The politics of the UK, plain and simple — albeit, nowhere near as much so (nor as bland) as the food.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a constitutional monarchy, meaning that it is officially "ruled" by a monarch (currently Elizabeth II, since 1952) whose powers are controlled by constitutional law. In practice, the monarch is a near-powerlessnote symbolic figurehead and the country is governed by its legislature: a parliament comprising the House of Commons, whose members are elected to their seats, and the House of Lords, whose members inherit or are appointed to their seats. Although Britain has a parliamentary system and the Prime Minister (currently Boris Johnson, since 2019), the de facto head of government, is supposed to be simply the executive/chief spokesperson of a governing political party, some prime ministers from the late 20th century on, most notably Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, have tended towards a 'presidential' executive style of rule. More concisely, the monarch is head of state and the prime minister is head of government, compared to a nation like the US where the head of state and head of government are the same person, the president.
An extremely important thing to note about the British government is that it is roughly synonymous with Parliament (the civil service notwithstanding): all authority flows from Westminster. Indeed, the "keystone" of the British constitutional order as identified by the celebrated scholar A.V. Dicey is this: "Parliament ... has ... the right to make or unmake any law whatever, and further, that no person or body is recognized by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of parliament."note
This setup is a result of the English Civil War (1641–51), which ended with the monarchy handing over virtually all its power (which in the Tudor era had been de facto absolute) to Parliament — a process helped by the fact that Kings George I and II barely spoke English and didn't much care for governing Britain anyway — and incidentally resembles Thomas Hobbes' conception of government. In any case, though this sounds rather scary at first — in theory, one Act of Parliament could kill British libertynote — the UK's (now former) membership in The European Union and its institutions, as well as a couple of other well-enforced treaties, have added a measure of restriction to the actions of Parliament; for the first time, Parliament has to deal with potentially making illegal laws.note
The complex and controversial events following the 2016 referendum are showing that it is, in fact, far from simple or easy for a government to bypass the House of Commons.
The House of Commons is staffed by Members of Parliament (MPs) who are elected by each constituency. These are analogous to a congressional district in the US — a large city will have multiple constituencies. A constituency is represented by a single MP. Each of these constituencies has an individual name. Every decade or so, the boundaries are redrawn by the non-partisan Boundary Commission, which does take representations from the parties.
The House of Commons is elected for a period of five years (elections could formerly be called at any earlier time based on nothing stronger than the Prime Minister's whim, but this practice was abolished in favour of fixed-term Parliaments with a 2011 law) or can be earlier if either (a) the government loses a vote of confidence or (b) two-thirds of the entire House of Commons votes in favour of dissolving it.note MPs are elected on the basis that the candidate winning the most votes is declared the winner, even if they only have one more vote than the next candidate when there are multiple candidates; i.e. it is not necessary to win more than 50% of the votes cast. (No British MP has ever literally won by just one vote, although several seats have been won by just two votes, most recently North East Fife at the 2017 general election. If the top two candidates tied for number of votes, the winner would be declared by drawing lots.)
Results are only given for the whole constituency, not individual wards. When boundaries change, the "results" of the previous election for the new seats are estimated by the media from local council results. These should be treated with some caution.
When in the Commons, MPs address each other not by name, but as "The Honourable Member for [name of constituency]" or "My Honourable friend" for someone from their own party, or "The Honourable gentleman/lady" for those from a different party. It's a holdover from the days when Parliament had to meet in secret to avoid detection, imprisonment, and execution by the agents of the King (who is popularly given to be Charles I). There are some varying titles, such as "Right Honourable", used for members of the Privy Council, "Learned" (pronounced "learn-ed") for MPs who are also barristers, and "Right Honourable and Learned" for MPs who are barristers and members of the Privy Council.
Parliamentary debates and question times are far more rowdy than the (modern) United States Congress, with creative insults and heckling being the order of the day - the late Robin Williams once memorably described it as "Congress with a two drink minimum" - but Floor Fights are very rare. The chamber is presided over by the Speaker or one of his/her deputies. The Speaker is a non-partisan figure — once elected speaker, they renounce their party affiliation, and at a general election they will stand as "The Speaker seeking re-election". It is convention that the major parties do not contest the Speaker's constituency, so it is highly unlikely that they will not be re-elected.note The Deputy Speakers do not have to leave their party, but still they must remain impartial and do not take part in partisan politics — although they may take part in politics relating to their constituency. The Speaker can be a very powerful figure, especially in cases when the government has a thin majority, as was by demonstrated by former Speaker Sir John Bercow (much to the irritation of the governing Conservative party which, ironically, he had been a member of).
During debates in the Commons, all remarks are addressed to the Speaker; speaking directly to your opposite number and using words like "you" gets you a slapped wrist. Particularly controversial media issues may be raised in Parliament, including this gem from a Conservative MP. The current Speaker is Sir Lindsay Hoyle, a former Labour member from Chorley. The Speaker, in the event of a tie, will nearly always vote to keep debate open and will almost never vote for a bill, as doing so would create a majority where one did not exist; the main exception is if the bill is a confidence or supply measure — i.e., if the bill fails, the government collapses and either a new PM and new government must be chosen or new elections must be held — in which case the Speaker will generally vote in favour.
