The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

THE GOVERNMENT OF BRITAIN

Category: Politics

TheUnited Kingdomconstitution is formed partly by statute, partly by common law and partly by precepts and practices, known as conventions. There are the laws of major constitutional importance, such as Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus, the laws deciding the succession of the royal family; the Parliament Act which decided the position of the House of Lords; the Judicature Acts; and the acts relating to the franchise, the electoral system and the conduct of elections.

The constitutional conventions have no basis in law; that is, they are rules which are not enforceable by the Courts. Because of this, no Court can interpret them; it is not easy to know at a given moment either what they are or to what extent they are likely to be observed or altered.

There is nothing legally which Parliament cannot do. But this sovereignty is nowhere laid down in statute, it is the result of the struggle of the people against the power of the King.

Nowhere in the constitutional system are there any writ­ten guarantees of individual political rights.

Convention alone provides the essential rules of Cabinet government. The rules requiring the monarch to choose the leader of a party winning an election to form a government, the method of forming a government, the resignation of governments, the relation between governments and Par­liament, that the Cabinet depends on the lower house only, etc. — all these are constitutional conventions.

The organs of government in the United Kingdom are: (1) the legislature, which consists of the Queen in Parliament, and is the supreme authority of the realm; (2) the exe­cutive, which consists of: a) the Cabinet and other minis­ters of the Crown, who are responsible for initiating and directing national policy; b) Government departments, most of them under the control of ministers, and all staffed by civil servants, who are responsible for administration at the national level; c) local authorities, who administer and man­age many services at the local level; and d) statutory boards, which are responsible for the operation of particular nation­alised industries or public services; (3) the judiciary, which determines common law and interprets statutes.

The Monarchy. The monarchy is the most ancient secular institution in theUnited Kingdom. Its continuity has been broken only once in over a thousand years; and in spite of interruptions in the direct line of succession, the hereditary principle upon which it was founded has never been aban­doned. Queen Elizabeth II is a descendent of the Saxon king, Egbert.

The Queen is the personification of the State. In law, she is the head of the executive, an integral part of the legisla­ture, the head of the judiciary, the commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of the Crown and the temporal head of the established Church ofEngland. In practice, as a result of a long evolutionary process, these powers have changed. Today, the queen acts only on the advice of her Ministers which she cannot constitutionally ignore. She reigns but she does not rule.

However, the monarchy has a good deal more power than is commonly supposed. There remain certain discret­ionary powers in the hands of the monarch, known as the Royal Prerogative.

One of the most important of these powers has proved to be the duty of appointing the Prime Minister. When a Prime Minister dies or resigns the monarch has to choose his suc­cessor. The choice is limited by the fact that the new Prime Minister must be able to command a majority in the House of Commons and must be able to form a Cabinet. The fact remains that neither Parliament nor the majority party has the right to elect its own Prime Minister. And this means that where the leadership of the majority party is in doubt the reigning monarch exercises decisive influence.

No Bill can become law until it receives the Royal As­sent. Nobody but the Queen can summon Parliament, оr dissolve Parliament. Nobody but the Queen can confer peerages.

It is usually assumed that these powers are a mere form­ality, because of the general principle that the Queen can only act on the advice of her Ministers; therefore in perform­ing all these functions she has to carry them out according to the wishes of the government in office. The fact remains that leading constitutional theorists and writers have from time to time insisted that the monarch has in certain circum­stances the “constitutional right” to disregard this advice. In truth it is no legal bar which has prevented these powers being used in recent times, but political expediency. They can be used as a threat; they are still there as a reserve weapon.

The day by day influence of the Sovereign on government actions is normally a good deal more important than any of the reserve weapons described above.

How is this influence carried into effect?

The Sovereign has access to all Cabinet papers — all agendas, minutes, reports of Cabinet Committees, etc. He or she must be informed of all major decisions, can insist on being consulted about them, can argue about them before they are taken. All important Foreign Office Despatches have to be submitted to the Sovereign before they are sent abroad, giving him the opportunity to urge modifications or a different policy if he so wishes. All Ministerial appoint­ments have to be submitted to him for approval, giving him the opportunity to argue for or against the choice of partic­ular politicians for particular jobs. He can at the same time confer with the leaders of the Opposition, and intrigue with them, if occasion arises. The Sovereign has close per­sonal relationships with the Defence Departments, where again he can influence appointments and exert pressure.

