British Constitutional Practice
When examining the British pattern of Constitutional government, we are faced with a bit of a challenge, it is not outlined in a singular written document. Contrast this with the case of America, where there is a constitution and a list of amendments set out to clearly delineate your rights and responsibilities under law. Rather, the British constitution is set out in numerous documents and acts of parliament, based on, in the words of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson: “seven hundred years of mainly pragmatic experience”. Its constitutional traditions are embedded in the customs and conventions of the political process, though, of course, there will often be debate as to what exactly its specific components are:
Thus, England...has not felt the need to spell out for all time the principles of government in a single constitutional document. England’s constitution is not primarily a document distilling the abundant... wisdom of an oppressed people, the inspired vision of revolutionaries and the common sense of contemporary politicians anxious to limit the sphere of government. It is a somewhat abstract and foggy notion which few people fully comprehend, but which most people dimly understand because of custom and convention.
This point is simply that the British constitution is rather vague and ill-defined,
yet due to the presence of tradition it is something that most Britons have
at least a passing awareness of. Based more on tradition than any particular
Yet, to assert that Britain does not have a written constitution would not be entirely accurate. What would be more accurate would be to state that it does not have a single written constitution. Rather it has a series of written documents, ranging from the Magna Carta (1215) to the Reform Acts of the 1800s, to acts of parliament throughout its existence. Taken together, they help to set out the structure and functioning of the main elements within the British political process. However, there is no single document.
Also worthy of note is the role of tradition in the process; tradition dictates the role of the monarchy, the power of the executive, the evolution of power from the monarchy to parliament, evolution of the system of party discipline and party government reflect custom rather than law. Lack of single document makes the concepts of tradition and convention all the more important.
Also worth mentioning that Britain does not have a specific bill of rights. Law is based on the concept of common law, which is based on customs and conventions. Also, while the judiciary interprets the law, it does not take an active role in challenging the ability of parliament to make laws, as we shall see in a moment, one of the main features of the British form of government is that parliament has nearly unlimited power in the making of British law.
B. Main Elements
1. Parliamentary Sovereignty
- Parliamentary sovereignty is unlimited in Britain. There is no real means of challenging its authority as Britain has not adopted the policy of full judicial review or a bill of rights. Once parliament passes an act, it then is the law of the land. Can also change laws passed by previous parliaments. British courts have no power to declare to declare an act of Parliament to be unconstitutional. They can determine whether or not an executive has acted within statutory powers, but many of these statutes grant broad discretion to cabinet members and the courts do not question how they utilize this discretion. Also, if the courts rule that a government has exceeded its authority, parliament can pass a law retroactively authorizing this action - thus annulling the decision of the court.
- Job of altering the unwritten constitution falls to parliament (and the electorate) rather than the courts.
- Parliament (more on this later) is a bicameral institution with the House of Lords (hereditary and appointed) and the more powerful House of Commons. 650 popularly elected members by constituency. No separation of powers between a legislature and the executive - executive is the PM and his/her cabinet.
- Convention that Party which loses the confidence of the House (explain how this happens), resigns and calls a new election.
- Limits on terms of gov’t to five years (Since the 1911 parliament act, prior to that it was seven years), meaning that a gov’t must call an election within this time - explain how they will try to use timing to their advantage.
- Explain how PM is chosen and the fusion of power in the executive.
National Government, for the moment, does not share power with other political units. Local government exists at the sufferance of the national gov’t, it is not a separate level of government with its own powers.
- Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been joined to the United Kingdom by acts of Parliament and local power, to this moment, exists at the discretion of the National gov’t. Referendi in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland could change the structure of UK. Change in the constitution.
- Contrast with the United States constitution, which states that all powers not granted to the federal government remain the purview of the states (mention McCulloch vs. Maryland and the tug of war between the national and the state gov’ts).
3. Constitutional Monarchy
This means that while the Queen reigns, the political executive (the PM and his/her Cabinet) governs. Power of the monarchy is very limited in form, with the royals largely performing ceremonial and symbolic functions of state. Sovereign does not really impact on the functions of “her majesty’s government”. While the Queen does give formal assent to laws passed by the Parliament, she is not expected to offer an opinion on the legislation. After a bill is passed, it goes to the Monarch for signing - last time the Monarch rejected a piece of legislation was in 1707. Formally responsible for inviting the party leader whose group has the largest number of seats in the House of Commons to become PM, also for the dissolution of parliament preceding a general election.