There are 650 elected MPs, all but two of whomnote are usually members of a political party. Westminster is most near to a "two-and-a-half-party" system, with the two dominant parties since the 1920s being Labour and the Conservatives. The Liberals had been the second major party prior to the formation of a coalition government with the Conservatives in the 1920s, which decimated their support in favour of Labour. They and their successor party, the Liberal Democrats, found themselves the perpetual third party for most elections until 2015 — when, after forming another coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010, they found themselves reduced at the 2015 election from 57 MPs to eight and replaced as the third largest party by the SNP.
The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system slightly favours the two main parties and heavily disadvantages the Liberal Democrats (and small parties in general), reflecting the two main parties' concentrations of support in certain areas (urban and working-class areas for Labour, affluent and rural areas for the Conservatives), and the Lib Dems having a fairly even support spread nationwide. In theory, the Lib Dems could even beat the Conservatives into second and Labour could remain the largest party with twice as many seats as the Lib Dems. The voting system can cause political parties to lose seats even though their popular vote increases (or, more rarely, vice versa), and indeed has sometimes. This happens to the minor parties more than Labour and the Conservatives, although Labour actually managed to lose an election that way: in 1951, candidates from Clement Attlee's Labour beat Winston Churchill's Conservatives by almost a quarter-million votes collectively, but ended up with twenty-six fewer seats. The same happened to the Conservatives in the June 2017 election: despite their popular vote share increasing by several percentage points to levels unseen since the 1980s, they managed to lose their overall majority because Labour experienced a larger skyrocket in vote share.
Proposals have been made to switch to a more proportional system, with ultimately little success — the main argument against the change was that it would almost always ensure weak, minority governments or coalitions. Due to the Liberal Democrats (in favour of electoral reform) forming a coalition government with the Conservatives after the 2010 election, a referendum was promised on the voting system as part of the coalition agreement. On 5 May 2011, the nationwide referendum was held on whether to switch from the existing first-past-the-post system to alternative vote (AV), which if passed was expected to represent smaller parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens more fairly. There were vocal campaigns both for and against the switch to AV. Due partly to a legendarily terrible "Yes"-side campaign that will be autopsied for years to come, it was defeated resoundingly, leading to the coalition becoming a lot more adversarial (summary, in musical form). Given the levels of support that parties such as the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and UKIP tend to receive nationwide result in disproportionately few (if any) seat returns, and the obvious disgruntlement it causes them, it is unlikely this issue has gone away just yet.
It is worth noting that because a general election is fought over 650 small constituencies, which change little (if at all) between elections, small political parties can gain ground by concentrating all their efforts on one constituency. This is how the Green Party won their only seat in Brighton Pavilion in 2010 (the first FPTP election a party called Green won in the world), and why UKIP didn't win any despite having more support nationwide. Any parliamentary constituency can tend to become a two-horse race with a bunch of also-rans, but exactly which of the parties are the two frontrunners depends on the constituency. Scottish seats tend to be SNP-Labour (in urban areas) or SNP-Lib Dem (in rural and island areas), with some Tory-SNP constituencies now appearing following backlash from independence uncertainty. Southern England tends to be a field of Lib Dem-Tory battlegrounds outside of urban Labour areas, and some of the deepest rural areas were shaping up as UKIP-Tory battlegrounds prior to UKIP's vote collapse in 2017.
If a party can command a majority, it is often considered the ruling party. Their elected leader, chosen by the party through varying methods,note then chooses a cabinet of which they serve as primus inter pares (first among equals). These men and women are responsible for various departments of government; there are currently 27 cabinet members (including the Prime Minister) who between them hold 42 positions — during the Labour governments of Blair and Brown, Harriet Harman acquired the nickname "Three Hats Harman" for having three separate posts. They're often referred to as "The X Secretary", but their actual title is "The Secretary of State for X." Cabinet membership is not subject to parliamentary approval and may not even be along party lines (although, these days, it nearly always is), so it chops and changes frequently, with much attendant press speculation.
Contrary to public assumptions, and the press' frequent bellyaching, prime ministers are not directly elected (except as MP for their own constituency), so it means nothing to call a PM "unelected" except to take a swipe at a PM you don't like. Gordon Brown got a lot of this to the point of being the press' Butt-Monkey in the run-up to the 2010 election, despite the fact that, of the 23 prime ministers since 1900, fourteen ascended to the position in the middle of a government.note Even Winston Churchill was "unelected" for his first run at the premiership during World War II (in fact, the Churchill Conservatives never actually "won" a democratic election — his second government in 1951 was, as detailed above, a fluke of the system as his party took considerably fewer votes than Labour). In fairness, there is some merit to this criticism: elections often swing entirely based on the personal popularity of leaders, and both of the main parties are ideologically varied enough that the direction of government can change dramatically based on which faction the leader is from. The Labour Party, for instance, has had five leaders in the 21st century, varying from Tony Blair, a centrist (to his allies. His enemies felt he had no principles whatsoever) who had the confidence of Margaret Thatcher, to Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran activist from the far-left of the party, widely considered by both allies and enemies to be an outright Marxist.
Below these people are the Ministers of State and the Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State (PUSSYs). Below them are the Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS), who are unpaid lackeys for the Cabinet members. They sit behind the front bench at Prime Minister's Questions, with the result that the camera cuts their heads off. Those who are not chosen or decline offers for the Cabinet or for junior ministerial office are called "backbenchers", as opposed to those who sit on the Government "front bench".