By far the most important is the use of the monarchy by the ruling class as an ideological weapon for maintaining the stability of the regime. The pageantry and glamour, built up with the aid of the highly developed techniques of modern press advertising, catches the popular imagination and helps to divert public attention away from questions awkward for the government.

Supplementing the grandeur and the pageantry there has been another development in the last forty years: the habit of coming down to earth in order to move among the poorest in recognition of the growing challenge from the working- class movement. Visits to working-class areas, chats with working-class people, the patronage of Labour and trade union leaders, has become more and more prevalent. These visits and the publicity surrounding them are intended to demonstrate the affinity of the royal family with the common people. This affinity is constantly stressed in the press, ra­dio and all ruling-class propaganda organs. The object is to insist on the unity of the nation as a whole and thus to present ruling-class interests and ruling-class policies as coinciding with those of the whole people.

Parliament. The supreme legislative authority in theUnited Kingdomis the Queen in Parliament, that is to say the Queen and the two Houses of Parliament — the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

By the passing of the Parliament Act, 1911, the life of a United Kingdom Parliament was fixed at five years. Dur­ing its life, it can make or unmake any law; it can destroy by statute the most firmly established convention of the con­stitution; it can legalise past illegalities and thus reverse the decisions of the court; and it has even the power to pro­long its own life by legislative means beyond the normal period of five years without consulting the electorate.

In law, therefore, the supremacy of Parliament is abso­lute. In practice, Parliament does not exercise its supremacy in this way.

A Parliament, in the sense of a parliamentary period, begins and ends with a proclamation made by the Sovereign. The resignation of a government usually entails the dissol­ution of Parliament. The time between the meeting of a Par­liament and its prorogation or dissolution is called a session. The average length of a session is about 160 sitting days, di­vided by custom into the following periods: one from Novem­ber until Christmas lasting about 30 sitting days, one from January to Easter of about 50 sitting days, one from Easter until Whitsun of about 30 sitting days, and one from Whit­sun until the end of July lasting about 40 sitting days. Nowa­days, the session is usually concluded with a short period of about 10 sitting days in October, after the long summer recess.

Great Britainis the only major industrial country in the world where the medieval custom of choosing legislators on the hereditary principle still survives.

The House of Lords consists of nearly 900 peers, includ­ing 26 spiritual lords (the two archbishops and 24 bishops of the Church of England). Descendants of the ancient land- I owning aristocracy are in a minority in the House — a for­ midable minority, nevertheless, for the families of some 300 of them have sat in the Lords for over 100 years, and 200 of these have done so for over 150 years. But half the present House of Lords hold peerages created during the present century. Peers are created by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. Sometimes a prominent pol­itician would be elevated; sometimes a leading civil servant who had served the ruling class well. More often sheer wealth has been the determining factor. It is thus not surprising that one-third of the Lords today are company directors. They include bankers, steel magnates, newspaper propriet­ors, and industralists of all kinds. The most powerful mo­nopolies— Vickers, I.C.I., Unilevers — all have their representatives in the House of Lords.

Fifty years ago the House of Lords possessed the right of absolute veto over any legislation of which it disapproved.

The Act of 1911 abolished the final veto. It left the Lords, however, with two year’s delaying power which in 1949 was reduced from two years to one. This means that the Lords can only reject a Bill once; if it then passes through the Com­mons in a Second Session it can receive the Royal Assent.

To the ruling class the advantages of a Second Chamber with delaying powers are very great. Delaying powers give a chance to manoeuvre when the House of Commons is pro­moting legislation which challenges vested interests; with time to manoeuvre the measure may be blocked altogether. With the development of democracy the composition of

the House of Lords has become increasingly difficult to de­fend. After all, the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act itself says that the reform of the House of Lords is “an ur­gent question which brooks no delay”.

The fundamental aim of every proposition advanced by the Tories in schemes of reform of the House of Lords is to maintain that body as a barrier of some kind against the elect­ed House of Commons, with the right of “interpreting” the nation’s will independently of, and if need be in defiance of, the House of Commons.

The House of Commons is elected by an almost universal adult suffrage. There are at present 630 members of the House of Commons (511 forEngland, 36 forWales, 71 forScotland12 forNorthern Ireland).

Members of the House of Commons receive a salary for their parliamentary work and hold their seats during the life oi a Parliament. They are elected either at a general election, which takes place after a Parliament has been dis­solved, or at a by-election, which is held when a vacancy occurs in the House as a result of the death or resignation of a member, or as a result of the elevation of a member of the House of Commons to the House of Lords.

