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Politics of the United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom is governed within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, in which the Monarch is the head of state and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of government. Executive power is exercised by Her Majesty's 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 national court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

The UK political system is a multi-party system. Since the 1920s, the two largest political 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. Though 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 to deliver a working majority in Parliament.

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 actually 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 United Kingdom remains responsible for non-devolved matters and, in the case of Northern Ireland, co-operates with 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 a reduction in support for independence. The principal pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party, won an overall majority of MSPs at the 2011 Scottish parliament elections and now forms the Scottish Government administration, with plans to hold a referendum on negotiating for independence. In Northern Ireland, the largest Pro- Belfast Agreement party, Sinn Féin, not only advocates Northern Ireland's unification with the Republic of Ireland, but also abstains from taking their elected seats in the Westminster government, 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. 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 Crown

The British Monarch, currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the Chief of State of the United Kingdom. Though she takes little direct part in government, the Crown remains the fount in which ultimate executive power over Government lies. These powers are known as Royal Prerogative and can be used for a vast amount of things, such as the issue or withdrawal of passports, to the dismissal of the Prime Minister or even the Declaration of War. The powers are delegated from the Monarch personally, in the name of the Crown, and can be handed to various ministers, or other Officers of the Crown, and can purposely bypass the consent of Parliament.

The head of Her Majesty's Government; the Prime Minister, also has weekly meetings with the sovereign, where she may express her feelings, warn, or advise the Prime Minister in the Government's work.

According to the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, the monarch has the following powers:

Domestic Powers

  • The power to dismiss and appoint a Prime Minister
  • The power to dismiss and appoint other ministers
  • The power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament
  • The power to grant or refuse Royal Assent to bills (making them valid and law)
  • The power to commission officers in the Armed Forces
  • The power to command the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom
  • The power to appoint members to the Queen's Council
  • The power to issue and withdraw passports
  • The power to grant Prerogative of mercy (though Capital Punishment is abolished, this power is still used to remedy errors in sentence calculation)
  • The power to grant honours
  • The power to create corporations via Royal Charter

Foreign Powers

  • The power to ratify and make treaties
  • The power to declare War and Peace
  • The power to deploy the Armed Forces overseas
  • The power to recognize states
  • The power to credit and receive diplomats


Executive power in the United Kingdom is exercised by the Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, via Her Majesty's Government and the devolved national authorities - the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

The United Kingdom Government

Coat of arms featuring a shield with UK insignias in centre with large crown above, supported by lion and unicorn.
Arms of the British Government (a variation of the Royal Arms)

The monarch appoints a Prime Minister as the head of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, guided by the strict convention that the Prime Minister should be the member of the House of Commons most likely to be able to form a Government with the support of that House. In practice, this means that the leader of the political party with an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons is chosen to be the Prime Minister. If no party has an absolute majority, the leader of the largest party is given the first opportunity to form a coalition. The Prime Minister then selects the other Ministers which make up the Government and act as political heads of the various Government Departments. About twenty of the most senior government ministers make up the Cabinet and approximately 100 ministers in total comprise the government. In accordance with constitutional convention, all ministers within the government are either Members of Parliament or peers in the House of Lords.

As in some other parliamentary systems of government (especially those based upon the Westminster System), the executive (called "the government") is drawn from and is answerable to Parliament - a successful vote of no confidence will force the government either to resign or to seek a parliamentary dissolution and a general election. In practice, members of parliament of all major parties are strictly controlled by whips who try to ensure they vote according to party policy. If the government has a large majority, then they are very unlikely to lose enough votes to be unable to pass legislation.

The Prime Minister and the Cabinet

David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2010-)

The Prime Minister is the most senior minister in the Cabinet. S/he is responsible for chairing Cabinet meetings, selecting Cabinet ministers (and all other positions in Her Majesty's government), and formulating government policy. The Prime Minister is the de facto leader of the UK government, since s/he exercises executive functions that are nominally vested in the sovereign (by way of the Royal Prerogatives). Historically, the British monarch was the sole source of executive powers in the government. However, following the rule of the Hanoverian monarchs, an arrangement of a "Prime Minister" chairing and leading the Cabinet began to emerge. Over time, this arrangement became the effective executive branch of government, as it assumed the day-to-day functioning of the British government away from the sovereign.

Theoretically, the Prime Minister is primus inter pares (,i.e. Latin for "first among equals") among his/her Cabinet colleagues. While the Prime Minister is the senior Cabinet Minister, s/he is theoretically bound to make executive decisions in a collective fashion with the other Cabinet ministers. The Cabinet, along with the PM, consists of Secretaries of State from the various government departments, the Lord High Chancellor, the Lord Privy Seal, the President of the Board of Trade, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Ministers without portfolio. Cabinet meetings are typically held weekly, while Parliament is in session.