Expected to respect the decisions of parliament.
4. Party Government
Cabinet government (which is composed of the PM and his/her Ministers and is the executive of the British government), is considered to be responsible to the House of Commons. Cabinet government, couple with the concepts of party discipline and party unity, has produced a type of governance called party government. This is the driving force behind British government and provides the merging of executive and legislative powers.
Explain concept of cabinet gov’t and the necessity of party discipline and unity.
5. Parliamentary Protection of Rights
While earlier I mentioned that explicit protection of civil rights has not been set down in a single document, it is parliament that is expected to protect these rights.
C. British and American Constitutions Compared
- Flexibility of the British Model.
- Legalistic nature of American society.
- Amendment of the British constitution takes the same form as any other act of parliament. Conventions can be changed by different behavior. In the US, amending the constitution is a tortuous process that involves the approval of 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states.
Origins Medieval Customs 1787, constitutional convention
Forms Unwritten, Indefinite Written, Precise
Final Power Majority in Parliament Supreme Court
Bill of Rights No Yes
Amendment Ordinary vote in parliament Congress, States
Unprecedented gov’t action
Centrality in Low High
- Federalism vs. Unitary Gov’t
- American concerns about the concentration of power in gov’t.
- Britain more a series of agreements, traditions, and conventions. Series of understandings - presumed that all will abide by these agreements. For example, what it the monarch were to refuse to sign a piece of legislation? Result would be a constitutional crisis, cause the system to change, but yet this has not happened in almost 400 years. Presumed that they will live up to the rules.
- Their opinions
D. Present Debate
- Public opinion seems to be in favor of change to the British system, opinion poll in May of 1995 revealed that 79% of respondents favored a written constitution, an equal number wanted a bill of rights, 81% wished for a freedom of information act, and 77% wanted to see more referendums.
- Most dramatic constitutional changes come from the loss of a war, or some other crisis, this is not the case in Britain at this time - perhaps most of the calls came from an electorate that had grown tired of a Conservative government that had been in power for almost 20 years and had clearly lost the support of the population.
- Also worthy of note that the idea of constitutional reform was one of the key platforms of the Labour Party, who came to power in the election held in May of 1997. Now, while it should be noted that the Party out of power usually favors change, then when reaching office, tends to lose this fervor, possibly anxious to utilize the power for themselves, Labour seems determined to bring about some changes.
- Conservative perspective would maintain that Britain is not governed worse than any other country, and these changes should not be viewed as a panacea, as voter dissatisfaction is as high in countries that possess all of these proposed changes. Also, the British system has stood the test of time rather well, and perhaps change might bring about unintended consequences.
- Mention the debacle in Canada over the charter of Rights and Freedoms.
- Most of the proposed changes - an elected second chamber, a bill of rights, proportional representation (much more on this later, but provide a brief description, note that Blair is opposed but supports a referendum), devolution of power to the regions, are aimed at challenging the fundamental notion of parliamentary supremacy, the cornerstone of the British system of governance. This would mark a separation of power, clearly distinct from Britain’s tradition.
- With respect to a Bill of Rights, presently, British citizens have no fundamental freedoms that cannot be struck down by parliament - however, by convention (remember the importance of this concept in relations to British government) this does not usually happen. Assumption is that parliament is an elected body who will act according to the desires of the people and will not unnecessarily abridge their freedoms.
- Institution of such a bill would give enormous power to judges (unelected), as the statutes would have to be loosely worded and then interpreted.
- Discuss American case with respect to Articles 1 & 2. Discuss changes in technology and life that may challenge such an idea.
- The devolution of power is something that we have discussed before, and is of particular relevance at this time, proponents claim that it would properly allow for regional differences to be expressed - after all, the UK is composed of four different groups - it could also marginalize the nascent nationalism in Scotland, Wales and constrain republican ambitions in Ireland. Yet, the critics claim that this is a recipe for the dissolution of the UK - discuss the Scottish example.
- Fundamental to this debate are the ideas that change is demanded and is necessary, this is countered by the notion that change produces unintended consequences and that the collective wisdom of the preceding generations ought not to be dismissed.
- Will be interesting to see how this plays out.
- Get their opinions on the necessity of change in Britain.