The official title of the largest party that is not in government is "Her [or His] Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition". Fittingly for a British institution, the name of this post began as a joke; the term was coined in 1826 by Whig MP John Hobhouse, who was riffing on the term "His Majesty's Government" in the midst of a critique of the policies of then-Foreign Secretary George Canning. The idea took off, however, as many came to realise that it was a much better way of understanding the relationship between Government and Opposition than had been before — namely, rather than the Government regarding the Opposition as just a few steps shy of treasonous, Government and Opposition would emphasise their common loyalty to the Crown and the institution of Parliament while simultaneously disagreeing about everything else. The Opposition's job description is to question and hold to account "Her Majesty's Government" to ensure that any policies have been well thought-out. The leader of the largest party out of government is also known as "The Leader of the Opposition" and is a member of the Privy Council. The Opposition party will also select a cabinet, known as a Shadow Cabinet. Despite sounding very cool, this cabinet does not do anything in practical terms. Instead, their job is to call on their cabinet counterpart during meetings in the Commons, typically to question their decisions (the other MPs, including the backbenchers, can also do this to whomever they wish). They also work out the party's policies in relation to their position — e.g., the Shadow Secretary for Education will look at schools and universities — ready for the next election. The smaller parties select their own "frontbench teams" too, where appropriate, depending on the number of MPs they possess.
Unlike in the United States, changes of government occur very quickly. It is possible, and common, for the polls to close at 10 p.m. on Thursday, the result be more-or-less certain at about 3 a.m. on Friday, the defeated prime minister to go to Buckingham Palace to resign before lunch on Friday, with the new PM meeting the Queen and being invited to form a government that Friday afternoon, and cabinet posts sorted out over the weekend. Obviously, there are times when the result goes right down to the wire and the result not known until breakfast the following morning, most lately in 1992 (Conservative majority of only 20), 2010, and 2017 (which resulted in hung parliaments).
The following list includes political parties with regional representation or better,note ordered by numbers of MPs (Members of Parliament, out of 650), MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament, out of 129), MLAs (Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, out of 90), and AMs (Members of the National Assembly of Wales, out of 60; or the London Assembly, out of 25), where applicable.
(365 MPs, 242 Lords, 31 MSPs, 11 MSs, 8 AMs, 4 mayors, 7,159 local.)
Current leader: Boris Johnson (Prime Minister and MP, Uxbridge & South Ruislip).Regional leaders
Formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, indicating their position on The Irish Question (and now the 'Scottish Question'), although this isn't always emphasised — especially given that 2019 polling indicates that most of their voters would be happy to give up Northern Ireland (and possibly Scotland) to "get Brexit done." The party which currently has the PM and the Cabinet (executive branch). The traditional party for rural voters, suburban voters, the aspirational working class/Nouveau Riche types, and the wealthy. They have tended to take a more populist approach to politics in recent years, especially during the periods of leadership of Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, and until the 2016 referendum, were usually perceived as a centre-right party with a middle-class focus and classical liberal economic tendencies.note Having moved towards the middle for about ten years in the 21st century (though with some right-wing traditionalist opinions such as on fox-hunting and benefits), following the 2016 EU referendum, they've moved sharply back to the right under Theresa May and Boris Johnson (forced on May by the powerful pro-Brexit 'Economic Research Group' of backbenchers, and embraced by Johnson), courting former Labour working-class voters. The popular opinion between 1997 and 2015 was that they and Labour had almost converged. With the Brexit referendum and the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn, emblem of the Labour Party's left wing, that has since changed, even with the rise of Corbyn's more centrist successor, Sir Keir Starmer.
Traditionally they have been popular in the South-East of England and rural areas. The party colour is blue, and their icon appears to be a child's drawing of a tree, supposedly an attempt by David Cameron's PR staff to emphasise the party's environmentalist credentials; it also harks back to the traditional symbol of Toryism, the Royal Oak. From 1975 to 2006, the symbol was a torch of liberty. They are popularly known as the "Tories", a term that originally was an insult against Irish cattle thieves and which was the name of the modern party's forebear. The current leader, having taken over from Theresa May in 2019, is arguably also its most well-known member, Boris Johnson — famous for his appearances on the show Have I Got News for You. Has many detractors they gained under Margaret Thatcher that they've never got rid of, to the point where a good number of Brits sincerely regard the Tories as evil incarnate. While Cameron tried, and largely succeeded, in detoxifying the party's reputation, a faint but nasty smell of Islamophobia and general racism remained and post-2016, has been driven into overdrive, particularly after 21 members of the party's moderate wing walked out of the party in protest in 2019 at Boris Johnson's policies. Since Johnson's former newspaper columns include references to African citizens of Commonwealth states as "picaninnies with watermelon smiles" and to Muslim women wearing burqas as resembling "letterboxes", you can see why. It was also noted how hypocritical it was that Labour was accused of anti-semitism when just as serious instances of bigotry in the Conservatives were barely brought up in the media. Boris Johnson had even written a book 72 Virgins which flat-out engaged in anti-semitic stereotyping, referring to people of Jewish descent fiddling election results, despite which Chief Rabbi Mirvis praised him as a long-standing friend of the Jewish community! This disdain was traditionally held by northerners and the working class, but after the EU referendum of 2016, increasingly younger and urban voters as well. By contrast, in the 2019 election, many of said working-class and/or northern voters opted to vote Conservative (though this was also helped by Farage's Brexit Party on Trump's orders assisting them, see below), flipping constituencies that had been Labour strongholds since before World War II.