Government departments and the Civil Service

The Government of the United Kingdom contains a number of ministries known mainly, though not exclusively as departments, e.g., Ministry of Defence. These are politically led by a Government Minister who is often a Secretary of State and member of the Cabinet. He or she may also be supported by a number of junior Ministers. In practice, several government departments and Ministers have responsibilities that cover England alone, with devolved bodies having responsibility for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, (for example - the Department of Health), or responsibilities that mainly focus on England (such as the Department for Education).

Implementation of the Minister's decisions is carried out by a permanent politically neutral organisation known as the civil service. Its constitutional role is to support the Government of the day regardless of which political party is in power. Unlike some other democracies, senior civil servants remain in post upon a change of Government. Administrative management of the Department is led by a head civil servant known in most Departments as a Permanent Secretary. The majority of the civil service staff in fact work in executive agencies, which are separate operational organisations reporting to Departments of State.

"Whitehall" is often used as a synonym for the central core of the Civil Service. This is because most Government Departments have headquarters in and around the former Royal Palace Whitehall.

Devolved national administrations

Scottish Government

Four men and two women in smart dress pose on steps to large town building.
The cabinet of the Scottish Government

The Scottish Government is responsible for all issues that are not explicitly reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster, by the Scotland Act; including NHS Scotland, education, justice, rural affairs, and transport. It manages an annual budget of more than £25 billion. The government is led by the First Minister, assisted by various Ministers with individual portfolios and remits. The Scottish Parliament nominates a Member to be appointed as First Minister by the Queen. The First Minister then appoints his Ministers (now known as Cabinet Secretaries) and junior Ministers, subject to approval by the Parliament. The First Minister, the Ministers (but not junior ministers), the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General are the Members of the 'Scottish Executive', as set out in the Scotland Act 1998. They are collectively known as "the Scottish Ministers".

Welsh Government

The Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales have more limited powers than those devolved to Scotland, although following the passing of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the Welsh devolution referendum, 2011, the Assembly can now legislate in some areas through an Act of the National Assembly for Wales. Following the 2011 election, Welsh Labour held exactly half of the seats in the Assembly, falling just short of an overall majority. A Welsh Labour Government was subsequently formed headed by Carwyn Jones.

Northern Ireland Executive

The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have powers closer to those already devolved to Scotland. The Northern Ireland Executive is led by a diarchy, currently First Minister Peter Robinson ( Democratic Unionist Party) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness ( Sinn Féin).


The UK Parliament is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom (i.e., there is parliamentary sovereignty), and Government is drawn from and answerable to it. Parliament is bicameral, consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. There is also a devolved Scottish Parliament and devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, with varying degrees of legislative authority.

UK Parliament

House of Commons

Sand-coloured building of Gothic design with large clock-tower.
Parliament meets at the Palace of Westminster

The Countries of the United Kingdom are divided into parliamentary constituencies of broadly equal population by the four Boundary Commissions. Each constituency elects a Member of Parliament (MP) to the House of Commons at General Elections and, if required, at by-elections. As of 2010 there are 650 constituencies (there were 646 before that year's general election. Of the 650 MPs, all but one - Lady Sylvia Hermon - belong to a political party.

In modern times, all Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have been drawn from the Commons, not the Lords. Alec Douglas-Home resigned from his peerages days after becoming Prime Minister in 1963, and the last Prime Minister before him from the Lords left in 1902 (the Marquess of Salisbury).

One party usually has a majority in Parliament, because of the use of the First Past the Post electoral system, which has been conducive in creating the current two party system. The monarch normally asks a person commissioned to form a government simply whether it can survive in the House of Commons, something which majority governments are expected to be able to do. In exceptional circumstances the monarch asks someone to 'form a government' with a parliamentary minority which in the event of no party having a majority requires the formation of a coalition government. This option is only ever taken at a time of national emergency, such as war-time. It was given in 1916 to Andrew Bonar Law, and when he declined, to David Lloyd George and in 1940 to Winston Churchill. A government is not formed by a vote of the House of Commons, it is a commission from the monarch. The House of Commons gets its first chance to indicate confidence in the new government when it votes on the Speech from the Throne (the legislative programme proposed by the new government).

House of Lords

The House of Lords was previously a largely hereditary aristocratic chamber, although including life peers, and Lords Spiritual. It is currently mid-way through extensive reforms, the most recent of these being enacted in the House of Lords Act 1999. The house consists of two very different types of member, the Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual. Lords Temporal include appointed members (life peers with no hereditary right for their descendants to sit in the house) and ninety-two remaining hereditary peers, elected from among, and by, the holders of titles which previously gave a seat in the House of Lords. The Lords Spiritual represent the established Church of England and number twenty-six: the Five Ancient Sees (Canterbury, York, London, Winchester and Durham), and the 21 next-most senior bishops.