United Kingdom: Executive, Legislature and the Monarchy
I. The Executive
- In a parliamentary system such as the United Kingdom, the power is concentrated in the national legislatures. Within these bodies that central power rests with the Prime Minister - the leader of the majority party within parliament, or in the absence of a majority, the leader of the governing coalition. (explain what a coalition is) Fusion of power between the executive and the legislative branches - all the more important in Britain because of the lack of an independent judiciary.
- Also, since for the moment, the state structure is unitary in nature, the PM does not have to share power with regional leaders. Enormous source of power.
- Executive within this system is the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet. The cabinet provides the link between the PM and the Party members. The PM leads yet must remain mindful of the wishes of his/her party. Ex. Maggie and Heseltine
- Various theories on the power of the PM and the cabinet. Thatcher (possibly Blair) favored almost a dictatorial approach, of course this ended up costing her dearly.
Thatcher on her cabinet in 1979:
There are two ways of making a cabinet. One way is to have in it people representing the different points of view within the party, within the broad philosophy. The other way is to have in it only the people who want to go in the direction which every instinct tells me we have to go: clearly, steadily, firmly, with resolution. As Prime Minister, I could not waste any time having internal arguments.
Tony Benn in 1980:
...the present centralization of power into the hands of one person has gone too far and amounts to a system of personal rule in the very heart of a parliamentary democracy.
- Cabinet members may be appointed from either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, usually the vast majority come from the House of Commons.
- Usually the cabinet has about 20 members.
B. The Prime Minister
- The Prime Minister holds a special position in the British system. He/she is sometimes referred to as first among equals (primus inter parus) within the cabinet. This is not entirely accurate, as Churchill once said: “There can be no comparison between the positions of number one, and numbers two three and four”. Also, since the PM appoints, and can shuffle, cabinet positions, there really is no comparison in this case. Yet, the PM cannot ignore the feelings of the other cabinet members, six of the eleven people who have held the office since 1945 (Churchill, Eden, Macmillian, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, and Major) did so in the middle of a parliament.
Functions of the PM (Rose)
1. Party Management Through Patronage - Pms rise to their positions through parliament so they must establish a network within the party that will support them. Also must retain the confidence of the Mps and cabinet.
- PM appoints and dismisses cabinet members.
- 20 cabinet positions must be filled from the hundreds of Mps, also there are somewhere in the range of 75-80 various titled other positions, such as Ministers (non-cabinet), Under-Secretaries, Parliamentary secretaries. PM appoints these people and determining who gets and keeps these positions is the key component of party management. Virtually all Mps want to get on the front bench (those without responsibility are called back benchers), and filling these seats is a difficult task.
- Means of decision : personal loyalty, co-opting opponents within the party, representativeness (region or gender), and competence. Determining the mix will go a long way in deciding how effective the PM will be in managing the party. Also chairs cabinet meetings and determines the agenda to be followed.
- Also awards such honors as peerages and knighthoods.
2. Parliamentary Performance - PM speaks on behalf of the government on major issues as well as fielding questions during the bi-weekly PM (3:15-3:30 TR) question period in the House of Commons. Must be able to represent the parties position effectively and be able to deal with hostile inquiry from the opposition.
3. Media Performance - PM, unlike the monarch, is at the center of partisan fray. Focus of the government and the media. Must also be able to project an image to the public through the electronic media. Different styles - Major folksy, Eden aristocratic, Thatcher dictatorial.
- Must also present the party as being unified.
4. Winning Elections - To gain the office must be able to win party vote, to keep it must be able to present the possibility of winning a general election. Determines the time of the election.
5. Policy Leadership - Responsible for keeping the government on an overall course and keeping the ministers acting as a unit. Shepherds votes. Vary in styles - Thatcher (TINA), imperious, Major as a manager. PM chairs cabinet meetings and is its official spokesperson. Also, represents the UK at international conferences and summits. Also, must deal with the civil service and interest groups in the shaping of policy, not solely based on personal desire.
- Influence of a PM is not fixed in stone, depends on personal qualities in dealing with the above.
- Key to this system is party discipline. Party is to carry out the wishes of the PM; if it loses an important vote, then it is presumed that the government will call an election shortly. Leads to the proliferation of back room deals.
