The British political system is based on a parliamentary democracy with a first past the post system although there have been talks of this being modified. The system does meet the benchmarks employed by political scientists when they test democratic credentials in the sense that proportional representation ensures that the people’s votes are properly represented.
The British parliament is made up for 650 seats in one chamber elected from 650 separate constituencies from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This ensures that each candidate who is eventually a Member of Parliament represents his/her constituency in Parliament. Bills are passed with a simple majority in Parliament and although on most occasions, the party line is toed, MP’s are free to vote as they wish and there have been occasions where government proposed bills have not been passed due to internal opposition and a confidence vote subsequently lost. The parliamentary system is characterized by intense debates on various topics which dominate local opinion and is a very free and rather interesting one. The system of the Executive in the form of a Prime Minister and the cabinet which includes a number of secretaries is also crucial to the functioning of government as is the Civil Service
The author Peter Henessey in his book on Whitehall describes the various inner workings of the British Civil service which functions differently and autonomously from the elected part of the system. Obviously there are some overlappings as these cannot go unnoticed however the intrinsic workings of the Civil service are rather different than the legislative part of the coin. First of all, ministries and departments are actually accountable to the Head of the Civil services and not the Prime Minister who assumes political responsibility for his team of secretaries and ministers. Naturally this is intended as a system of checks and balances and political analysts have also observed the occasional intense rivalry which exists between the civil service and the political class.
In his excellent book, The Prime Minister, Hennessey (2000) takes several cases of where executive authority has occasionally overstepped the mark particularly in Margaret Thatcher’s case where she ruled the country with a heavy handed iron fist although in the end she was outsmarted by once loyal lieutenants within her own inner circle. This reflects the inner workings of the British political system to an important extent as it demonstrates that no one is above the law not even the Prime Minister. The importance of loyalty to constituents is also something which is constantly emphasized on in the British political system and where this fails, more often than not, the candidate is not re-elected.
Hennessey (2000) goes to great lengths to explain how the inner workings of Whitehall clash with what ministers really want. Ingrained resistance by unelected bureaucrats mat act as some sort of buffer in this respect but this is always part and parcel of the system as a whole. Successive Prime Ministers such as Edward Heath and James Callaghan have failed due to the fact that they failed to read the public mood at the time and consequently lost office without too much ado.
Although the first past the post system has its failings, it is probably the best representative one at the moment which brings together all classes of society into one and continues to push forward the idea of a representative democracy. Boundary changes are also factors which need to be taken into account however as these do not always create fair constituencies with the result that some classes of society may be over represented when compared to others.
The British political system has evolved considerably from an absolute monarchy to one where parliamentary representation has created a democracy based on the rule of law. Although not a perfect system democracy wise it can safely be said to be a system which is accountable to the people in many respects. The electoral system where a first past the post rule prevails is important as is the separation between the executive and the Civil service which is occasionally also seen as a buffer to drastic decisions. The input of the monarchy on an advisory level is also something intriguing where the British are concerned and this is also an important aspect of the whole political system. In cases of national tragedy or hardship such as the Second World war, the British political system can also unite and the input of the monarchy can also be felt in other aspects of life. Naturally there remains a strong monarchical sentiment especially amongst the older generation but at the end of the day it is clearly apparent that parliamentary democracy is here to stay.
Hennessey P; The Prime Minister: The Office And Its Holders Since 1945: The Job and Its Holders Since 1945, London, Penguin 2000, Print
Hennessey P; The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War; London; Penguin 2003, Print
Hennessey P; The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution; London, Phoenix, 1996, Print
Kavanagh D; The Powers Behind the Prime Minister: The Hidden Influence of Number Ten, London, HarperCollins 1996, Print
Denver D; Elections and Voters in Britain; London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006