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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in the United Kingdom

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: September 2014

Government and Politics

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a constitutional monarchy; the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is head of state. Formally, she has many powers, including the ability to appoint or dismiss the prime minister and prevent any bill (draft law) from being passed into law. However, these powers are nothing more than theoretical, and exercising them would cause a major constitutional crisis. In practice, the Queen is limited to advising and warning the prime minister. The monarch also performs certain ceremonial duties, such as the State Opening of Parliament.

The person with the most political power in Britain is the prime minister, currently David Cameron. The prime minister is the head of government and leader of the Cabinet, with which he or she forms the executive. The prime minister appoints and can dismiss members of the Cabinet, and is the ultimate person responsible for policy and government decisions.

The national executive for the United Kingdom is based in Westminster in London. This is also where the UK legislative sits, in the Houses of Parliament, a bicameral legislative consisting of  a lower house, the House of Commons, and an upper house, the House of Lords. The House of Commons  consists of 651 members of parliament (MPs), who are elected by means of universal suffrage of all adults aged 18 and over. This House is where almost all the power is: bills are formulated, debated and passed into Acts of Parliament here.

The House of Lords is an unelected body. Most of its approximately 780 members have been appointed (life peers) and about 90 have hereditary titles. In the House of Lords, bills are examined and may be delayed if considered unfavourable. The Lords also analyse, criticise and question the government’s executive policy.

To win a general election, a political party needs to obtain 326 seats in an election to ensure an absolute majority and rule without compromise. Due to the first-past-the-post voting system, this is generally what happens. The current coalition government, between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is unusual.

The UK has a multi-party political system. The Conservative and Labour parties dominate national politics. The third largest parliamentary party is the Liberal Democrats, and other nationwide parties include the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is the leading party in Scotland and Plaid Cymru (Welsh for ‘Welsh Party’) is important in Wales. Northern Ireland has its own political parties.

The UK is a state made up of four constituent countries. Although government is centralised, the country has federal elements. Scotland has always had its own legal and education systems, and, in 2004, gained a parliament that has the power to legislate on further domestic areas. Further powers were promised to Scotland in light of the ‘No’ vote in the Scottish referendum of September 2014.Wales now has an assembly, which also has devolved powers, though fewer than the Scottish Parliament. Northern Ireland also has an assembly, though in this case there is also a degree of power-sharing and consultation between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.


Legal Systems

There are three separate legal systems operating in the UK, those of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which therefore form three separate jurisdictions. Unusually, these jurisdictions come under different legal system types.

English Law, which also applies in Wales, is a common law system, and the source of many legal systems in the world. It is largely based on precedents and case law, that is, a particular legal ruling is determined by previous judges’ decisions. If a similar case to the one being tried already exists, the judge is legally bound to make the same decision as was made in the previous case. Northern Irish law is based on English common law, though there are minor differences.

Unusually, Scots law is a mixed system – it is based on both civil law and common law. The civil law component is due to the influence from Roman law. Scots law is quite distinct from that in the rest of the UK. One specific difference is the age of legal capacity, which is 16 in Scotland and 18 in the other two jurisdictions. Also, in Scots law, in addition to the internationally standard two verdicts for most cases, ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’, a third exists: ‘not proven.’

Besides these legal systems, as the UK is a member of the European Union, and legislation made by the European Parliament and European Council can have an effect on the law in all areas of the country.



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