The Conservatives currently form a majority government in Westminster following the 2019 election, having previously governed as a minority following the loss of their majority in the 2017 election (poor leadership, utterly bland and complacent campaigning, and a rather questionable manifesto were all considered to be factors), relying on the support of the Northern Irish DUP (see below), which while being their only possible ally in the current Parliament, raised a few eyebrows among supporters and detractors alike. Johnson then gambled on another election, and won big, gaining the biggest Conservative majority since the 1980s, gobbling up much of the former "Red Wall" of Labour seats in north Wales and the Midlands/north of England — old industrial regions that had voted Leave — which hadn't voted anything but Labour in generations. He was partially helped by the fact that the Brexit Party leader Farage, supposedly on the orders of US President Donald Trump, formed an unofficial alliance with the Conservatives and only campaigned in non-Conservative constituencies, draining votes away from Labour supporters.
- Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
Current leader: Keir Starmer (MP, Holborn & St Pancras).Regional leaders
Started off as a socialist, working man's party (hence the name) but became more pro-market in the late 1980s and moved closer to the centre under Neil Kinnock and especially Tony Blair, before moving slightly back to the left under Jeremy Corbyn.note In the mid-1990s, Blair dubbed his centrist vision for the party "New Labour", a piece of branding designed to distance Labour from its bitter infighting and more left-wing early-1980s incarnation, which the image-obsessed Blair thought had a negative perception amongst voters; this label came to be used more as a term of abuse by the party's enemies and internal dissenters rather than a badge of honour, and the party itself has since dropped it. There was between 1994 and 2010 a dangerous divide between the Blairites, named after Tony Blair, and Brownites, named after Gordon Brown, though no one was quite sure what the difference was; the general consensus was that Brown was deemed slightly more socialist and Eurosceptic, while Blair was more centrist and pro-European — and, in the view of his detractors be they leftish, rightish, or centrist, had no discernible principles whatsoever.
Officially a left-wing democratic socialist party, the party has taken a 'broad church' approach to working-class politics, inclusive of ideologies ranging from staunch Marxism to centrist "Third Way" politics, which has secured their reputation for infighting — seemingly dispatched by New Labour, but resurgent following the election of Corbyn and the 2016 EU referendum, which has split the party down Leave/Remain lines. They've even flirted with authoritarian right-wing policies, especially with regard to civil liberties — to the point that a historically very conservative Tory triggered a by-election in 2008 to protest a counter-terrorism bill — and anything Peter Mandelson got his hands on, which mostly appeared to be desperate attempts at populism. They are traditionally popular in London, the north of England, Scotland, south Wales, large urban areas, and among trade unionists. Labour's current icon is the rose (a traditional symbol of European social-democratic parties), and the party colour, used in election materials and identification of Labour constituencies on maps, is red.
You'll see several Labour members listed as "Lab/Co-Op". This means that they are also sponsored by the Co-operative Party, the political arm of the UK Co-operative movement (as in the supermarket chain Co-op). The Co-op Party is largely identical to Labour, apart from an emphasis on fair trade, and doesn't run candidates itself.
Labour lost its majority in the general election of 6 May 2010, and Brown was already planning to resign when the Liberal Democrats began flirting with forming a coalition with both Labour and the Conservatives. Although they made it clear they would only consider a coalition with Labour if Brown resigned, upon learning Brown was already going to resign, they formed a coalition with the Conservatives, citing the pragmatism of greater numbers for passing policy.note Brown's successor was Ed Miliband, who bested his brother David (and three other candidates who had little to no chance of victory) in a tight leadership election. Jon Culshaw was reportedly happy, as Mili-E sounds exactly like Culshaw's impression of Tony Blair. However, he too suffered a crushing defeat in the 2015 election. At the time this was reported to be from a combination of Labour's lack of a believable alternative to the Conservatives' economic policies and the public's apparent inability to see Miliband personally as prime minister.
Miliband resigned shortly after losing, triggering another leadership election. Initially pretty much no one cared, but the elevation of dark horse candidate Jeremy Corbyn from outsider to frontrunner to winner galvanised supporters and the public throughout the contest, with him being seen by many as the only alternative to a "Tory-lite" leader. Corbyn, a veteran socialist and activist from the left wing of Labour, developed enormous popularity among the party's rank and file membership. Most Labour MPs were less enthusiastic about his leadership, though (he got on the ballot only because about twenty of his colleagues who preferred one of the three more moderate contenders 'lent' him their support), with many fearing his more left-wing views would doom the party in a general election. They turned out to be right, and Corbyn's tenure was marred by conflicts with the Parliamentary Labour Party (which mostly hated him), being sustained by support from members, the powerful Unions, and his allies' control of the powerful NEC (National Executive Committee, the party's governing body and equivalent to the RNC or DNC). Following the 2016 EU referendum, where the traditionally Eurosceptic Corbyn was accused of deliberate sabotage of his own party's Remain campaign culminated in yet another leadership challenge less than a year into his leadership, but his loyal support among membership won that election by an even greater margin.
