Discipline: "British history"
Theme: "GREAT BRITAIN: CONSTITUTION. POLITICS. LAW"
The Constitution. Unlike the constitutions
of the US, France and many Commonwealth countries, the British constitution has
never been assembled at any time into a single, consolidated document. Instead,
it is made up of common law, statute law (статутное право, право, выраженное в
законодательных актах), and convention.
Britain does have some important constitutional documents,
including the Magna Carta (1215) which protects the community against
the Crown (61 clauses deal with “free church”, feudal law, towns, trade, and
merchants, the behaviour of royal officials, royal forests); the Bill of
Rights (1689) which extended the powers of parliament, making it impossible
for the sovereign to ignore the wishes of government; the Reform Act
(1832), which reformed the system of parliamentary representation.
Common law has never been clearly defined – it is deduces
from custom or legal precedents and interpreted in court cases by judges. Many
conventions derive from the historical events through which the British system
of Government has evolved.
The Public Attitude to Politics. Politicians in
Britain do not have a good reputation. To describe someone as a “politician”
means to criticize them, suggesting a lack of trustworthiness. It is not that
people hate their politicians. They just regard them with high degree of
suspicion. They do not expect them to be corrupt or to use their position to
amass personal wealth, but they do expect them to be frequently dishonest.
People are not really shocked when the government is caught lying. On the other
hand, they would be very shocked indeed if it was discovered the government was
doing something anything really illegal.
The lack of enthusiasm for politicians may be seen in the fact that
surveys have shown a general ignorance of who they are. More than half of the
adults in Britain do not know the name of their local member of Parliament, and
quite a high proportion do not even know the names of the important government
ministers or the leaders of the major political parties.
The British were not always so unenthusiastic. In the
centuries past, it was a maxim of gentlemen^s clubs that nobody should mention
politics or religion in polite conversation. If anybody did there was a high
there was a danger that the conversation would become too heated, people would
become too bad-tempered and perhaps violent. However, there has not been any
real possibility of a revolution or even of a radical change in the style of
government for almost two centuries now. The stability is now taken for
granted. Most people rarely see any reason to become passionate about politics
and nobody regards it as a “dangerous” topic of conversation. They are more
likely to regard it as a boring topic of conversation. Still, three-quarters of
the adult population are interested enough in politics to vote at national
The Style of Democracy. Two unique
aspects of British life will make this clear:
Britain is one of the few European countries whose people do not
have identity cards. Before the 1970s, when tourism to foreign countries became
popular (and so holding of passports became more common), most people went
through life without ever owning a document. Even now British people do not
have to carry their identification with them. You even do not have to have your
driving license with you in your car. If the police ask to see it, you have 24
hours to take it to them.
Britain is also the only country in the EU without a Freedom of
Information Act. There is no law which obliges a government authority or agency
to show you what information it has collected about you.
The relationships between an individual and the
state – both should “leave each other alone” as much as possible. The
duties of an individual towards the state are confined to not breaking the law
and to paying taxes. There is no military service; people are not obliged to
vote at elections; people do not have to register their change of address with
any authority if they move house. Similarly, if the government wants to make an
important change in the way the country is run (e.g. the electoral system or
the powers of Prime Minister) it does not have to ask people to vote in a
referendum. It does not even have to have a special vote in Parliament with an
especially high number of MPs in favour. It just needs to get Parliament agree.
In Britain, democracy has never meant that people have a hand in
running the country; rather, it means that people choose who will govern the
country, and then let them go on with it!
system of government. In theory, the constitution has three branches:
Parliament, which makes laws, the Government, which "executes" laws, i.e. puts
them into effect, and the law courts, which interpret laws. Although the Queen
is officially head of all three branches, she has little direct power.
Queen reigns but does not rule
Sovereign. Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth the Second by the Grace
of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her
other Realms and Territories Queen. Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the
UK is a constitutional monarchy. The Queen is the official Head
of State and, for many people, a symbol of the unity of the nation. For a
thousand years England (and later the whole of the United Kingdom) has been
united under one sovereign, a continuity broken only after the Civil War, by
the republic of 1649 to 1660. The Crown is passed to the sovereign^s eldest
son, although in future it will pass to the eldest child, whether son or
daughter. The Queen has a central role in state affairs, not only through her
ceremonial functions, such as opening Parliament, but also because she meets
the Prime Minister every week and receives copies of all Cabinet papers.
