A broad overview of British politics

Despite our similarities, the political systems of the UK and the US are markedly different in a variety of ways to the point that I thought it was worth pointing out some of those differences.

It takes living in two countries, or a fond fascination with politics, to get to the point of analysing two different political systems. My personal motivation for doing this was to:

  1. Educate myself about a political system different from the one I was used to, especially since my daily life was going to be influenced by this system, and
  2. Enable myself to respond to inquisition about my own system from those around me such as my new family, friends and colleagues.

I moved to the States from the UK in 2006 and since then I’ve lived through 2 (and a half) presidential elections and 2 general elections. In this time, I’ve noticed that even though we’re two Western democracies, we’re vastly different.

What parliament consists of

In the UK, our parliament typically consists of a single party which won a majority in the previous election and minority parties compiling the remainder of parliament. This is not always the case: in 2010, the Conservatives didn’t win enough seats for an outright majority causing a “hung parliament“and so had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to have majority control of parliament.

Each political party has a leader, elected by the party’s own members. The leader of the governing party is the Prime Minister and is in charge of the government.

One must remember that the UK is still a constitutional monarchy so theoretically, the Prime Minister holds no power and all power is held by the monarch, whom the Prime Minister works on behalf of. Even today, every single Act put forward by the government needs to receive Royal Assent (the Queen’s “seal of approval”). Historically, more and more power has been devolved from the sovereign to the parliament to the point that Royal Assent has not been refused since 1707.

The UK is a multi-party system, distinctly different from the bi-partisan system in the States. The two primary parties are Labour and the Conservatives. Beyond these two, there are a number of other parties having seats in the House of Commons:

  • Scottish National Party
  • Liberal Democrats
  • Democratic Unionist Party
  • Independents
  • Sinn Fein
  • Plaid Cymru
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party
  • Ulster Unionist Party
  • Green Party
  • UK Independence Party

Campaigning

It’s only been since 2011 that we’ve known exactly when the next general election will occur following the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Previously, the governing party could choose when to hold elections (within certain limitations) which gave them a political advantage (such as calling an earlier election when ratings were high).

In the States, the process of campaigning for president starts about two years ahead of the election, billions of dollars will be spent and we get bombarded with TV ads, persistent and sensationalist media coverage, and debates.

On the contrary, in the UK, campaigning is officially restricted to the 30-day period running up to the election. Additionally, paid TV and radio ads are not permitted, so it’s down to boots on the ground to help spread the message (and the media). In my opinion, this is one of the best strengths of the UK system which is so much less tiring than the American system.

How elections work

In the US, you directly elect the president. He (or she) may have an affiliation with a political party but is ultimately elected irrespective of the performance of their party.

Things don’t quite work that way in the UK. In fact, you don’t even directly elect the Prime Minister: because the Prime Minister is the leader of the party holding a parliamentary majority, he is indirectly put in office as a result of being charge of the most successful party in that election.

What you’re actually voting on during a general election is who should be your Member of Parliament (MP). An MP is someone from your constituency (covering approximately 100,000 people) who is elected to take your concerns to the national government. Each MP has one vote, so your MP represents you in all national matters, most obviously the Acts passed by the government.

There are currently 650 seats in the House of Commons (where the UK Parliament sits), meaning that a party needs to win 326 seats at the general election to secure majority control.

While the process of electing the most senior official in your government is less direct in the UK than in the US, it’s at least a little more clear. The process of primaries, delegates and the electoral college (whatever that is!) can result in a president being elected without winning the popular vote (as George W. Bush did in 2000 for example). I make the distinction because even though someone can become Prime Minister in the UK without winning the popular vote, they aren’t directly elected so it’s not quite the same.

There are many more differences between the two and maybe one day as I think of more of them, I’ll update this post, but hopefully this gives you an indication of just how different politics is between two of the most politically-aligned nations in the world.

Author: Dave

Dave is many things. Most importantly, he's a husband and a father to Ellie and Jack. Almost as important, he's British (though he lives in Florida). Following on from there, he's a WordPress developer and civil engineer, has an unhealthy love of hummus, is vegan, likes cider, wants to travel to Iceland and Japan, loves solving puzzles and is a realist.

2 thoughts on “A broad overview of British politics”

  1. The US President is not directly elected, but indirectly elected through the Electoral College system. When voting for President, in effect you are only voting for a delegate to the electoral college. The delegates for each district are selected by the parties, and are pledged to vote (on the first ballot only) for the wining candidate in either the district or the state (some states are winner-take-all).

    1. Yeah, it’s a convoluted way of doing it, but my point was that the delegates are bound to choose the pick of your choice, though it should be noted that one vote from you does not equal one vote for your nominee because of the College.

      What’s wrong with good old winner takes all, eh!?

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