- Contrast the ability of the President to carry forth legislation with that of the PM. PM has fewer formal powers, is in office at the sufferance of his/her party and for an indefinite period of time, also cabinet members are potential leadership rivals. Yet, the absence of checks and balances and the unitary system means that the British executive (PM and Cabinet) has much more power than the US executive. Legislation is virtually assured of passage, no constitution to limit behavior. Fusion of Power.
C. The Cabinet
- Cabinet members are the heads of departments within the government (Whitehall - explain what this is), drawn from the majority party. By convention they are drawn from parliament, may be either Mps or members of the House of Lords, though, also by convention, the vast majority are drawn from the House of Commons . Cabinet is the linkage between the executive and legislative branches.
- Usually make the climb from backbenchers to junior minister (roughly 80 non-cabinet ministers, under-secretaries, etc.) to cabinet positions. Rare to see someone drawn directly from the back benches. Opposition will also have a shadow cabinet, assume the real titles if the party is successful in an election.
- Somewhere in the range of 20 positions : usually consists of PM (First Lord of Treasury), Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Secretaries for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Secretary of Transport, Home Secretary, Secretary of Defense, Health, Agriculture, Employment, Leader of the House of Commons, Leader of the House of Lords, etc)
- Each cabinet member is responsible for a particular department within the government (Foreign, Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, etc.), and they compete with each other for governmental resources (who gets what) and often issues will put them on opposite sides of the fence. This will involve negotiation and attempts to sway the other members and the PM. It is usually preferred that a decision is reached before an issue is presented to the full cabinet for vote, so that the cabinet merely ratifies the decision, and exchanges may be reached. Yet, this will not always be the case. However, once a decision is reached it is presumed that all cabinet members will support this decision, if the member cannot support the decision, then by convention he/she will resign. Ex. Geoffrey Howe and Europe. Notion of collective responsibility.
- Meetings are chaired by the Pm and he/she has the right to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers, though this is not without its potential costs.
- Parliament ratifies the decisions made by the cabinet through votes, they then become the law of the land.
D. The Civil Service
- While each minister is responsible for a broad area of policy, the formulation and implementation of policy requires the support of thousands below the Minister - the civil service. Comprises over a half million people (not including army, local administrators, judiciary, or employees of crown corporations), organized in a hierarchical manner with a permanent secretary and a coterie of deputy secretaries advising the Minister and thousands more serving below in each level.
- Assumed that they will be non-partisan and discharge their duties regardless of who is in power, point of pride in the British civil service. Permanent employees and not political appointments.
- Obviously, they have some degree of influence over the course of policy, have the advantage of expertise and politicians need their co-operation in implementation. They are the ones who will present the Minister with the options for dealing with a problem and this can serve to influence the opinion of the Minister. Particularly important when dealing with lower profile issues, those with a higher degree of public salience will come under closer scrutiny by the PM and other political leaders.
- Tendency to presume that policy is the exclusive purview of the Prime Minister. While the PM does have a tremendous amount of influence - fusion of power, power of appointment of cabinet members, party control of legislature - this is not necessarily so.
- First of all, while the PM does control the appointment process of Cabinet members, it is useful to note that they all usually have agendas of their own, and these agendas may include residing at Number 10 in the future. Also, the PM also relies on his/her government for support, if he/she angers too many within the party, then the aggrieved may seek a new leader. If a Cabinet member disagrees publicly with policy, he or she is expected to resign and the PM will likely have a powerful adversary (Heseltine). Remember that all party members must also look to the future, and at a time when the PM is no longer in power and may flock to the aggrieved in exchange for future rewards.
- Bill will still have to pass in the House of Commons (Also, Lords, will explain in a few minutes)
- Also, Britain has an independent civil service that plays an important role in policy formulation and implementation. They also have an opportunity to influence the process.
- PM is more likely to be personally involved in high salience issues.
- PM has a greater ability to shape policy than a President as a result of the structure of the British political system, but this is highly dependant on his/her personal skills in such areas as: party management, public image, media and debating skills. Can only lead when others are willing to follow.
- Their opinions/preferences.
II. The Legislature
- Within the British Parliament, there are two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In theory this is a bicameral legislature, but in practice the House of Lords enjoys minimal power in comparison to the Commons.
- Legislation must pass through both chambers, but this is usually a formality, as we shall see in a few moments, the House of Lords has the ability to amend or delay, not veto, legislation, and this power is seldom exercised. British parliament is more of a debating group than a policy making body, policy largely decided by the cabinet, though through consultation with the members of the Commons.