The House of Lords currently acts to review legislation initiated by the House of Commons, with the power to propose amendments, and can exercise a suspensive veto. This allows it to delay legislation if it does not approve it for twelve months. However, the use of vetoes is limited by convention and by the operation of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949: the Lords may not veto the "money bills" or major manifesto promises (see Salisbury convention). Persistent use of the veto can also be overturned by the Commons, under a provision of the Parliament Act 1911. Often governments will accept changes in legislation in order to avoid both the time delay, and the negative publicity of being seen to clash with the Lords. However the Lords still retain a full veto in acts which would extend the life of Parliament beyond the 5 year term limit introduced by the Parliament Act 1911.

The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 outlined plans for a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to replace the role of the Law Lords.

The House of Lords was replaced as the final court of appeal on civil cases within the United Kingdom on 1 October 2009, by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

Devolved national legislatures

Though the UK parliament remains the sovereign parliament, Scotland has a parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have assemblies. De jure, each could have its powers broadened, narrowed or changed by an Act of the UK Parliament. However, Scotland has a tradition of popular sovereignty as opposed to parliamentary sovereignty and the fact that the Scottish parliament was established following a referendum would make it politically difficult to significantly alter its powers without popular consent. The UK is therefore a unitary state with a devolved system of government. This contrasts with a federal system, in which sub-parliaments or state parliaments and assemblies have a clearly defined constitutional right to exist and a right to exercise certain constitutionally guaranteed and defined functions and cannot be unilaterally abolished by Acts of the central parliament.

All three devolved institutions are elected by proportional representation: the Additional Member System is used in Scotland and Wales, and Single Transferable Vote is used in Northern Ireland.

England, therefore, is the only country in the UK not to have a devolved English parliament. However, senior politicians of all main parties have voiced concerns in regard to the West Lothian Question, which is raised where certain policies for England are set by MPs from all four constituent nations whereas similar policies for Scotland or Wales might be decided in the devolved assemblies by legislators from those countries alone. Alternative proposals for English regional government have stalled, following a poorly received referendum on devolved government for the North East of England, which had hitherto been considered the region most in favour of the idea, with the exception of Cornwall, where there is widespread support for a Cornish Assembly, including all five Cornish MPs. England is therefore governed according to the balance of parties across the whole of the United Kingdom.

The government has no plans to establish an English parliament or assembly although several pressure groups are calling for one. One of their main arguments is that MPs (and thus voters) from different parts of the UK have inconsistent powers. Currently an MP from Scotland can vote on legislation which affects only England but MPs from England (or indeed Scotland) cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish parliament. Indeed, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is an MP for a Scottish constituency, introduced some laws that only affect England and not his own constituency. This anomaly is known as the West Lothian question.

The policy of the UK Government in England was to establish elected regional assemblies with no legislative powers. The London Assembly was the first of these, established in 2000, following a referendum in 1998, but further plans were abandoned following rejection of a proposal for an elected assembly in North East England in a referendum in 2004. Unelected regional assemblies remain in place in eight regions of England.

Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament Building in Holyrood, Edinburgh, seat of the Scottish Parliament.
The debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament is the national, unicameral legislature of Scotland, located in the Holyrood area of the capital Edinburgh. The Parliament, informally referred to as "Holyrood" (cf. "Westminster"), is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members who are known as Members of the Scottish Parliament, or MSPs. Members are elected for four-year terms under the mixed member proportional representation system. As a result, 73 MSPs represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the plurality ("first past the post") system, with a further 56 returned from eight additional member regions, each electing seven MSPs.

The current Scottish Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998 and its first meeting as a devolved legislature was on 12 May 1999. The parliament has the power to pass laws and has limited tax-varying capability. Another of its roles is to hold the Scottish Government to account. The "devolved matters" over which it has responsibility include education, health, agriculture, and justice. A degree of domestic authority, and all foreign policy, remains with the UK Parliament in Westminster.

The public take part in Parliament in a way that is not the case at Westminster through Cross-Party Groups on policy topics which the interested public join and attend meetings of alongside Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).

The resurgence in Celtic language and identity, as well as 'regional' politics and development, has contributed to forces pulling against the unity of the state. This was clearly demonstrated when - although some argue it was influenced by general public dillusionment with Labour - the Scottish National Party (SNP) became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament by one seat.

Alex Salmond (leader of SNP) has since made history by becoming the first First Minister of Scotland from a party other than Labour. The SNP govern as a minority administration at Holyrood. Nevertheless, recent opinion polls have suggested that nationalism (i.e., a desire to break up the UK) is rising within Scotland and England. However, the polls have been known to be inaccurate in the past (for example, in the run up to the 1992 General Election). Moreover, polls carried out in the 1970s and the 1990s showed similar results, only to be debunked at elections. While support for breaking up the UK was strongest in Scotland, there was still a clear lead for unionism over nationalism. However, an opinion poll in April 2008 suggested the result of any referendum on Scottish independence could be close as support for independence had reached 41% with just 40% supporting retention of the Union.

