Great Britain has a parliamentary government based on the party system. When the political parties began to form in the 18th century certain distinguished persons emerged as leaders. Sir Robert Walpole who headed the Government from 1721 to 1742 is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister. However, there was no clearly defined office as such nor was the Cabinet constituted as it is today. English political institutions have grown from experience and need. The former executive powers of the Sovereign in the early Privy Council were transferred to a Prime Minister and a Cabinet.
The growth of political parties in England was as gradual and unintentional as other changes in the government. Before the 17th century, there were rival groups of nobles who might struggle for power, as in the Wars of the Roses (1435-85) and there were adherents of different religious principles, but there were no political parties in the modern sense. During the Civil War (1640-60) the division between the aristocratic supporters of the Anglican Church who fought for the King, and the middle-class Puritans who took the side of Parliament, reflected a difference in religious and political principles, as well as economic interests which prepared the way for future party distinctions. With the restoration of monarchy (1660) these two groups were nicknamed, respectively, as the Tory squires who continued to uphold the authority of the King and the Whig nobles with Protestant and mercantile classes.
In the 19th century the two-party system reached its solid modern form. By the 20th century the two parties were the CONSERVATIVES and the LIBERALS, direct descendants of the older Tory and Whig parties.
The principal source and philosophy of the LABOUR PARTY was the Fabian Society, formed in 1884, though the party itself was founded much later. This group was led by such intellectuals as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb. It took its name from the Roman general FabiusCunctator, who defeated Hannibal by dilatory tactics. The Fabians opposed the doctrine of class warfare and substituted evolution for revolution. The Labour party adopted this doctrine.
The Labour party proper was founded in 1906. After the First World War it proclaimed its socialist ideas. Its socialist programme called for nationalization and equalities of wealth. Today the Labour party advocates a mixed programme based on the platform of social-democratic reformism.
Membership of the Labour party is also mixed, though the majority are members of trade unions. Nearly all trade unions contribute funds to the political activities of the party, and many of the leaders of the unions are also leaders of the party. Despite the domination of the industrial workers the influence of the middle- and upper-class members of the party should not be underestimated.
The CONSERVATIVE PARTY is the other chief party. It was officially formed in 1867 on the basis of political groups of the English landed aristocracy. In the course of its long existence it has inherited or adopted both political beliefs and political interests. One of the most important things it has accepted (from the Whigs) are the teachings of John Locke about government and about property. Locke taught that men naturally possess certain weighty rights, the chief being life, liberty and property. One of the characteristic concepts of the Conservatives is that the State must protect property, and that private property widely distributed is the best defence against totalitarianism.
The modern Tory concept of democracy includes social and economic reform, government responsibility for health, education and social security and a certain measure of economic planning.
The Conservative party has no official permanent programme. Before a general election the party issues a pre-election manifesto which states the main aspects of the home and foreign policies of the future Conservative government if the party wins the election.
The members of the Conservative party come from various groups, although they are not easy to distinguish. Among them there are the country aristocracy consisting of big landowners, smaller farmers and businessmen in small towns and cities. There are also many working-class people who vote for Conservative candidates because they believe in social reform but not in socialism.
As a result of the split in the Labour party in 1981 a new party was formed, the Social-Democratic party. It formed an alliance with the old Liberal party. The two parties acted together in one bloc in the elections of 1983 and 1987.1n 1988 these two parties finally merged together under the name the LIBERAL–SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY which is the third most important political party in the country, though not as influential as each of the two noted above.
The new party takes a centrist stand in the political life of the country. Its political platform remains vague, it reflects a diversity of views of the members of the two former parties. In the political system of Great Britain the Liberal-Social Democratic party occupies an intermediate position between the Labour and Conservative parties and advocates reforms without socialism. The social basis of the party is formed of the middle and petty bourgeois intellectuals.
There are a number of minor parties in Great Britain: the Scottish Nationalist party (1928), the Welsh Nationalist party (1925). There are several political parties in Northern Ireland: the Ulster Unionists (Protestant and Loyalist — loyal to London), the Social Democratic and Labour party (Catholic) and the Democratic Unionists (Protestant loyalists).
All the major political parties of Great Britain structurally have their local associations in each of 651 electoral districts, or constituencies. The constituency association appoints its own executive committee and chairman, and has various subcommittees. The full-time work of the constituency is carried on by an appointed agent. He is assisted by an organizer and office staff.
The main functions of the constituency association are to recruit members, to carry on election campaigns, to select prospective candidates and to raise election funds (by subscription, donations, bazaars, etc.), and, as a result, to win votes to the cause of the parties.