B. The House of Commons
- Composed of 659 members elected from single-member districts. No set term limits.
- Current disposition of the HC, as a result of the 2001 election is:
- Labour 413 seats (40.7% of the vote)
- Conservatives 166 seats (31.7% of the vote)
- Liberal Democrats 52 seats (18.3% of the vote
- Others 28 seats (9.3% of the vote)
- Ulster Unionist Party 6 seats
- Democratic Unionist Party 5 seats
- Scottish National Party 5 seats
- Plaid Chymru 4 seats
- Sinn Fein 4 seats
- Social Democrat and Labour 3 seats
- Independent 1 seat
- Dominated by the Cabinet, as remember, the cabinet is made up of the leadership of the majority party. This related to one of the main functions of the House of Commons, to assess the competence of Ministers and suitability to be future Ministers. A Minister may have the formal confidence of the government, but if his/her arguments are demolished in party caucuses or house debate, this will greatly compromise his/her standing within the party. Also a means of determining future Ministers based on their performance as back-benchers. (Mention Dan Mackenzie and Warren Steen).
- Also, the only real method of advancement through the political system is through the party, therefore back-benchers are usually anxious to become Ministers, this is another factor supporting party discipline.
- Members are also looking to form alliances with those whom they believe to be on the ascendancy (explain).
- The House is under the formal direction of a Speaker, this office is very different from the Speaker of the American House of Representatives, as it is expected to be non-partisan. The Speaker of the House of Commons is elected by that body, yet, upon assuming office, he/she ends political affiliation and resigns from his/her party. Upon retirement from this office, tradition prevents the speaker from seeking elected office under a party banner.
- Selection of the Speaker is accomplished by the entire House of Commons with the choice needing the approval of the Queen. Not a personal selection of the PM, though he/she will try to influence the selection through back room deals. Does not always work, in 1983 a speaker was selected that was clearly not Thatcher’s choice. One of the few occasions where British politics and the House is not necessarily acting according to partisan whims. Speaker elected in 1992 was from the Labour Party, even though the Conservatives had a majority.
- Key to the system, beyond the speaker, is the concept of party unity and party discipline. Rare for an MP to vote against party legislation, even more rare for the party to actually lose an important vote. Party whips are in charge of marshaling the forces behind legislation - term comes from fox hunting, the “whipper-in” keeps the hounds together in pursuit of the fox and keeps them as a pack. At the start of each week, the whips pass out sheets of paper which have the prospective legislation listed, each expected action will be underlined one, two or three times, indicating its priority to the government, with the three line whips being the most important.
- Whips are also expected to listen to the opinions of dissatisfied back-benchers and take these views back to the leadership. They can, and do so often, approach Ministers personally and express their objections to policy. May lead to the government proposing an amendment to the legislation Yet, it is assumed that they will soldier on when the formal vote is cast.
- Opposition can expect their motions to be defeated for the duration of this parliament, very unlikely to gain cross party support, they accept this due to the belief that their views can emerge after the next election. Opposition amendments are also very unlikely to gain support.
- Vast majority of time in the House is spent debating the principles of policies and their effectiveness after their passage. Discussion of the underlying intent of policies prior to their passage and the effects following passage. Debate of the actual legislation takes up less of their time. As we shall see in a few moments, once the executive has decided on legislation and have ascertained that the party will support it, its passage by the Commons is more or less a formality. Therefore, debate serves the intent of raising public consciousness about the ideas shaping legislation and its results - perhaps one might even consider this as posturing for the next election.
- House members also have the ability to grill the members of the executive in a daily question period in the House of Commons. Takes place on Monday through Thursday from 2:30 to 3:30, with the PM on the hot seat from 3:15 to 3:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Questions may be submitted by either the ruling party or one of the opposition parties. Questions from government back-benchers will usually be pr oriented attempting to bolster their own positions within the district. Opposition questions will be a little more aggressive. Cards are shuffled to determine the order and which of the multitude will be dealt with on that day.
Passage of Legislation
- Bills are read three times, with committees being formed between the second and third readings.
- The initial general principles underlying legislation are established by the Ministers, the language of the bills is then drafted by Lawyers, acting on the instructions of the Ministers. The Bill is then read before the House of Commons. There is no debate on the first reading of the bill (Step 1), this marks its introduction.