Welsh Assembly

The Senedd - The Welsh Assembly Building

The National Assembly for Wales is the devolved assembly with power to make legislation in Wales. The Assembly comprises 60 members, who are known as Assembly Members, or AMs ( Welsh: Aelod y Cynulliad). Members are elected for four-year terms under an additional members system, where 40 AMs represent geographical constituencies elected by the plurality system, and 20 AMs from five electoral regions using the d'Hondt method of proportional representation.

The Siambr - The debating chamber of the Welsh Assembly

The Assembly was created by the Government of Wales Act 1998, which followed a referendum in 1997. On its creation, most of the powers of the Welsh Office and Secretary of State for Wales were transferred to it. The Assembly had no powers to initiate primary legislation until limited law-making powers were gained through the Government of Wales Act 2006. Its primary law-making powers were enhanced following a Yes vote in the referendum on 3 March 2011, making it possible for it to legislate without having to consult the UK parliament, nor the Secretary of State for Wales in the 20 areas that are devolved.

Northern Ireland assembly

Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast, seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The government of Northern Ireland was established as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This created the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly is a unicameral body consisting of 108 members elected under the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. The Assembly is based on the principle of power-sharing, in order to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist, participate in governing the region. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas and to elect the Northern Ireland Executive (cabinet). It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.

The Assembly has authority to legislate in a field of competences known as "transferred matters". These matters are not explicitly enumerated in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but instead include any competence not explicitly retained by the Parliament at Westminster. Powers reserved by Westminster are divided into "excepted matters", which it retains indefinitely, and "reserved matters", which may be transferred to the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly at a future date. Health, criminal law and education are "transferred" while royal relations are all "excepted".

While the Assembly was in suspension, due to issues involving the main parties and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), its legislative powers were exercised by the UK government, which effectively had power to legislate by decree. Laws that would normally be within the competence of the Assembly were passed by the UK government in the form of Orders-in-Council rather than legislative acts.

Northern Ireland Assembly in session.

There has been a significant decrease in violence over the last twenty years, though the situation remains tense, with the more hard-line parties such as Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party now holding the most parliamentary seats (see Demographics and politics of Northern Ireland).


The United Kingdom does not have a single legal system due to it being created by the political union of previously independent countries with the terms of the Treaty of Union guaranteeing the continued existence of Scotland's separate legal system. Today the UK has three distinct systems of law: English law, Northern Ireland law and Scots law. Recent constitutional changes saw a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom come into being in October 2009 that took on the appeal functions of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, comprising the same members as the Supreme Court, is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth countries, the UK overseas territories, and the British crown dependencies.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Both English law, which applies in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland law are based on common-law principles. The essence of common-law is that law is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of legal precedent ( stare decisis) to the facts before them. The Courts of England and Wales are headed by the Senior Courts of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the highest court in the land for both criminal and civil cases in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and any decision it makes is binding on every other court in the hierarchy.


Scots law, a hybrid system based on both common-law and civil-law principles, applies in Scotland. The chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom serves as the highest court of appeal for civil cases under Scots law. Sheriff courts deal with most civil and criminal cases including conducting criminal trials with a jury, known that as Sheriff solemn Court, or with a Sheriff and no jury, known as (Sheriff summary Court). The Sheriff courts provide a local court service with 49 Sheriff courts organised across six Sheriffdoms.

Electoral systems

Various electoral systems are used in the UK:

  • The first-past-the-post system is used for general elections to the House of Commons, and also for some local government elections in England and Wales.
  • The plurality-at-large voting (the bloc vote) is also used for some local government elections in England and Wales.
  • The Additional Member System is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales (Welsh Assembly) and London Assembly. The system is implemented differently in each of the three locations.
  • The single transferable vote system is used in Northern Ireland to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly, local councils, and Members of the European Parliament, and in Scotland to elect local councils.
  • The Alternative Vote system is used for by-elections in Scottish local councils.
  • The party-list proportional representation system is used for European Parliament elections in England, Scotland and Wales.
  • The supplementary vote is used to elect directly-elected mayors in England, including the mayor of London.

The use of the first-past-the-post to elect members of Parliament is unusual among European nations. The use of the system means that MPs are sometimes elected from individual constituencies with a plurality (receiving more votes than any other candidate, but not an absolute majority of 50 percent plus one vote), due to three or more candidates receiving a significant share of the vote.

Elections and political parties in the United Kingdom are affected by Duverger's law, the political science principle which states that plurality voting systems, such as first-past-the-post, tend to lead to the development of two-party systems. The UK, like several other states, has sometimes been called a "two-and-a-half" party system, because parliamentary politics is dominated by the Labour Party and Conservative Party, with the Liberal Democrats holding a significant number of seats (but still substantially less than Labour and the Conservatives), and several small parties (some of them regional or nationalist) trailing far behind in number of seats.

