The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is composed of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of which have (and always have had) separate social, cultural and arguably national identities. The parliamentary government of the UK sits in Westminster, London. Parliament is sovereign, power having devolved from the monarchy. (As in many other countries, the roles of Head of State - Monarch - and Head of Government - Prime Minister - are separate). There are two Houses of Parliament: the Lords and the Commons.
The Commons is an elected legislative body; the Lords is a non-elected reviewing/scrutinising body. The Lords no longer have the power to reject a bill utterly, merely to amend it. Usually however, these amendments are taken very seriously and sufficently strong oppostion in the Lords may well signal the end of a particular bill. In extreme cases, the government may employ the Parliament Act, which gives them the authority to force the bill into law over the objections of the Lords.
Elections to the Commons are run on a First Past The Post system. The UK is divided into 646 constituencies, each of which returns one Member of Parliament (MP). If one party wins a majority of these constituencies, it forms the government, with the party leader becoming Prime Minister. The PM then appoints a Cabinet - Secretaries of State, or Ministers, with responsibility for various policy areas: Defence, Foreign Affairs, Justice etc. There is no separation of powers: members of this executive body MUST be members of Parliament. Normally they are MPs - should the PM wish to appoint an unelected Cabinet Member, that person must first be elevated to the House of Lords. There is no fixed election cycle - elections must be held at least every 5 years, but the precise timing is at the sole discretion of the PM. Most governments like to go for at least 4 years (unless they become very unpopular, or lose their majority); elections are almost never called in summer or in winter as the electorate will either be out of the country or reluctant to travel to a polling station; electoral campaigns last either 3 or 4 weeks. In practice, therefore, skilled politics-watchers can generally pinpoint the date of an election pretty accurately. The next election in the UK must be held by May 2010.
(Should an MP die or otherwise vacate the position, a by-election is held in that constituency. These are generally held to be referenda on the government of the day, and as such can attract a lot of media attention.)
It is generally held that the power of Parliament relative to the Cabinet has declined. This is due to the development of the whip system, whereby MPs are turned into either government loyalists with career prospects, or principled outsiders with no influence or power. Nevertheless, the occasional rebellion by government MPs can derail the legislative program and even bring down governments.
Due to the use of FPTP, British politics is largely the province of two main parties, with one clear third option and a number of regional parties. From the top:
Since 1997, Britain’s governing party. Traditionally the party of the working class and the unions, critics argue that since achieving power it has drifted to the right, becoming more business-friendly and less focused on levelling the playing field. Nevertheless, it has presided over major investment in public services, most notably the NHS. Having been in power for over a decade, Labour is losing popularity and can probably be expected to lose power in the next election.
Gordon Brown is leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister, having previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer (i/c Treasury and thus the economy) since 1997. His career as PM has not lacked incident: having (eventually) succeeded his ally/rival Tony Blair when the latter’s popularity finally waned, he was initially welcomed by an electorate already fed up with Labour. However, following a frankly cack-handed piece of political posturing in which he threatened to call a snap election only to back down when push came to shove, his popularity rapidly hit the skids. The election crisis was followed by the collapse of British bank Northern Rock in November last year; this in turn was followed by the abolishment of the 10% tax band, a move which cost working-class families dearly. As both of these could be traced to Brown’s actions as Chancellor, and as his response as PM was less than sure-footed, Labour’s popularity continued in free-fall.
However, events move on. The current financial crisis has seen Brown demonstrate hitherto unsuspected degrees of leadership, insight and decisiveness. His plan to recapitalise (and part-nationalise) British banks has won international approval and imitation. His political persona as a man of no style but great substance has finally become an asset, and although still behind in the polls, Labour is closing the gap. The government’s response to the ongoing recession will be crucial in determining Labour’s electoral future.
Conservatives (aka Tories):
The party of the right, the party of business and once upon a time, the natural party of government. When Labour won in 1997, they won a landslide with an almost unprecedented parliamentary majority. Tony Blair can claim part of the credit for this, as he worked hard to reform the party during the early 90s. However, much of the credit goes to the Tories themselves: in 18 years of government, most of it controversial, they had succeeded in utterly alienating all but the core of their core voters. As even they would later admit, the tag “The Nasty Party” had more than a ring of truth. In the aftermath of this rout, successive Tory bigiwgs sought the poisoned chalice of leadership: those who won found themselves fighting their own party. As only the most loyal of Tory voters had bothered to vote in 1997, only the most rightwing of Tory MPs remained. Consequently, even leaders who grasped the need to move towards the centre were prevented from doing so. After many years of ineffective oppostion, however, a rejig of the party constitution finally allowed the election of a moderniser: David Cameron.
Oxford-educated, old Etonian (read, exceptionally upper-class) Cameron is a former PR man, and knows full well just how big an image problem the Tories had. Under his leadership they have embraced green, toned down the rhetoric on"dogwhistle" issues such as immigration and tax-cuts, and upped the rhetoric on social justice. This charm offensive, coupled with Brown’s poor performance, has seen the Tories soar to long-term high in the opinion polls. Critics argue that while the rhetoric has changed, the policies haven’t - Cameron is much more about image than substance. In this respect, he has been labelled the “Heir to Blair”. Following the electorate’s apparent reappraisal of Brown, it remains to be seen if Cameron can get away without outlining any serious policies for much longer. Certainly his response to the recession has been very limited, proposing only a 6-month sales tax holiday for very small businesses.
You’re probably wondering: if you’ve got one party of the left, and one party of the right, what do you need a third party for? For a long time, nobody knew. Historically, the Liberals were the main rivals to the Tories. Following the rise of Labour in the early 20th Century, however, they went into a sharp decline, barely clinging on to a handful of seats. They too benefited from anti-Tory sentiment in 1997, however, and rose to take c.60 seats in Parliament. As Labour has always enjoyed a comfortable majority, however, this has left them as powerless as they were when they had less than 10. Should the next election be more narrowly contested, they may find themselves in a position to form a majority coalition (almost certainly with Labour rather than the Tories).
In terms of policies, the Lib Dems historically sought to strike a balance between the two main parties. In the days of monetarism vs socialism, this was easy enough. As Labour shifted ground away from socialism, however, they briefly found themselves to the left of Labour economically. A recent internal revolution has placed them further right, dropping their “showstopping” 1% tax raise policy which at various times was earmarked for the NHS, schools, defence, transport and probably farming as well. Socially, they live up to the liberal in their name: early to oppose the Iraq war and just as quick to vote against extended detention for terror suspects (a flagship Labour policy which has recently been dropped.)
Other: There are a number of other parties in the UK, mainly regional: e.g. the Scottish NAtionalists, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein. As these are best discussed in the context of the devolved regional parliaments, however, the whole topic would be better saved for another post. Preferably, one written by someone more pithy.