Press coverage of the Labour Party was rather stacked against them (many British newspapers and their owners having much more incentive to support the Conservatives' right-wing views over Corbyn's radical socialism), often smearing Corbyn personally - or, since Corbyn was so unbelievably mild-mannered, trying and failing hilariously - and bringing up the Labour Party's alleged anti-semitism. note Accordingly, many wrote off Labour, predicting a fall even to third-party status in the next election, with a common prediction being that most of their traditional working-class support would migrate to UKIP, leaving Labour to scrap with the Liberal Democrats for the more metropolitan segments of the voting population. Surprisingly, though, they made a net gain of 30 seats in the Commons and broke the Conservative majority in 2017, and the implication that Jeremy Corbyn might actually be able to win after all, confounded pollsters and more right-wing Labour MPs alike, further securing his position. However, the knives came out again following dire performances in the 2019 European and general elections.
The former was because of Corbyn's ambiguity over Brexit. He was in favour of a "jobs-first Brexit", whatever that meant, and only committed to a second referendum as a last resort - and that under duress. This was on the rather thin grounds that he wanted to unite the country again after years of polarisation over Europe (translation: he didn't want to lose Labour seats in pro-Leave or pro-Remain areas). This left pro-Leave voters unimpressed, and infuriated the parliamentary party, the membership, and younger/more liberal voters, all of whom were very pro-Remain. Labour promptly got hammered by the resurgent Lib Dems, even losing Islington, home of Corbyn's own constituency. While Corbyn kept his seat in the following general election, many others didn't in a brutal election defeat that left Labour with barely 200 seats (their fewest since 1935) and the Conservatives with their largest majority since 1987. Even worse, the Conservatives smashed the traditional "Red Wall" of Labour seats, (North Wales, northern England and the Midlands), some of which had consistently voted Labour for over a century, by appealing to working-class Leave voters and with help from the Brexit Party acting on the orders of Donald Trump. Corbyn promised to step down, but delayed to try and give himself time to smooth the path for a like-minded successor (the idea being that the problem was not the message, but the messenger — who himself had been unfairly smeared).
The resultant post-mortem and political knife-fight was brief, but brutal, with former Shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, winning the 2020 leadership election on the first ballot and gaining control of the NEC. Starmer is a contrast to Corbyn: a relative newcomer, having been only elected as an MP in 2015, his background was as a QC (a very senior defence lawyer) specialising in Human Rights. However, he had a previous association with government as Director for Public Prosecutions (national level equivalent of a District Attorney, and most senior lawyer after the Attorney General and Solicitor General). Starmer's nearly two-to-one victory over Rebecca Long-Bailey, who was long considered to be Corbyn's heir apparent, has been interpreted as a mandate for a shift back to the political centre - a number of Corbyn's more popular policies and some of his more moderate allies were retained, but the rest were politely but firmly removed, with Starmer's allies taking control of the NEC and the position of General Secretary, while Long-Bailey was ejected from the Shadow Cabinet after an anti-semitism related screw-up on Twitter and (perhaps more importantly) refusing to take the offered opportunity to apologise, delete the Tweet, and keep her job. note Members on the Labour Left claim that Starmer was just waiting for an excuse to fire her and that it was a tempest in a teacup. Almost everyone else agreed that it was relatively minor, but pointed out that Starmer had reputedly been very happy with Long-Bailey's work, and had accordingly offered her an out. Once she refused that, Labour's still lingering whiff of anti-semitism (particularly around the Corbynite left) meant that she'd made herself a serious political liability.
The anthem of the Labour Party is "The Red Flag", by Jim Connell, to the tune of "O Tannenbaum":note
- Then raise the scarlet standard high,Within its shade we'll live and die,Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,We'll keep the red flag flying here.
More popularly, however, the anthem "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" has become a trend among young people. —- Since 1927, the Labour Party has been in a permanent coalition with the Co-operative Party, founded in 1917 as the political arm of the co-operative movement (much as Labour was, as previously stated, the political arm of the trade unions). (It has its origins in the Joint Parliamentary Committee of the Co-operative Union, founded 1881, which was primarily a watchdog and lobby group.) The Co-operative Party is actually the fourth largest party in number of MPs, but this is obscured as they run as "Labour and Co-operative Party" (otherwise using Labour's logo and fount) and sit on the Parliamentary Labour Group. Besides its defense of co-operative principles, it is, like Labour, a social democratic/democratic socialist party. It is also British Unionist and Pro-Europeanist. Due to its co-operative principles, it doesn't have a Leader, but rather a Chairperson: as of 2021 it's Jim McMahon, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport in the Shadow Cabinet of Keir Starmer.
Current leader: Sir Ed Davey (MP, Kingston & Surbiton)Regional leaders
Traditionally a centre-left, liberal (in the European sense) party, they were widely perceived as being slightly to the left of post-Blair Labour, and are sometimes treated as simply a "trendier" version of Labour. Formed from the merger of the old Liberal Party (itself a descendant of the original Whig Party), which saw its vote collapse after the rise of the Labour Party, and the Social Democratic Party, which was formed of former Labour MPs (and one Conservative) who'd become disenchanted with their parties' policy shifts. Notable for having a very favourable educational policy and for getting rid of their alcoholic leader (Charles Kennedy) in 2006, then the one after him (Menzies Campbell) within two years.
They are traditionally most popular in Scotland, Cornwall, and Devon. During the early 21st century, they gained significant support in constituencies with a sizeable student population. Their party colour is gold, and their icon is the dove. The slang adjective is "Lib Dem" or "Whig". Suffer a lot from being the Third Option; when they were treated equally to the main two parties during the 2010 election campaign, they even registered first place on the polls. Although these polls turned out to be overly optimistic for them, they still won an impressive 23% of the vote, but in seat terms they remained in distant third-party status — due to their relatively even support nationwidenote — explains why one of their key party policies is the introduction of proportional representation through the single transferable vote.