Parliamentary procedure is based on forms and rules, many of which date back to the beginning of the sixteenth century or even earlier.

In the middle of the last century the House of Commons was a centre of real political power where important decisions on policy and legislation were made. Since those days the growth in the powers of the Cabinet based on the development of the modern party system has brought about a fundamental change. The House continues to occupy the centre of the political stage; but it has long ceased to be a centre of po­litical power. All important decisions are nowadays made in secret behind the scenes. This decline in the power of the House of Commons, and the corresponding decline in the importance of the individual member of Parliament, has taken place precisely during the period when the organised labour movement has grown into a major political force and has won the right to send its own representatives into Par­liament.

A hundred years ago a big proportion of Parliamentary Bills were drafted and introduced by private members. A successful private member’s Bill of any importance is an extreme rarity nowadays; the legislative time of the House is so completely monopolised by the government that a private Bill has no chance of reaching the Statute-Book unless the government. is prepared to find time for it.

All the work of preparing a government Bill is done by the permanent civil servants in the department responsible for the Bill. It is these officials who play the key role in advis­ing the Minister concerned and drafting a Bill in accordance with the policy of the government.

There are broadly tw’o stages in the life of a Bill: the pe­riod of preparation before it is published and introduced into Parliament; and its subsequent progress through Parliament.

The first of these two stages is by far the most important, for it is during this preliminary period that the indispensable secret consultations take place with any industrial, commer­cial, financial or other interests that may be affected.

When a Bill is actually introduced into Parliament there is opportunity for the moving of the amendments. But in prac­tice the Minister in charge of the Bill adheres tenaciously to the agreements reached previously with private interests and all except minor amendments are generally voted down by the government’s automatic majority. The vast majoritv of Bills emerge from the elaborate process of second reading, committee stage, report stage and third reading7 in sub­stantially their original form. The only exception to this general rule is where a campaign organised outside Par­liament is powerful enough to force the government to make serious modifications.

The House may criticise the executive activities of the government (the administrative operations of the Home Civil Service, the direction of foreign relations, the control of the armed forces) and ask for information — though the government is not obliged to give it — but the approval of the House is never necessary for any decision, however important. The House of Commons is not consulted about appointments; the heads of the armed forces, the chiefs of the Civil Service8, the chairmen of boards of nationalised industries, ambassadors and colonial governors, as well as judges of the High Courts, are all appointed without reference to the House.

Financial initiative is the sole prerogative of the Cabinet. This means that an ordinary M. P. cannot move any amend­ment to a Bill, or make any proposal, which would result in an increased financial charge on the Exchequer; nor can a private member make any proposal for increased taxation. Since finance is the key to the control of administration, nothing demonstrates so clearly the subordination of the House of Commons to the Cabinet as its utter helplessness in this respect. It is probably true to say that the British House of Commons exercises less control over finance than the representative assembly of any other major capitalist democracy.

When after a general election the Monarch chooses his or”her Prime Minister and the latter, having chosen the Min­isters who are to compose the government, presents them for the approval of the Monarch, the House of Commons is not consulted, let alone asked for its approval, at any stage of the proceedings; nor is the majority party itself.

The House of Commons thus does not control the Cabinet, the Civil Service or the armed forces. It is essentially a fo­rum for criticism of the government, for the ventilation of grievances, and for the extraction of information.

The opportunities that the House provides for question­ing Ministers and criticising the government are democratic rights which, used in a militant fashion, can be of the great­est value to the working-class movement. Precisely for that reason they are subject to numerous limitations which have been becoming steadily more severe in recent years, in line with the general attack on civil liberties arising from the deepening crisis of British imperialism.

During Question Time in the House of Commons, ques­tions may be asked by any member on many aspects of the administration. But there is no means of compelling a Min­ister to give an honest and truthful answer, and the civil servants who draft the answers for Ministers are past masters in the art of pretending to reply without in fact supplying any information of value.

In an average Parliamentary session some 30 per cent of the time is given over to the Opposition to criticise the Government.

The essence of the “parliamentary” style of criticism is to discredit the government in the eyes of the electors so that the Opposition may win the next election. The narrowest party advantage is all that counts. The Opposition does not normally expect that a debate will have the smallest effect in bringing about an immediate change in government po­licy; everyone knows that the outcome of any vote is a fore­gone conclusion in view of the government’s automatic majority.