- The Bill is then read for a second time(Step 2), at this point there will be some general debate concerning the principles underlying the bill. After the debate, the timing of which is determined by the governing party, a vote is then taken on the principles of the legislation. After this passes, the bill is then referred to committee, who will consider the specific proposals within the legislation.
- Following a second reading, committees are then formed (formally there are standing committees, but most of the committees formed are ad hoc, designed to deal with specific legislation). Representation is decided by share of seats in the House of Commons. They then may, in the case of controversial or broad legislation, hold hearings, interview civil servants and member of interest groups, question ministers, and eventually publish reports. However, this stage is not as important as its equivalent in the American system, party loyalty will almost always secure that the committee will vote out the bill(Step Three).
- The Committee can make amendments to the bill at this stage, only amendments made by the government are likely to be added. These amendments cannot challenge the broad principle of the legislation, but are likely to be incremental changes as a result of influence from Mps or interest groups.
- Bills are likely to emerge from the committees relatively intact, this is unlike the US system as it is at the committee stage that 90% of legislation dies.
- The Committee then sends out a report justifying any changes that were made and commenting on the legislation. At this point the entire house has an opportunity to vote on the report and propose amendments to the legislation(Step 4). Government may take this time to propose new amendments, usually carried, and the opposition has the same chance, usually fail. Once the report passes, a third vote is taken on the bill. The entire commons then votes on the bill (Step 5), with debate limited to specific provisions within it. Once the House passes the bill, then it is sent to the House of Lords.
- The Lords may either vote to support the legislation, propose Amendments, or attempt to veto the measure (more on that in a moment) (Step 6). If They propose amendments, then the bill returns to the House of Commons, where they will vote on whether or not to accept these amendments. The House may either agree with the amendments or send it back to the Lords with reasons for this disagreement. If the House disagrees, the Lords are unlikely to pursue the matter any further and will pass the original bill.
- Once both Houses have voted for the bill, it is sent to the Queen for Royal assent. Formality, last time a Monarch vetoed legislation was 1707.
- Dominance of the executive over the parliament. All major decisions are made in the cabinet and the parliament is expected to ratify these decisions.
- Yet, this function is not completely irrelevant, allows for debate and discussion of passages, bringing them to the public attention. Serves as a legitimizing force. Legislation is also drafted with an eye toward parliamentary debate, is this something that will come under intense criticism? and is it something that their party members can live with? While the backbenchers are usually very reluctant to face an election, so is the government, as having an election forced by back-bench rebellion is not likely to inspire public confidence in their ability to govern.
- In over 90% of the votes in the House of Commons, the vote is completely along party lines (100% of each party either supporting or opposing the measure). When Mps do deviate from the path of their party, the rebels are rarely able to change the results of the vote. As one former Labour Cabinet Minister stated “It’s carrying democracy too far if you do not know the result of the vote before the meeting.”
C. The House of Lords
- Dominance of House of Commons was solidified by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949.
- Composition of the House of Lords is based on appointment by the Crown. Actually, appointment is made by the PM, but the Monarch handles the formal aspect of this. Vast majority of the House of Lords were appointed by the Conservatives.
- Number of members of the House of Lords is over 1200, although most never participate in the body, only about three hundred will make an effort at regular attendance.
- Two types - hereditary peers and life peers. Former who make up about 3/4 of the House of Lords, either inherited their peerage or had this honor bestowed upon them for public service. Former has come under intense criticism, especially by the Labour Party. The Wilson gov’t suspended the awarding of hereditary peerages in 1964, and only three have been appointed since that time, all by Thatcher. Blair government has stated that it seeks to abolish their voting privileges.
- Life peers are selected for the duration of their lives and the title is not passed on to their heirs.
- The idea of Life Peers was created in 1958, it was established to prevent the Lords from becoming deluged with members, and since then almost all of the appointments have been of this variety. It is the life peers that are most active in the House of Lords.
Reform of the House of Lords (1999)
- Major platform of the Labour Party under Blair. Desire to remove the anachronism of the Lords. The 1999 reforms are said to be only transitory, with future (undetermined) changes to follow. Biggest objection of the critics has been toward the hereditary peers, whose numbers have been greatly reduced. Blair actually wanted to completely remove the hereditary peers, but faced strong opposition from the conservative lords.