However, she is expected to be impartial or “above politics”, and any advice
she may offer the Prime Minister is kept secret.
countries have “citizens”, but in the UK people are legally described as “subjects
of Her Majesty the Queen”. Moreover, there is a principle of English law that
the monarch can do nothing that is generally wrong. In other words, Queen
Elizabeth II is above the law.
of the Sovereign:
opening Parliament every autumn. The Queen makes a speech where
she says what “my government” intends to do in the coming year. As far as the
law is concerned, she can choose anybody to run the government for her. In
reality, she appoints the head of the party that has won the majority of seats
in the House of Commons. The same is true for the people to fill some hundred
or so of ministerial positions. Officially speaking, they are all “servants of
the Crown” (not servants of the country or the people). In reality, it is the
Prime Minister who decides who the government ministers are going to be
(although the Prime Minister simply “advises” the monarch who to choose). In
reality the Queen has almost no power at all. For the ceremony of the State
Opening of Parliament, the speech she makes is written for her. She makes
no secret of the fact and very obviously reads out of the script, word for
word. If she strongly disagrees with one of the policies of the government she
might ask to change the wording in the speech, but she cannot stop the government
from pursuing the policy.
approving the appointment of the Prime Minister;
giving her Royal Assent (королевская санкция) to bills. In
theory, the Queen could refuse the Royal Assent and so stop a bill becoming
law, but no monarch has actually done so since 1708. The Royal Assent is so
automatic that the Queen doesn^t even bother to give it in person, somebody
else signs the document for her;
giving honours such as peerages, knighthoods and medals. Traditionally,
by giving people titles, the monarch “honoured” them for their services. These
days, the decision who gets which honour is made by the Prime Minister, so a
high proportion of honours id given to politicians, civil servants, business
people, sport stars, musicians and other entertainers.
Head of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a voluntary
organisation of 54 independent countries who all share a common history as part
of Britain^s imperial past. The countries are as diverse as Australia, Canada,
New Zealand, Pakistan, Cyprus, India, Barbados, Sri Lanka and Zambia. The
British Commonwealth of Nations was set up in 1931 on dismantling of the
British Empire, since 1949 it has been known simply as the Commonwealth. Any
nation wishing to join must be independent, and its application must be
acceptable to existing members. All member states recognize the British monarch
as head of the Commonwealth, though heshe is not necessarily the head of each
individual state. Members of the Commonwealth have special links with the UK
and with each other. All members are equal and agree to work together to
advance democracy, human rights and social and economic development, and
organises special programmes to help promote trade, science, health, young
people and many other specific issues in its member countries. There are no
legal or constitutional obligations involved in the membership.
Head of the Church of England;
Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
The National Anthem
save our gracious (милостивый) Queen!
live our noble Queen!
save the Queen!
to reign over us,
save the Queen!
members of the Royal Family undertake official duties in Britain and
abroad. Their various responsibilities reflect tradition, their own personal
interests and Britain^s former imperial status.
example, among her many titles the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) is Chancellor
of the University of London, Colonel-in-Chief of eleven Army regiments,
including the 8th Canadian Hussars [hu"za:] and the Royal New Zealand Nursing
Corps, and president of the Save the Children Fund, for whom she has travelled
Royal Family"s money comes from two sources: government funds and their own
personal wealth, which is considerable. On the one hand the Queen is certainly
one of the richest women in the world, while on the other her power is limited
by the fact that so many of her expenses are paid for by government money.
Parliament has had effective control of the monarch"s finances since the
seventeenth century. A survey in 1989 found that 71% of people in Britain
thought that the Royal Family offered value for money – this was fewer than in
previous surveys. As many as 74 per cent thought the younger Royals should “get
British Parliament works in a large building called the Palace
of Westminster (popularly known as the Houses of Parliament). This
contains offices, committee rooms, restaurants, bars, and libraries. It also
contains two larger rooms. One is where the House of Lords meets, the
other is where the House of Commons meets. The House of Commons – a far
more important of the two houses – consists of 651 members (524 for England, 38
for Wales, 72 for Scotland, 17 for Northern Ireland). Members of the House of
Commons are elected by the voters of about 650 constituencies. They are known
as MPs, or Members of Parliament.
