One of the first outings I had the pleasure of going on when I moved to England was a personal tour of the Palace of Westminster, aka the Houses of Parliament. Getting a peek inside the magnificent chambers that house the government of the United Kingdom was truly a unique experience.
Like the US, the UK has two chambers that form its legislative body: The House of Commons and the House of Lords. And when you visit the Houses of Parliament, it’s striking how different their chambers are in terms of furnishings and details. Just looking at the rooms in which they each debate tells you everything you need to know about how they evolved. The House of Lords just oozes wealth and privilege. It’s all shiny, ornate, and golden. In contrast, the House of Commons looks like it was built on a very tight budget. It’s plain and ordinary, all the common man would ever need.
I’ve also toured, years and years ago, the US Capital Building and it’s interesting to ponder how something as simple as the layout of a room steers the political process. In the House of Representatives in the US Capital, the room is laid out in a classic lecture format with representatives wishing to express an opinion taking to the podium in front, talking AT the audience with little interaction. But in the House of Commons the benches are arranged so that the opposing parties sit directly facing each other. The room has more of an intimate feeling, one which encourages lively conversation and debate.
The House of Commons is composed of 650 elected Members of Parliament (MPs), each of whom represents the interests of their home constituency. What I didn’t really understand until I saw the last general election in 2010 (they happen every five years) is how these MPs actually form the government. During a general election, the political party that ends up with the most MPs forms the government. The MPs in that party will have elected a leader who then becomes the Prime Minister.
So the only people in the UK who actually voted for David Cameron, the current Prime Minister, are the people of Witney just down the road from me. This is largely why personality and image seem to play a smaller role in the political debate than what you’d find in the US. People aren’t voting for an individual personality to lead them as PM. They’re voting for local representatives that belong to the party whose policies they support. In fact the 2010 general election was the first time in British history they’d even had televised debates. The US has done that since 1960 when Richard Nixon learned all about the importance of a good shave.
Plus, these politicians don’t have time to craft campaigns based on polling numbers, negative attack ads, and pandering to special interests like you see in the years leading up to an American Presidential election. One week Gordon Brown asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament and to call for a general election and then a few weeks later it’s all over and there’s a new government in town. No need to drag the debate out for years. Just get it done and get back to governing.
The House of Lords, aka peers, are not elected and do not represent a constituency. Historically, members of the House of Lords were all hereditary, people of wealth and privilege whose titles have been passed down for generations. Now, however, the hereditary peers have largely lost the right to automatically attend the House of Lords. And since 1958, the PM can nominate people to be appointed Life Peers (their titles do not pass on to their descendents). Life Peers are usually people who have distinguished themselves in business and industry. For example, Alan Sugar and Andrew Lloyd Weber are both members of the House of Lords.
A couple other tidbits of note, Wales and Scotland both have their own governing bodies which have significant control over public services such as health, education, and transport. Policies around things like defense and taxation still remain under central UK government control. Interestingly, there is a movement in Scotland to once again become an independent country, separate from the UK. There will be a public referendum on this in 2014. And, as a member of the European Union, the UK is also governed by its policies particularly as they relate to trade, commerce, and employment.
Finally, if learning about the UK government is really your cup of tea, then head to Parliament’s official website for all detail you’d ever want.
This is part of my ongoing series about understanding life in the UK, an exercise that’s helping me study for my Life in the UK test. Plus, I thought it would be interesting to share some facts and observations about this country I’m living in before it takes the world stage next month when the Olympics come to town.
Other Articles in the Series:
- Part 1: How it All Began
- Part 2: Immigration and Family Roles
- Part 3: People, Customs, and Traditions
* Source: Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey To Citizenship 2nd Edition by the Home Office