Since the Liberals' fall from popularity back in The Roaring '20s, their realistic aims have been to be kingmakers in a hung parliament, which they did in the 2010 election, deciding to ally with the Tories after talks with Labour failed.note They would suffer from that decision, having gone from 57 MPs down to eight in 2015. Some of this was because people thought they had betrayed their voters by one or both of: getting into a coalition with the Toriesnote and splitting in half to vote to raise tuition fees despite promising not to.note The rest was because many of their MPs depended on tactical voting to keep Labour/the Tories out in their seat, and the coalition meant this broke down on both sides.
They have currently been superseded by the Scottish National Party as the third-largest party in Westminster (though maintaining a much larger presence than the SNP at local government level), bringing the traditional idea of the "Big Three" parties into serious contention, something their former leader Tim Farron ironically lampshaded every so often. They recovered slightly in the 2017 election, increasing their tally from eight to twelve MPs,note but time will tell as to whether they will be able to recover to the tens of MPs they used to return at each election. Farron resigned after the 2017 election, being replaced by party veteran Vince Cable, who returned to Parliament in that election and had previously been interim leader a decade prior.
While still rather diminished, they made a big comeback in the local and European elections in 2019, taking second place in the latter after scooping up tens of thousands of centrist/centre-left voters from both the top two parties (but mainly Labour, even taking the European Parliament's Islington constituency — which contains the UK Parliamentary constituency of none other than Jeremy Corbyn himself) who were frustrated and angry with their respective parties over Brexit policy. Labour, because most of the Labour membership (and many of the supporters in general) were very pro-Europe and sick of Corbyn's attempts to avoid openly declaring that he was in favour of a second referendum. The Conservatives, because the Conservatives have traditionally had the reputation as the sober, financially responsible party that doesn't rock the boat, but in an attempt to fend off the likes of the Brexit Party (essentially UKIP under another name), lurched towards the far right. Speaking of a second referendum, it is a policy that, as 'a People's Vote', the Lib Dems can genuinely claim to have championed from the start. Until mid-2018, it was dismissed as a mere fringe policy, but within six months it became extremely popular amongst Remainers and those who thought that Brexit was really, really not going to plan/that it was the only way to break Parliament's deadlock, with much of Labour demanding it become official party policy and some Conservative MPs saying off the record that it was probably the least bad option available.
Cable resigned following the European elections, becoming a rare example of a party leader whose career did not end in failure (given he had just taken the party to some of its best electoral performances ever and he was able to go at a time of his own choosing). He was succeeded by Jo Swinson in the following leadership election. Swinson led her party for less than five months; after losing her parliamentary seat (East Dunbartonshire) to the SNP in the 2019 election (which had also happened in 2015), she was no longer eligible to continue as leader in accordance to party rules. Her seat was, ironically, the only seat the Lib Dems lost in the election (not counting the ones they picked up via defections since the previous election). Sir Ed Davey, who Swinson had defeated in the previous year's leadership contest, took over as interim leader and was subsequently elected as the party's permanent leader; similarly to Keir Starmer's election as Labour leader earlier in the year, this was seen as a mandate for the party to continue holding the political centre ground, as opposed to leadership rival Layla Moran's stated desire to move to the left.
The Liberal Democrats' party anthem, "The Land", is of unknown authorship, but is widely considered the most rousing (former Labour leader Michael Foot, who was raised in a Liberal family, thought it was better than "The Red Flag"), especially seeing as it's sung to the tune of "Marching Through Georgia":
- The land, the land,'Twas God who made the land.The land, the land,The ground on which we stand.Why should we be beggars,With the ballot in our hand?God gave the land to the people!
- The Scottish National Party (Pàrtaidh Nàiseanta na h-Alba in Gaelic/Scottis Naitional Pairtie in Scots)
(44 MPs, 61 MSPs, 418 local.)
Current leader: Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland and MSP, Glasgow Southside).And...
AKA the SNP. The party's raison d'être is Scottish independence. Formed in 1934 from the amalgamation of two small, young pro-independence parties: the centre-left National Party of Scotland and the centre-right Scottish Self-Governance Party. Eight years after the re-congregation of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP emerged as the largest party and formed a minority administration with confidence-and-supply support from the Green Party (and later the Conservatives). In 2011, it won an overall majority, something which the Scottish Parliament's mixed-member electoral system was specifically designed to make impossible. The SNP-formed Scottish government held a referendum on independence on 18 September 2014, with Scotland choosing to remain in the United Kingdom. In the 2016 Holyrood elections, they retained dominance as Scotland's largest party, but lost their overall majority. The Conservatives leapfrogged Labour to become the second party of Scotland, reclaiming seats that had converted to Tony Blair's New Labour and leaving the historical positions of SNP and Labour now thoroughly flipped.
Despite the similarity of their names, they couldn't be more different to the BNP (whose founding it predates): the SNP are noted for being positive towards immigration and are in favour of Scotland's membership of the EU (or the European Economic Area, depending on how they feel that day). The SNP officially supports the monarchynote and has policies that mostly resemble modern-day social-democratic parties found in mainland Europe. As a point of principle, the party does not appoint any members to the House of Lords, and officially backs its abolition and replacement with an elected chamber. They are also strongly opposed to the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system, which is based in Scotland, and have worked alongside other anti-nuclear weapons parties and the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in calling for it to be scrapped.