General Election of June 2001 Results
||Number of MPs elected
||% share of vote
|PLAID CYMRU (WELSH NATIONAL)
|NORTHERN IRELAND (the four Sinn Fein members have not
taken their seats)
design and the layout of the House of Commons differ from the interior
of the parliament buildings in most other countries; these differences can tell
us a lot what is distinctive of the British Parliament.
seating arrangement. There are just two rows of benches facing each
other. The MPs of the governing party sit facing the opposition MPs. There is
no opportunity in this layout for a reflection of all the various shades of
political opinion. This division is emphasised by the table on the floor of the
House between the two rows of benches. The Speaker^s chair
is also there. From here the Speaker:
chairs and controls discussions in the House;
decides which MP is going to speak next;
makes sure that the rules of the procedure are observed.
they are not, the Speaker has the right to demand a public apology from an MP
or even to ban an MP from the House for a number of days.
Speaker is, officially, the second most important commoner (“non-aristocrat”)
in the UK after the Prime Minister. Once a Speaker has been appointed, he or
she agrees to give up all party politics and remains in the job as long as
he/she wants it.
of years ago, it was the Speaker^s job to communicate the decisions of the
House of Commons to the King (that^s where the name Speaker comes from).
As the King was often displeased with those decisions, it was a dangerous job
and nobody wanted it. They had to be forced to take it. These days, a position
is a much safer one, but the tradition of dragging an unwilling Speaker to the
chair has remained.
Commons has no “front”, no obvious place from which an MP can address
everybody. MPs simply stand up and speak from wherever they might be sitting.
do not have their own place with a name on it. There are no desks for them.
They sit on the benches like in church. Besides, there aren^t seats enough for
everybody (there are only about 400 seats for 651 MPs).
MPs do not have their own personal seats in the Commons, there are two seating
areas reserved for particular MPs. These areas are the front benches on either
side of the House. These are the benches where the leading members of the
ruling party and the leading members of the main opposition party sit. These
people are thus known as “frontbenchers”. MPs who do not
hold the governing posts and who, therefore, in the House of Commons sits on
the back benches are known as “backbenchers”; an
independent or neutral MP, who belongs neither to the Government nor to the
Opposition is called a “crossbencher”.
these features result in a fairly informal atmosphere. The fairly small size of
the House together with the lack of podium means that MPs do not normally speak
the way they would at a large public meeting. MPs normally speak in a conversational
tone and because they have nowhere to put their notes, they do not normally
is a rule, which forbids MPs to address one another directly or use personal
names. All remarks and questions must “go through the Chair”. An MP who is speaking
refers to or ask a question of “the honourable member of Winchester” or “my
right honourable friend”. A Winchester MP might be sitting opposite but the
MP never says you.
parliamentary day in the Commons from Monday to Thursdays.
||Question time (the most well-attended part of the
parliamentary day. MPs are allowed to ask questions to government ministers.
Opposition ministers have an opportunity to make the ministers look
incompetent or perhaps dishonest. However, questions have to be “tabled” –
written down and placed on the table below the speaker^s chair two days in
advance. The risk is a “supplementary question” which can be asked relating
the minister^s answer.)
||A debate on a proposal of a new law, known as “bill”.
Most of the bills are introduces by the government but there are also
“private member bills” introduced by individual MPs.
||The main business of the day stops and MPs are allowed to
bring up another matter for the discussion.
||The House rises (usually).
* On Fridays the House starts in the morning,
finishing in the early afternoon for the weekend.
House has long holidays: four weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, two
weeks at Whitsun (Троицын день), about eleven weeks in the summer (the
beginning of August – the middle of October).
MPs were supposed to be ordinary people giving some of their time to
representation their countrymen. They were not even paid until the beginning of
the 20th century because they were supposed to have some business of
their own, and usually only rich people could afford to be MPs. Even now
British MPs – though professionals– are relatively poorly paid in comparison
with many of European countries. The House does not sit in the morning because
these are “gentleman^s hours” when MPs were supposed to do the business of
their own. Nowadays, this time is spent on committee work, research, preparing
speeches and dealing with problems of their constituences.
a bill becomes a law.
of the House of Lords (peers) are not elected at present. Until
1999 they were mostly “hereditary peers” because their fathers had been
peers before them. Now only 91 out of about 700 peers are hereditary: the rest
are “life peers” who cannot pass on their titles, senior judges (Law
Lords) and Church of England Archbishops and Bishops (Lords Spiritual).