In the last few general elections, voter mandates for Westminster in the 40% ranges have been swung into 60% parliamentary majorities. No single party has won a majority of the popular vote since the Third National Government of Stanley Baldwin in 1935. On two occasions since World War II - 1951 and February 1974 - a party that came in second in the popular vote actually came out with the larger number of seats.

Electoral reform for parliamentary elections have been proposed many times. The Jenkins Commission report in October 1998 suggested implementing the Alternative Vote Top-up (also called Alternative Vote Plus or AV+) in parliamentary elections. Under this proposal, most MPs would be directly elected from constituencies by the alternative vote, with a number of additional members elected from "top-up lists." However, no action was taken by the Labour government and the time. There are a number of groups in the UK campaigning for electoral reform, including the Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Count Coalition and Fairshare.

The 2010 general election resulted in a hung parliament (no single party being able to command a majority in the House of Commons). This was only the second general election since World War II to return a hung parliament, the first being the February 1974 election. The Conservatives gained the most seats (ending 13 years of Labour government) and the largest percentage of the popular vote, but fell 20 seats short of a majority.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered into a new coalition government, headed by David Cameron. Under the terms of the coalition agreement the government committed itself to hold a referendum in May 2011 on whether to change parliamentary elections from first-past-the-post to AV. Electoral reform was a majority priority for the Liberal Democrats, who favour proportional representation but were able to negotiate only a referendum on AV with the Conservatives. The coalition partners plan to campaign on opposite sides, with the Liberal Democrats supporting AV and the Conservatives opposing it.

Voter turnout in the 2010 general election with 65 percent.

Political parties

Graphic showing percentage of people voting for six age bands. The people voting is divided by political party. The percentage of people voting increases with age from about 35% for 18-24, 50% for 25-34, increasing to 75% for over-65. The proportion of voters voting for each party remains largely constant.
2005 election results by age group: voters for Conservative (blue), Labour (red), Lib Dem (yellow), other parties (green); and those not voting (grey).

There are two main parties in the United Kingdom: the Conservative Party, and the Labour Party. There is also a significant third party, the Liberal Democrats. Since 2012 the UK Independence Party (a traditionally smaller party) has become as popular as the Liberal Democrats according to most public opinion polls. However this party doesn't have as large a parliamentary presence as the Liberal Democrats at this time; therefore unlike the Liberal Democrats it isn't a 'third party' as such.

The modern Conservative Party was founded in 1834 and is an outgrowth of the Tory movement or party, which began in 1678. Today it is still colloquially referred to as the Tory Party and its members as Tories. The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a Labour breakaway formed in 1981. The Liberals and SDP had contested elections together as the SDP–Liberal Alliance for seven years before. The modern Liberal Party had been founded in 1859 as an outgrowth of the Whig movement or party (which began at the same time as the Tory party and was its historical rival) as well as the Radical and Peelite tendencies.

The Liberal Party was one of the two dominant parties (along with the Conservatives) from its founding until the 1920s, when it rapidly declined and was supplanted on the left by the Labour Party, which was founded in 1900 and formed its first government in 1924. Since that time, the Labour and Conservatives parties have been dominant, with the Liberal Democrats also holding a significant number of seats and increasing their share of the vote in parliamentary general elections in the four elections 1992.

Minor parties also hold seats in parliament:

  • The Scottish National Party, founded in 1934, advocates for Scottish independence and has had continuous representation in Parliament since 1967. The SNP currently leads a majority government in the Scottish Parliament.
  • Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, has had continuous representation in Parliament since 1974. Plaid has the third-largest number of seats in the National Assembly for Wales, after Welsh Labour and the Welsh Conservative & Unionist Party, and participated with the former in the coalition agreement in the Assembly before the 2011 election.
  • In Northern Ireland, all 18 MPs are from parties that only contest elections in Northern Ireland (except for Sinn Féin, which contests elections in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland). The unionism Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the republican Sinn Féin, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the nonsectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland all gained seats in Parliament in the 2010 election, the Alliance Party for the first time. Sinn Féin has a policy of abstentionism and so its MPs refuse to take their seats in Parliament. DUP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the SDLP are considered the four major parties in Northern Ireland, holding the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In the most recent general election in 2010, the result amounted to a hung parliament, and after several days of negotiations, the Labour Party left the government with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats operating a coalition government.

Conservatives (Tories)

The Conservative Party won the largest number of seats at the 2010 general election, returning 307 MPs, though not enough to make an overall majority. As a result of negotiations following the election, they entered a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats to form a majority government.

The Conservative party can trace its origin back to 1662, with the Court Party and the Country Party being formed in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Court Party soon became known as the Tories, a name that has stuck despite the official name being 'Conservative'. The term "Tory" originates from the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678-1681 - the Whigs were those who supported the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Duke of York from the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland, and the Tories were those who opposed it. Both names were originally insults: a " whiggamore" was a horse drover (See Whiggamore Raid), and a "tory" ( Tóraidhe) was an Irish term for an outlaw, later applied to Irish Confederates and Irish Royalists, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Generally, the Tories were associated with lesser gentry and the Church of England, while Whigs were more associated with trade, money, larger land holders (or "land magnates"), expansion and tolerance of Catholicism.

