ‘join’ the House of Lords have not gone through these processes, and so are not members. More than a hundred others have gone through the processes but then applied for leave of absence — though if they change their minds they may have the leave of absence cancelled. Others who are full members never attend, some of them because they are too old or ill.
During the course of a year between 700 and 800 individuals actually attend at the House at least once.
There are two main categories of members of the House:
1) those who succeeded to hereditary peerages, and thus hold their seats by right of succession
2) those who have been created as peers (or bishops), that is, those on whom peerages, with the right to sit in the House of Lords, have been conferred by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister in office at the time of the conferment.
(From Lets Speak English magazine)