The Opposition in fact tolerates the Government. The fight is a verbal one confined to the four walls of Parliament and in nine cases out of ten foredoomed to defeat. The pur­pose is to canalise the struggle and confine working-class activity to the act of voting at an infrequent general election. The right-wing Labour leadership has accepted this point of view and the Parliamentary rules without reservation. Its whole idea of the political struggle is the straitjacket of Parliamentary opposition.

Yet on innumerable occasions the working-class and progressive movement, mobilising the people in mass action, has forced governments with even the strongest majority to retreat, and the employers have never hesitated to use extra- parliamentary action when it suited their books.

The Cabinet. The power of big business over the Government of the country is not only assured by its direct representation in Parliament and by the professional politicians who sup­port it; above all it is assured by its influence over the Cabi­net, the real instrument of Government.

It is universally admitted by constitutional authorities that it is the Cabinet and not Parliament that controls and runs the nation’s affairs.

A great deal of the rules and usages of the English Con­stitution are not legal in character, and are not to be found written at all, and the whole of what is understood by the Cabinet system rests upon rules and practices that have no legal force. The relations between the Cabinet and the Crown and between the Cabinet and the House of Commons, are quite unknown to the law.

The essence of the constitution today is the entrusting of great powers to a small Cabinet or body of Ministers (who are members of one or other of the Houses of Parliament) who are formally appointed to office and dismissible by the Monarch, but who are politically responsible to the electo­rate, through the House of Commons.

The Cabinet is today the motive power and source of initiative in government. The ultimate decision on all ques­tions of policy rests with the Cabinet.

The discipline of the modern party machine is such that the Cabinet is sure of an automatic majority on any major issue of policy or legislation. This situation, sometimes described as “the dictatorship of the Cabinet”, is freely recognised by all constitutional authorities.

The consequence of this effective dictatorship of the Ca­binet is that it can act first and seek approval afterwards. Important government decisions are normally announced in the House of Commons and may subsequently be debated at great length. This procedure tends to conceal from the general public the fact that the decisions have almost in­variably been taken, and usually acted upon, before the debate.

The strength of the government is powerfully reinforced by the right of the Prime Minister to secure a dissolution of Parliament at any time. It is a well established constitu­tional convention that the Crown is bound to grant a request from the Prime Minister for a dissolution. This is a right which belongs to the Prime Minister personally. This places immense power in the hands of the Prime Minister. However intensely the back-benchers may dislike a particular aspect of the policy of their government, they dare not vote against it for fear that the Prime Minister would resign and bring about a general election in conditions which would almost certainly be very unfavourable for their party.

Thus the government can carry through a policy which is against the wishes of a majority of the House of Commons.

Just as the Cabinet has acquired greater power vis-a-vis Parliament, so the Prime Minister has gained power and prestige at the expense of his Cabinet colleages. The older idea that the Prime Minister is merely “primus inter pares” in the Cabinet has long since gone out of fashion. This is one of the outstanding features of recent times.

During the period of imperialism, the immense expan­sion in the activities of the State has led to a very great in­crease in the volume of “delegated legislation” which issues from the various government departments in the form of “Statutory Instruments”, numbering in recent years over one thousand a year. A government department may only legislate by means of a Statutory Instrument when there is an Act of Parliament conferring the necessary authority; but so long as the bounds of this authority are not exceeded, delegated legislation amounts to the virtually uncontrolled making of laws by government departments, and demon­strates the immense powers wielded by the senior permanent officials in the civil service.

The most extreme and dangerous form of delegated legis­lation was reached in the Emergency Pcwers Act, 1920, which was passed during the miners’ strike when the mili­tancy of the working-class movement was at its height after the First World War. It provides that a “state of emer­gency” may be declared if at any time it appears that any body of persons is likely to take action which will interfere with the distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or with the means of loccmotion, or will deprive the ccmmunity of the essentials of life. A proclamation of a state of emergency can even be made when Parliament is not sitting, though it must be summoned within five days. Once the proclamation is made, the government has virtually unlimited power to make regulations for preserving the peace and maintaining supplies. Therefore, the goverment can in effect rule by decree with powers wide enough to suppress practically all civil liberties.

FromBritain. An Official Handbook. 1950. The British State by J. Harvey and K. Hood; The British Political System by John Gollan; English Constitu­tional History by S. B. Chrimes

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