The Rochdale Radicals were a group of more extreme reformists who were also heavily involved in the cooperative movement. They sought to bring about a more equal society, and are considered by modern standards to be left-wing.

After becoming associated with repression of popular discontent in the years after 1815, the Tories underwent a fundamental transformation under the influence of Robert Peel, himself an industrialist rather than a landowner, who in his 1834 " Tamworth Manifesto" outlined a new "Conservative" philosophy of reforming ills while conserving the good.

Though Peel's supporters subsequently split from their colleagues over the issue of free trade in 1846, ultimately joining the Whigs and the Radicals to form what would become the Liberal Party, Peel's version of the party's underlying outlook was retained by the remaining Tories, who adopted his label of Conservative as the official name of their party.

The crushing defeat of the 1997 election saw the Conservative Party lose over half their seats from 1992 and saw the party re-align with public perceptions of them.

In 2008, the Conservative Party formed a pact with the Ulster Unionist Party to select joint candidates for European and House of Commons elections; this angered the DUP as by splitting the Unionist vote, republican parties will be elected in some areas.

After thirteen years as the official opposition, the Party returned to power as part of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

Historically, the party has been the mainland party most pre-occupied by British Unionism, as attested to by the party's full name, the Conservative & Unionist Party. This resulted in the merger between the Conservatives and Joseph Chamberlain's Liberal Unionist Party, composed of former Liberals who opposed Irish home rule. The unionist tendency is still in evidence today, manifesting sometimes as a scepticism or opposition to devolution, firm support for the continued existence of the United Kingdom in the face of separatist nationalism, and a historic link with the cultural unionism of Northern Ireland.


The Labour Party won the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons at the 2010 general election, with 258 MPs.

The history of the Labour party goes back to 1900 when a Labour Representation Committee was established which changed its name to "­­The Labour Party" in 1906. After the First World War, this led to the demise of the Liberal Party as the main reformist force in British politics. The existence of the Labour Party on the left of British politics led to a slow waning of energy from the Liberal Party, which has consequently assumed third place in national politics. After performing poorly in the elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924, the Liberal Party was superseded by the Labour Party as the party of the left.

Following two brief spells in minority governments in 1924 and 1929–1931, the Labour Party had its first true victory after World War II in the 1945 " khaki election". Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, Labour governments alternated with Conservative governments. The Labour Party suffered the "wilderness years" of 1951-1964 (three straight General Election defeats) and 1979-1997 (four straight General Election defeats).

During this second period, Margaret Thatcher, who became leader of the Conservative party in 1975, made a fundamental change to Conservative policies, turning the Conservative Party into an economic neoliberal party. In the General Election of 1979 she defeated James Callaghan's troubled Labour government after the winter of discontent.

For most of the 1980s and the 1990s, Conservative governments under Thatcher and her successor John Major pursued policies of privatization, anti-trade-unionism, and, for a time, monetarism, now known collectively as Thatcherism.

The Labour Party elected left-winger Michael Foot as their leader after their 1979 election defeat, and he responded to dissatisfaction with the Labour Party by pursuing a number of radical policies developed by its grass-roots members. In 1981 several right-wing Labour MPs formed a breakaway group called the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a move which split Labour and is widely believed to have made Labour unelectable for a decade. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party which contested the 1983 and 1987 general elections as a centrist alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. After some initial success, the SDP did not prosper (partly due to its unfavourable distribution of votes in the FPTP electoral system), and was accused by some of splitting the anti-Conservative vote.

The SDP eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Support for the new party has increased since then, and the Liberal Democrats (often referred to as LibDems) in 1997 and 2001 gained an increased number of seats in the House of Commons.

The Labour Party was badly defeated in the Conservative landslide of the 1983 general election, and Michael Foot was replaced shortly thereafter by Neil Kinnock as leader. Kinnock expelled the far left Militant tendency group (now called the Socialist Party of England and Wales) and moderated many of the party's policies. Yet he was in turn replaced by John Smith after Labour defeats in the 1987 and 1992 general elections.

Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party after John Smith's sudden death from a heart attack in 1994. He continued to move the Labour Party towards the 'centre' by loosening links with the unions and embracing many of Margaret Thatcher's liberal economic policies. This, coupled with the professionalising of the party machine's approach to the media, helped Labour win a historic landslide in the 1997 General Election, after 18 years of Conservative government. Some observers say the Labour Party had by then morphed from a democratic socialist party to a social democratic party, a process which delivered three general election victories but alienated some of its core base - leading to the formation of the Socialist Labour Party (UK).

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats won the third largest number of seats at the 2010 general election, returning 57 MPs. The Conservative Party failed to win an overall majority, and the Liberal Democrats entered government for the first time as part of a coalition.

