The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Politics

Parliamentary government based on the party system has been established in Britain over the past 100 years. Even as recently as the early nineteenth century there was no clear-cut division in the House of Commons along modern party lines.

The party which wins most seats (but not necessarily most votes) at a general election, or which has the support of a majority of the members in the House of Commons, usually forms the government. On occasions when no party succeeds in winning an overall majority of seats, a minority Government or a coalition may be formed. The leader of the majority party is appointed Prime Minster by the Sovereign, and all other ministers are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The majority of ministers are members of the Commons, although the Government is represented by some ministers in the Lords. The composition of the Government can vary both in the number of ministers and in the titles of some offices. The leading position in the Cabinet came naturally to be associated with the Treasury, and the name ‘Prime Minister’ was first applied to those who held office as Lord Treasurer or, after 1714, First Lord (commissioner) of the Treasury. The Treasury had, as it still has, a predominant part in the Government for the simple reason that it controlled the national purse. Hence the Prime Minister today is also, by tradition, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service. The head of the Government became known as the Prime Minister during the eighteenth century, though the monarchs provided the key to executive power. Since the late nineteenth century the Prime Minister has normally been the leader of the party with a majority in the House of Commons. The monarch’s role in government is virtually limited to acting on the advice of ministers.

The Prime Minister informs the Queen of the general business of the Government, presides over the Cabinet, and is responsible for the allocation of functions among ministers. The Prime Minister’s other responsibilities include recommending to the Queen a number of important appointments. Recommendations are likewise made of the award of many civil honours and distinctions, etc.

Ministers in charge of Government departments, who are usually in the Cabinet, are known as ‘Secretaries of State’ or ‘Ministers’, or may have a traditional title, as in the case of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Postmaster General, the President of the Board of Trade. All these are known as departmental ministers.

The holders of various traditional offices, namely the Lord President of the Council, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Lord Privy Seal, the Paymaster General (and from time to time Ministers without Portfolio), may have few or no departmental duties and are thus available to perform any special duties the Prime Minister may wish to give them. The Lord President of the Council, for example, is responsible for coordinating the presentation of information on government policies, and the Lord Privy Seal is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Civil Service.

The Lord Chancellor (the Speaker of the House of Lords) holds a special position, being a minister with departmental functions and also head of the judiciary in England and Wales.

Ministers of State (non-departmental) work with ministers in charge of departments with responsibility for specific functions, and are sometimes given courtesy titles which reflect these particular functions. More than one may work in a department.

Junior ministers (generally Parliamentary Secretaries or Under-Secretaries of State) share in parliamentary and departmental duties. They may also be given responsibility, directly under the departmental minister, for specific aspects of the department’s work.

The largest minority party becomes the official opposition, with its own leader and its own ‘shadow cabinet’ whose members act as spokesmen on the subjects for which government ministers have responsibility. The members of any other party support or oppose the Government according to their party policy being debated at any given time.

The Government has the major share in controlling and arranging the business of the House. As the initiator of policy, it dictates what action it wishes Parliament to take.

A modern British Government consists of over ninety people, of whom about thirty are heads of departments, and the rest are their assistants. Until quite recent times all the heads of departments were included in the Cabinet, but when their number rose some of the less important heads of departments were not included in the Cabinet. The Prime Minister decides whom to include.

The Cabinet is composed of about 20 ministers and may include departmental and non-departmental ministers. The prime ministers may make changes in the size of their Cabinet and may create new ministries or make other changes. The Cabinet formed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 consisted of 22 persons including herself.

The origins of the Cabinet can be traced back to the informal conferences which the monarch held with leading ministers, independently of the Privy Council, during the seventeenth century. After the Sovereign’s withdrawal from an active role in politics in the eighteenth century, and the development of organized political parties the Cabinet assumed its modern form.

The Cabinet as such is not recognized by any formal law, and it has no formal powers but only real powers. It takes the effective decisions about what is to be done. Its major functions are: the final determination of policies, the supreme control of government and the coordination of government departments.

More and more power is concentrated in the hands of the Cabinet, where the decisive role belongs to the Prime Minster, who in fact determines the general political line of this body. The Cabinet defends and encourages the activity of monopolies and big business, does everything to restrain and suppress the working-class movement.

Administratively the United Kingdom is divided into 72 counties (1974) and over 80 city-counties. The latter are situated on the territory of the counties, but are administratively independent. The County Council is the most important unit of local government. It is in charge of the county as a whole. Nobody can plan anything — shopping centres, factories, parks, etc., without the permission of the County Council. Its other responsibilities include: local roads, transport, the police, the fire service, education, etc.

Each county is divided into districts of between 60,000 and 100,000 people. The District Councils are responsible for housing, keeping the district clean, inspecting the food shops, employing the dustmen, etc.

County and District Councils are run by part-time unpaid councillors, who are elected in the same way as MPs. Most of them represent a political party, and the government is not pleased if the opposition party gets control of the majority of local councils. The councillors appoint from among themselves the committees, who run the different departments. They also appoint paid full-time officials. The head of each county council and district council is appointed every year by the councillors. Some districts have the ceremonial title of borough, or city. In boroughs and cities the chairman is normally known as the Mayor (in the City of London and certain other large cities, he or she is known as the Lord Mayor).

The money the councils need comes from the rates, a local tax paid by all owners of houses or land. The amount paid depends on the value of the property. The councils also get a grant from the Treasury. The government never refuses to give this grant because it disapproves of a council’s politics, but it may hesitate if it feels the money is being spent unwisely. Local councils normally have a finance committee to keep their financial policy under constant review.

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