Elections. The United
Kingdom is divided into 650 parliamentary constituencies (избирательный
округ), each with an electorate of about 60,000 voters. Each British citizen
over eighteen has the vote (although voting is not compulsory). Each
constituency is represented by one Member of Parliament in the House of
number of candidates can stand for election in each constituency. The main
political parties are usually represented, and sometimes candidates
representing minority parties also stand. The winner is the candidate who gets
more votes than any other single candidate, even if the difference is only one
vote. This “first past the post” system is clear, familiar and simple,
but it means that the candidate who comes second gets nothing.
leader of the party with most seats becomes Prime Minister and forms a
Government, which can remain in power for up to five years unless the Prime
Minister decides to hold an earlier election. The second biggest party becomes
the official Opposition. Its leader forms a “Shadow Cabinet”. Since 1945
the Conservatives and Labour have been either the Government or
the 1980s, British politics was dominated by Margaret Thatcher: she was
Britain^s first woman Prime Minister, leader of the ruling Conservative Party
and the longest-serving Prime Minister in the 20th century. Under Thatcher, it
was Conservative policy to return state-owned industries to private ownership,
cut taxation and control inflation. In 1997 her successor John Major was beaten
by Tony Blair of Labour.
Conservative and Labour dominance. In 1981 a new party was
formed to try to break the dominance of Conservative and Labour. Some
Conservative and Labour MPs left their own parties to join the new Social
Democrats. The new party then agreed to fight elections in alliance with
the small but long-established Liberals, forming the Alliance. In 1987 the two
parties of the Alliance agreed to merge to form a new party, the Liberal
Democrats, although some Social Democrats preferred to remain independent.
election timetable. A British government is elected for up to five
years, unless it is defeated in Parliament on a major issue. The Prime Minister
chooses the date of the next General Election, but does not have to wait
until the end of the five years. A time is chosen which will give as much
advantage as possible to the political party in power. About a month before the
election the Prime Minister meets a small group of close advisers to discuss
the date which would best suit the party. The date is announced to the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister formally asks the Sovereign to dissolve Parliament.
Once Parliament is dissolved, all MPs are unemployed, but government officers
continue to function. Party manifestos are published and campaigning begins
throughout the country, lasting for about three weeks with large-scale press,
radio and television coverage. Voting takes place on Polling Day
(usually a Thursday). The results from each constituency are announced as soon
as the votes have been counted, usually the same night. The national result is
known by the next morning at the latest. As soon as it is clear that one party
has a majority of seats in the House of Commons, its leader is formally invited
by the Sovereign to form a government.
Prime Minister, or leader of the Government, is also an MP, usually the
leader of the political party with a majority in the House of Commons.
Government. Functions of the Prime Minister:
leading the majority party;
running the Government;
appointing Cabinet Ministers and other ministers;
representing the nation in political matters.
Prime Minister is advised by a Cabinet of about twenty other ministers.
The Cabinet includes the ministers in charge of major government departments or
ministries. Departments and ministries are run by civil servants (гос.
служащий), who are permanent officials. Even if the Government changes after an
election, the same civil servants are employed.
legal system. British law comes from two main sources: laws made in
Parliament (usually drawn up by government departments and lawyers), and Common
Law (общее право), which is based on previous judgements and customs. Just as
there is no written constitution, so England and Wales have no criminal code or
civil code and the interpretation of the law is based on what has happened in
the past. The laws which are made in Parliament are interpreted by the courts,
but changes in the law itself are made in Parliament.
most common type of law court in England and Wales is the magistrates" court
(магистратский суд, мировой суд). There are 700 magistrates" courts and about
30,000 magistrates. More serious criminal cases then go to the Crown Court
(Суд короны (уголовное отделение Высокого суда правосудия), which has 90
branches in different towns and cities. Civil cases (for example, divorce or
bankruptcy cases) are dealt with in County courts (суд графства).
Appeals are heard by higher courts. For example, appeals from magistrates"
courts are heard in the Crown Court, unless they are appeals on points of law.
The highest court of appeal in England and Wales is the House of Lords.
(Scotland has its own High Court in Edinburgh which hears all appeals from
Scottish courts). Certain cases may be referred to the European Court of
Justice in Luxembourg.