Years of growing public disaffection with the two main parties, catalysed by the 2014 referendum in which Labour and the Conservatives worked together closely in Better Together (the official campaigning body in favour of a No vote to independence), meant that in the 2015 general election the SNP scored a massive landslide, winning 56 of the 59 Scottish seats and essentially wiping out Labour's power in Scotland. Given the simultaneous collapse of the Liberal Democrats, they are now the third largest party in the Commons — a drastic shift in the power balance, and almost unheard-of for a party that only contests elections in one part of the UK.note
Following the UK's referendum on membership in the EU (the "Brexit" referendum) — in which the UK as a whole narrowly voted 52–48 in favour of leaving the EU, but Scotland voted 62–38 in favour of staying — the SNP released a three-tiered plan in response, calling for: a "soft" Brexit that would retain single-market membership;note a tailored Brexit deal taking Scotland's specific circumstances — and vote — into account;note or, if the first options fail, a second referendum on Scottish independence (shunted firmly out of certainty following the SNP's 2017 losses).note
The manifesto on which the SNP were elected in the 2016 elections explicitly said that there should be the opportunity to hold a second independence referendum if there was a "material change" in circumstances since the last one, with "Leaving the EU against Scotland's will" being cited as the prime example. Therefore, the SNP argue that they have a democratic mandate to call a second referendum, a position wherein the Scottish Green Party has supported them, meaning that there is a majority in the Scottish Parliament for it should a vote occur, although national polling does not currently indicate much support among the population for another referendum.
In the 2017 election, the SNP found their support slashed — although they still won 35 of the 59 seats in Scotland, they only managed to poll about 40% of the vote, with the remaining 60% split among parties who explicitly vowed to oppose another independence referendum.note In addition, their two most notable MPs, former First Minister Alex Salmond and Westminster group leader Angus Robertson, were two of the twelve who lost their seats to Conservative candidates. This resulted in some loss to their momentum, but they made a dozen net gains (including Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson's seat) in the 2019 election, thus putting the issue of a second independence referendum back onto the agenda. However, with the Conservatives having an 80-seat majority at Westminster, this may prove difficult to achieve.
The anthem of the Scottish National Party is "Scots Wha Hae", by Robert Burns, to the traditional Scottish tune "Hey Tuttie Tatie":Wha, for Scotland's king and law,Freedom's sword will strongly draw,Freeman stand, or Freeman fa,Let him on wi me.
- The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)
Current leader: Collective.
Very left-wing Scottish party. Campaigned for independence with the SNP, and at one point had six MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. Currently has no representation at any level. The SSP took part in an electoral coalition for the 2016 elections called RISE — Scotland's Left Alliancenote which gained little traction, accruing only 0.5% of the vote and no seats in Holyrood.
- The Alba Party
Current leader: Alex Salmond (no current seat)
Another pro-independence party in Scotland, set up by former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond after his rather public falling-out with the SNP. Partly designed to try and maximise a pro-independence vote in the Scottish Parliament elections by gaming Scotland's combined first-past-the-post and proportional representation system, it remains to be seen whether this will ultimately help or hurt the SNP in the longer term. Gained two MPs upon its formation - both defectees from the SNP.
- Plaid Cymru
(3 MPs, 1 Lord, 10 MSs, 202 local.)
Current leader: Adam Price (MS, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr)And...
"The Party of Wales" in English, a Welsh nationalist and republican party who campaign for full Welsh independence and an expansion of the Welsh language, among other things. Like the SNP, they're a centre-left party, but not so keen on independence as a short-term aim. Although the Welsh are fiercely independent in cultural matters, political independence is not as popular, seeing as England and Wales have been joined at the hip since the thirteenth century. They only field candidates in Wales, unsurprisingly. Since the formation of the National Assembly for Wales, Welsh Labour has governed in all five electoral terms. However, it has never had a strong majority, either only just reaching the majority (30 seats) or being the largest party in a minority or coalition government. As a result, Welsh Labour have relied heavily on Plaid Cymru for most of the Assembly's existence for either formal coalition partnership or less formal 'agreements' to get policies through the Senedd. (For those not versed in the Welsh language, the party's name is pronounced "Plide Cumree" and the seat of power is pronounced "SEN-eth."note And you thought that English spelling was weird.)
- Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall)
Current leader: Dick Cole (Local Councillor, Cornwall).
Left-of-centre party agitating for Cornish autonomy, in the style of Celtic region devolution. Nothing more than a handful of members of Cornwall County Council. Regarded by non-Cornish people as not much more than a joke.note
- English Democrats
(No current representation)
Current leader: Robin Tillbrook (no current seat).
English nationalist party in the vein of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Generally close in ideology to the Conservatives, with most of their elected party members former Tories, but with support for a devolved legislature and an elected Lords. No representation beyond a single councillor.
In Northern IrelandWith the exception of the Conservatives and UKIP (neither of whom wins any seats anyway), the main UK parties do not contest seats in Northern Ireland, and do not stand for elections to the Northern Irish Assembly.note Instead, a series of regional parties holds sway here.
- Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
(8 MPs, 4 Lords, 27 MLAs, 122 local.)