The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1988 by a merger of the Liberal Party with the Social Democratic Party, but can trace their origin back to the Whigs and the Rochdale Radicals who evolved into the Liberal Party. The term ' Liberal Party' was first used officially in 1868, though it had been in use colloquially for decades beforehand. The Liberal Party formed a government in 1868 and then alternated with the Conservative Party as the party of government throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The Liberal Democrats are heavily a party on Constitutional and Political Reforms, including changing the voting system for General Elections ( UK Alternative Vote referendum, 2011), abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an 300 member elected Senate, introducing Fixed Five Year Parliaments, and introducing a National Register of Lobbyists. Some members have been described as obsessed with House of Lords Reform, including the party's leader, Nick Clegg.

Scottish and Welsh Nationalists

Members of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru work together as a single parliamentary group following a formal pact signed in 1986. This group currently has 9 MPs.

The Scottish National Party has enjoyed parliamentary representation continuously since 1967 and had 6 MPs elected at the 2010 election. Following the 2007 Scottish parliament elections, the SNP emerged as the largest party with 47 MSPs and formed a minority government with Alex Salmond the First Minister. After the 2011 Scottish election, the SNP won enough seats to form a majority government.

Plaid Cymru has enjoyed parliamentary representation continuously since 1974 and had 3 MPs elected at the 2010 election. Following the 2007 Welsh Assembly elections, they joined Labour as the junior partner in a coalition government, but have fallen down to the third largest party in the Assembly after the 2011 Assembly elections, and become an opposition party.

Northern Ireland parties

The Democratic Unionist Party had 8 MPs elected at the 2010 election. Founded in 1971 by Ian Paisley, it has grown to become the larger of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland. Other Northern Ireland parties represented at Westminster include the Social Democratic and Labour Party (3 MPs), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (1 MP) and Sinn Féin (5 MPs). Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take their seats and sit in a 'foreign' parliament.

Other parliamentary parties

The Green Party of England and Wales gained its second MP, Caroline Lucas, in the 2010 General Election (the first MP was Cynog Dafis, Ceredigion 1992 who was elected on a joint Plaid Cyru/Green Party ticket). It also has seats in the European Parliament, two seats on the London Assembly and around 120 local councillors.

The Respect party, a left-wing group that came out of the anti-war movement has one MP, George Galloway. It also has a small number of seats on local councils across the country.

There are usually a small number of Independent politicians in parliament with no party allegiance. In modern times, this has usually occurred when a sitting member leaves their party, and some such MPs have been re-elected as independents. The only current Independent MP is Lady Hermon, previously of the Ulster Unionist Party. However, since 1950 only two new members have been elected as independents without having ever stood for a major party:

  • Martin Bell represented the Tatton constituency in Cheshire between 1997 and 2001. He was elected following a "sleaze" scandal involving the sitting Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton—Bell, a BBC journalist, stood as an anticorruption independent candidate, and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties withdrew their candidates from the election.
  • Dr. Richard Taylor MP was elected for the Wyre Forest constituency in the 2001 on a platform opposing the closure of Kidderminster hospital. He later established Health Concern, the party under which he ran in 2005.

Non-Parliamentary political parties

Other UK political parties exist, but generally do not succeed in returning MPs to Parliament.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has 13 seats in the European Parliament as well as seats in the House of Lords and a number of local councillors. On 22 April 2008 it welcomed the defection of Bob Spink MP for Castle Point, to date its only MP. However, Bob Spink later claimed to have never joined UKIP and does not sit as a UKIP MP. Two UKIP members were elected to the London Assembly in 2000, but they quit the party in February 2005 to join Veritas which they quit in September 2005 to sit as One London members. They were not re-elected in 2008.

The Scottish Green Party has 2 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament and a number of local councillors.

The Green Party (Ireland) has one MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as local councillors.

The British National Party (BNP) has two seats in the European Parliament, a seat on the London Assembly as well as a number of councillors.

The English Democrats, which wants a parliament for England, has some local councillors and had its candidate elected mayor of Doncaster in 2009.

Other parties include: the Socialist Labour Party (UK), the Free England Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party (England and Wales), the Socialist Workers Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Liberal Party, Mebyon Kernow (a Cornish nationalist party) in Cornwall, Veritas, the Communist Left Alliance (in Fife) and the Pirate Party UK.

Several local parties contest only within a specific area, a single county, borough or district. Examples include the Better Bedford Independent Party, which was one of the dominant parties in Bedford Borough Council and led by Bedford's former Mayor, Frank Branston. The most notable local party is Health Concern, which controlled a single seat in the UK Parliament from 2001 to 2010.

The Jury Team, launched in March 2009 and described as a "non-party party", is an umbrella organisation seeking to increase the number of independent members of both domestic and European members of Parliament in Great Britain.

