The United Kingdom is a unitary state with devolution that is governed within the framework of a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state while the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, currently Theresa May, is the head of government. Executive power is exercised by the British government, on behalf of and by the consent of the monarch, as well as by the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales and the Northern Ireland Executive. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
The UK political system is a multi-party system. Since the 1920s, the two dominant parties have been the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Before the Labour Party rose in British politics, the Liberal Party was the other major political party, along with the Conservatives. While coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties, though each has in the past century relied upon a third party, such as the Liberal Democrats, to deliver a working majority in Parliament. A Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government held office from 2010 until 2015, the first coalition since 1945. The coalition ended following parliamentary elections on 7 May 2015, in which the Conservative Party won an outright majority of 330 seats in the House of Commons, while their coalition partners lost all but eight seats.
With the partition of Ireland, Northern Ireland received home rule in 1920, though civil unrest meant direct rule was restored in 1972. Support for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales led to proposals for devolution in the 1970s, though only in the 1990s did devolution happen. Today, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each possess a legislature and executive, with devolution in Northern Ireland being conditional on participation in certain all-Ireland institutions. The UK government remains responsible for non-devolved matters and, in the case of Northern Ireland, co-operates with the government of the Republic of Ireland.
It is a matter of dispute as to whether increased autonomy and devolution of executive and legislative powers has contributed to the increase in support for independence. The principal Scottish pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party, became a minority government in 2007 and then went on to win an overall majority of MSPs at the 2011 Scottish parliament elections and forms the Scottish Government administration. A 2014 referendum on independence led to a rejection of the proposal but with 44.7% voting for it. In Northern Ireland, a smaller percentage vote for Irish nationalist parties. The largest, Sinn Féin, not only advocates Irish reunification, but its members also abstain from taking their elected seats in the Westminster parliament, as this would entail taking a pledge of allegiance to the British monarch.
The constitution of the United Kingdom is uncodified, being made up of constitutional conventions, statutes and other elements such as EU law. This system of government, known as the Westminster system, has been adopted by other countries, especially those that were formerly parts of the British Empire.
The United Kingdom is also responsible for several dependencies, which fall into two categories: the Crown dependencies, in the immediate vicinity of the UK, and British Overseas Territories, which originated as colonies of the British Empire.
The Economist Intelligence Unit rated the United Kingdom as a "full democracy" in 2017.
The House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Like the House of Commons, it meets in the Palace of Westminster.
The House of Lords is independent from, and complements the work of, the House of Commons – they share responsibility for making laws and checking government action. Bills can be introduced into either the House of Lords or the House of Commons and members of the Lords may also take on roles as Government Ministers.
Unlike the House of Commons, most new members of the House of Lords are appointed. Membership of the House of Lords is made up of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. There are currently 26 Lords Spiritual, who sit in the Lords by virtue of their ecclesiastical role in the established Church of England. The Lords Temporal make up the rest of the membership; of these, the majority are life peers who are appointed by the Monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, or on the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
Membership was once a right of birth to hereditary peers but, following a series of reforms, only 92 members (as of 1 July 2011 ) sitting by virtue of a hereditary peerage remain. The number of members is not fixed; as of 1 April 2012 the House of Lords has 786 members (plus 21 who are on leave of absence or otherwise disqualified from sitting), as against the fixed 650-seat membership of the House of Commons.
The role of the House of Lords is primarily to act as a body of specialist knowledge that scrutinizes in greater detail bills that have been approved by the House of Commons. It regularly reviews and amends bills from the Commons. While the House of Lords is unable unilaterally to prevent bills passing into law (except in certain limited circumstances), its members can severely delay bills that they believe to be misguided and thereby force the government, the Commons, and the general public to reconsider their decisions. In this capacity, the Lords acts as constitutional safeguard that is independent from the electoral process and that can challenge the will of the people when the majority’s desires threaten key constitutional principles, human rights or rules of law. In other countries this role would often be performed by a Constitutional Court or a Supreme Court, but the UK system's emphasis on parliamentary sovereignty – rather than judicial review – means that this function cannot be properly accomplished by the British court system as all judicial rulings can be overruled by parliament. (More...)