The party which wins most seats (but not necessarily most votes) at a general election usually forms the GOVERNMENT. The leader of the majority party is appointed PRIME MINISTER by the Sovereign, and all other ministers are appointed by the Sovereign on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
The majority of ministers are the members of the Commons, although there are always some ministers in the Hous of Lords. The Government is charged with the administration of national affairs. The office of Prime Minister as head of the Government has been in existence since the middle of the 18th century. As a matter of fact it is not necessary that Prime Minister should hold a first-class honours degree or have high academic qualifications. Britain knew Prime Ministers (Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, James Callaghan) who had no university education. However, any Prime Minister today must possess initiative, be able to organize others and get his policies accepted and pushed through Parliament.
The Prime Minister has a considerable list of functions and powers. It is his duty to inform the Crown of the general business of the Government, to exercise a general supervision over Departments (Ministries), to be prepared to speak in Parliament on the most important Government Bills, to answer to Parliament for all actions of the Government. Only the Prime Minister can recommend to theSovereign a dissolution of Parliament before the normal time for a general election has come. He makes changes in the Government, presides over the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister selects Cabinet ministers. The Cabinet is a conventional organ of Government composed of about 20 most important ministers (Secretary of State for the Home Department, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Secretary of State for Defenñe, Secretary of State for Education and Science, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor, etc.).
The main functions of the Cabinet are: a) the final determination of the policy to be submitted to Parliament, b) the supreme control of the national executive power in accordance with the policy agreed by Parliament, and c) the continuous coordination of the authority of the Departments of State.
In the performance of its functions the Cabinet makes considerable use of a system of committees. The Cabinet is the centre of the political power of the United Kingdom at the present time. Normally it meets for about two hours once or twice a week during parliamentary sittings at No. 10 Downing Street, London, the official residence of the Prime Minister.
II. Answer the questions.
1. What political leader is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain ?
2. What were the main rival political and religious groups which participated in the War of the Roses and in the Civil War?
3. What sides did the Tory and Whig parties take with the restoration of monarchy in 1660 ?
4. What was the principal source and philosophy of the Labour Party at the time of its formation?
5. What does the Labour Party advocate today ?
6. What do you know about the membership of the Labour party?
7. What is the modern concept of the Conservative party?
8. How was the Liberal-Social Democratic party formed? What is its political platform ?
9. What are the minor political parties in Britain?
10. When and how is the Government formed in Great Britain ?
11. What are the main functions of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet?
III. Complete the sentences with the best answer (a, b or ñ).
1. The Parliament Act of 1911 deprived the Lords of much of their power so that the House of Lords ceased to be a determining factor in
c) law making.
2. Many principles of the British Constitution by which Britain is governed are principles of the
a) rules of custom.
b) rules of law.
3. The constitutional history of Great Britain shows growth of individual rights and liberties based not so much on law but on the ideas of
a) traditional freedoms and traditional practices.
b) traditional institutions.
c) traditional habits.
4. She (the Queen) may exercise her powers only on the advice of her ministers, who are responsible politically to the
a) Prime Minister.
5. The Commonwealth does not formulate central policies on
a) political affairs .
b) economic affairs.
c) economic and foreign affairs.
6. The Commonwealth is not a federation, because there is no
a) common Constitution.
b) common legislation.
c) central government.
7. Members of Parliament bear in mind its responsibility to
a) the Crown.
b) the Government.
8. The parliamentary electoral system of Great Britain encourages the domination of
a) one major political party.
b) two major political parties.
c) three major political parties.
9. Members of Parliament are elected at a general election which is usually held
a) every four years.
b) every five years.
c) every six years.
10. The main Bills are introduced first in the Commons, and the Lords can only hold up them for one year, and they cannot do even this to
a) economic Bills.
c) political Bills.
11. All Bills which have passed through their various parliamentary stages are sent to
a) the Prime Minister.
b) the Sovereign.
c) the Cabinet.
12. The former executive powers of the Sovereign in the early Privy Council were transferred to
a) a Cabinet.
b) a Prime Minister and a Cabinet.
13. Membership of the Labour party is also mixed, though the majority are members of
a) middle-class people.
b) trade unions.
c) working people.
14. There are also many working-class people who vote for Conservative candidates because they believe in
a) radical changes.
b) social reform.
15. Before a general election the Conservative party issues
a) a pre-election programme.
b) a pre-election manifesto.
c) a pre-election statement.
16. The leader of the majority party is appointed Prime Minister by the Sovereign and all the ministers are appointed by