- Anyway, prior to the reforms, there were 1,213 members of the House (567 life, 646 hereditary, with the conservatives having a majority). Under the 1999 reforms, the life peers would retain their positions, but only 92 of the 646 hereditary peers would remain. Of this 92, two have ceremonial duties, fifteen will be elected by the entire house, and 75 would be chosen by the parties with which they are affiliated, with the number divided proportionately among the 1999 representation (42 cons, 3 LibDems, 2 Labour, and 28 independents).
- Blair has also been creating life peerages at a very fast pace, in order to achieve a rough parity with the conservatives (explain why they had an advantage).
- Not the end of reform, will probably see an elected second chamber if labour is re-elected (which is quite likely right now).
The Lords and Legislation
- Plays a subordinate role to the House of Commons. While their formal assent is still required for bills to immediately become law, the ability of the House of Lords to affect legislation has slowly dissipated during the past century. Lords used to enjoy an ability to veto measures passed by the House of Commons, this was lost in 1911, when the government passed a measure to limit this to a suspensive veto of two years duration. What this means is that if the Lords rejected a bill and the government still wished to pass it, then it would have to pass it in three successive sessions (two years in time) and it would become law over the objections of the House of Lords.
- This privilege was eroded even further in 1949, when the length of the suspensive veto was lowered from two years to twelve months, so it would only need to be passed in two consecutive parliamentary sessions.
- As you might well presume, both of these changes were opposed by the House of Lords, the Parliament Act of 1911 only became law after two general elections had been fought on the issue, and after the Monarch - on behalf of the government - threatened to appoint enough new peers to ensure that the bill was passed. Similar events in 1949, bill was only passed after the Lords had delayed it for two years and after the Labour government threatened to swamp the House with new appointments. It is worth noting that this is a very important means of keeping the Lords in line and preserving the dominance of the Commons, as the PM can threaten to appoint a number of new peers to break any deadlock and support the policy of the commons (explain).
- Still a bicameral system, but one that is dominated by the Commons.
- Calls to reform the anachronism of the Lords
- Dominated by the Conservatives due to the fact that they have held power for the majority of the time since 1945, and therefore have appointed more life peers than the Labour party, and they can also expect the support of the vast majority of the hereditary peers - those who bother to show up.
- Conflict between the Commons and the Lords is most likely to take place when there is a Labour government in the Commons.
- Three opinions on this seemingly anachronistic institution - reform, remove or retain.
D. Conclusions About the Legislature
- Commons fulfills the functions of debate, legitimizing policy, and supervision of government.
- Dominance of executive over the Commons.
- Lords is an institution whose time may have passed, though this would not necessarily guarantee its demise.
- Dominance of Commons over Lords.
- Legislature serves more of a purpose of ratifying rather than creating legislation.
- Party unity and discipline.
III. The Monarchy
- Speaking of anachronisms.
- Formal head of state, yet has few real powers.
- Present group is able to trace their lineage back almost 1200 years. At one time, the Monarch held ultimate power in England, serving as the executive and the legislature. However, this has not really been the case for over 300 years. Since Victoria’s time (1837-1901), they have been apolitical. Monarch is now a formal head of state, but this position is largely ceremonial. Victoria was the last Monarch to select a Prime Minister based on personal preference and the last to be actively involved in the Policy making process. Her successors have been expected to sign legislation and not offer opinions on the efforts of parliament either before or after the drafting of the bills.
- Represents a sense of stability within Britain (Liz has had 9 Prime Ministers) and a personification of the nation. Ceremonial power stems from the fact that he/she is above the political fray.
- Monarch is the commander in chief of the military (meaningful in the sense that royal males serve in the military), but certainly does not lead troops into battle (Mention Mountbatten and Uncle Doug). Also confers honours, grants assent to legislation, dissolves parliament, chooses a Prime Minister, yet all of these activities are done on the advice of the government.
- Also, the Head of the Commonwealth and appoints the head of state in your neighbor to the North, again on the advice of the Canadian government.
- Succession based on hereditary - oldest son, if no male children then the eldest daughter.
- Role is largely ceremonial - involved in charity works (Prince’s Trust, etc.) and serving as Britain’s representative for ceremonies. Mention the children and the link to the commonwealth.
Unchanging representative of the state.
- Royals in the age of tabloids and how coverage has changed.
- Personal problems.
- Notions of Duty
- Charles’ unsuitability?
- An anachronism that has outlived its time?