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party was founded in 1983. The OMRLP are distinguished by having a deliberately bizarre manifesto, which contains things that seem to be impossible or too absurd to implement – usually to highlight what they see as real-life absurdities. In spite of (or perhaps because of) a reputation more satirical than serious, they have routinely been successful in local elections.

Current political landscape

Since the 2005 General Election, both of the main political parties have changed party leader: David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservatives in 2005, and Gordon Brown was elected unopposed to lead the Labour Party (and therefore become Prime Minister) in June 2007. This has also been the case for the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence parties.

The Conservatives under David Cameron saw their popularity grow, as shown by their success at the Local Elections in May 2008, the London Mayoral Election and opinion polls which showed a strong lead over Labour. They also won a by election in Crewe and Nantwich with a swing of 17.6%. However since winning the most votes and seats in the 2010 general election they have lost support, primarily to the UK Independence Party; but also to the Labour Party to a lesser extent. Because of this the Labour Party has since taken the lead in public opinion polls.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party made some strong advances, winning the Scottish parliamentary election in May 2007 and gaining support in most national opinion polls since then. In July 2008, the SNP achieved a remarkable by-election victory in Glasgow East, winning the third safest Labour seat in Scotland with a swing of 22.54%. However, in October of the same year, despite confident public predictions by the SNP's leader Alex Salmond that they would win another by-election in Glenrothes, the seat was comfortably won by Labour with a majority of 6,737 and an increased share of the vote. Given that the SNP won the equivalent Scottish Parliament seat of Central Fife in 2007 this was viewed as a significant step back for the SNP. More recently, the SNP significantly out-polled the Labour Party in the 2009 European election. However in the 2010 General election the SNP fell significantly short of expectations, winning only the six seats they had won in the previous General election of 2005. On the contrary they managed to win an overall majority of seats in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, retaining control of the Scottish government in the process.

Local government

The UK is divided into a variety of different types of Local Authorities, with different functions and responsibilities.

England has a mix of two-tier and single-tier councils in different parts of the country. In Greater London, a unique two-tier system exists, with power shared between the London borough councils, and the Greater London Authority which is headed by an elected mayor.

Unitary Authorities are used throughout Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

European Union

The United Kingdom first joined the European Economic Community in January 1973, and has remained a member of the European Union (EU) that it evolved into; UK citizens, and other EU citizens resident in the UK, elect 78 members to represent them in the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The UK's membership in the Union has been objected to over questions of sovereignty, and in recent years there have been divisions in both major parties over whether the UK should form greater ties within the EU, or reduce the EU's supranational powers. Opponents of greater European integration are known as " Eurosceptics", while supporters are known as "Europhiles". Division over Europe is prevalent in both major parties, although the Conservative Party is seen as most divided over the issue, both whilst in Government up to 1997 and after 2010, and between those dates as the opposition. However, the Labour Party is also divided, with conflicting views over UK adoption of the euro whilst in Government (1997–2010), although the party is largely in favour of further integration where in the country's interest.

UK nationalists have long campaigned against European integration. The strong showing of the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2004 European Parliament elections has shifted the debate over UK relations with the EU.

In March 2008, Parliament decided to not hold a referendum on the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in December 2007. This was despite the Labour government promising in 2004 to hold a referendum on the previously proposed Constitution for Europe.

International organization participation

  • African Development Bank
  • Asian Development Bank
  • Australia Group
  • Bank for International Settlements
  • Commonwealth of Nations
  • Caribbean Development Bank (non-regional)
  • Council of Europe
  • CERN
  • Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council
  • European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
  • European Investment Bank
  • European Space Agency
  • European Union
  • Food and Agriculture Organization
  • G5, G6, G7, G8
  • G10
  • Inmarsat
  • Inter-American Development Bank
  • International Atomic Energy Agency
  • International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
  • International Civil Aviation Organization
  • International Chamber of Commerce
  • International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
  • International Criminal Court
  • International Criminal Police Organization - Interpol
  • International Development Association
  • International Energy Agency
  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
  • International Finance Corporation
  • International Fund for Agricultural Development
  • International Hydrographic Organization
  • International Labour Organization
  • International Maritime Organization
  • International Monetary Fund
  • International Olympic Committee (IOC)
  • International Organization for Migration (IOM) (observer)
  • International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
  • International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
  • International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat)
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
  • International Whaling Commission
  • Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) (guest)
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
  • Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA)
  • Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
  • Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
  • Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
  • Organization of American States (OAS) (observer)
  • Permanent Court of Arbitration
  • Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC)
  • United Nations
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
  • United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (associate)
  • United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
  • United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
  • United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)
  • United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM)
  • United Nations Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH)
  • United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL)
  • United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG)
  • United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP)
  • United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
  • United Nations Security Council (permanent member)
  • Universal Postal Union (UPU)
  • Western European Union
  • World Confederation of Labour
  • World Customs Organization
  • World Health Organization
  • World Intellectual Property Organization
  • World Meteorological Organization
  • World Trade Organization
  • Zangger Committee
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