Current leader: Arlene Foster (First Minister of Northern Ireland and MLA, Fermanagh & South Tyrone).And...
Presently the largest party in Northern Ireland to favour the continued union with Britain, and the biggest NI party overall. While their economic policies are broadly centre-left due to the influence of the party's working-class support, they're strongly right-wing virtually everywhere else, mostly as a result of the leadership of Reverend Ian Paisley, the founder of the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church. Have also had some sketchy relationships in the past with loyalist paramilitaries.
Although they're most famous for being stringently reactionary, the party has tried to mellow out a bit since Paisley (and then his successor, Peter Robinson) became First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2005. They strongly oppose same-sex marriage, strictly refuse to extend the UK's abortion rights to Northern Ireland, want creationism taught in science classes, and are ambivalent about the existence of climate change and dinosaurs. Got into a bit of trouble for using cross-community procedural measures (designed to stop unionists or nationalists disenfranchising the other) to block the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, plus their stringent opposition to allowing abortion in Northern Ireland, among other similar matters.
Also responsible for developing a rather questionable renewable heating scheme in Northern Ireland. The scheme was set up in such a cocked-up way that businesses paying into it managed to get more money out just for heating empty buildings. There have also been allegations that family members and associates of DUP members were set to benefit from this scheme and may even have been complicit in its development. This is set to cost the Northern Ireland budget hundreds of millions of pounds over two decades, and the DUP's unwillingness to admit any responsibility or wrongdoing, or even show the slightest bit of humility, led to Sinn Féin collapsing the coalition government in Stormont in early 2017. Despite a snap Assembly election and ongoing negotiations, it still has not been restored.
Found themselves in a Kingmaker Scenario following the 2017 election, as the support of their ten MPs gave the Conservatives enough votes to pass legislation as a minority government. Given the unwillingness of any other party in the Commons to prop up the Conservatives, this was their only option. How this would influence the UK government's impartiality in negotiations over Northern Ireland, however, was a potentially thorny issue. Subsequently were returned to minor-party status with the 2019 election when the Conservatives won an overall majority, no longer relying on DUP support to pass legislation.
- Sinn Féin (SF; pronounced "shin fane", Irish for "we ourselves")
(7 MPs, 26 MLAs, 105 local.)
Current leader: Mary Lou McDonald (TD, Dublin Central).note And...
The second-largest party in Northern Ireland and the main nationalist (favouring Irish unification) party in the NI Assembly. While they've regularly had members elected to the House of Commons, they don't actually take their seats as they see the UK's claim to NI as illegitimate.note The cheeky buggers still claim the Crown's expenses, however. During The Troubles, they were (accurately) perceived as the political wing of the Provisional IRA — when the then-leader Martin McGuinness said in negotiations, "We'll have to consult the [IRA] army council on this", the then-Foreign Minister (later Taoiseach) of Ireland, Brian Cowen, replied, "Yeah, well, there's a mirror in the toilet if you want to go in there and talk to them" — but like the DUP they've generally managed to distance themselves from their more radical past.
One of the few Heartwarming Moments in Northern Irish history was the solid partnership and genuine friendship that developed between Paisley and McGuinness, during their term as (respectively) First Minister and Deputy First Minister, before Paisley's death in 2014. They were so frequently photographed laughing together that they got nicknamed the "Chuckle Brothers". Imagine a hardline, right-wing Israeli MP developing a friendly working partnership with a leader of Hamas, and you'll get a sense of how unlikely this was.
- Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP; Irish language: Páirtí Sóisialta Daonlathach an Lucht Oibre)
(2 MPs, 12 MLAs, 56 local.)
Current leader: Colum Eastwood (MP, Foyle).And...
Moderate Northern Irish nationalist party, it was formed from the dying remnants of the old Nationalist Party in the original devolved Northern Ireland Parliament. Originally the majority nationalist party in the later Northern Ireland Assembly, before Sinn Féin took over this role in the mid-2000s. Historically linked to both the British and Irish Labour Parties, its members (when it has any) take the Labour whip in Westminster. Former party leader John Hume received a Nobel Peace Prize (along with then-UUP leader David Trimble) for his key role in helping negotiate the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Lost all three of its Westminster seats to Sinn Féin in the 2017 election but regained two of them in 2019.
- Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
(2 Lords, 10 MLAs, 74 local.)
Current leader: Steve Aiken (MLA, South Antrim).
Moderate Northern Irish unionist party, they were the majority in the original devolved Northern Ireland Parliament for all 51 years of the its existence (1921–72), with policies broadly like the Conservative Party in the mainland UK. Used to be the standard 'majority unionist' party in the later Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998, until supplanted as such by the DUP in the mid-2000s. Have been physically linked to the Conservative Party at various points in their history but have wavered between emphasising and distancing that link depending on the national politics of the time. Former party leader David Trimble received a Nobel Peace Prize (along with then-SDLP leader John Hume) for his key role in helping negotiate the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Lost their only two Westminster seats to the DUP in the 2017 election and failed to reclaim any in 2019.
- Alliance Party (APNI)
(1 MP, 8 MLAs, 53 local.)
Current leader: Naomi Long (MLA, Belfast East).
A non-sectarian party specifically set up to provide a compromise between the traditional camps of unionism and nationalism. Historically linked to the Liberal Democrats, and when in Westminster takes their whip on any non-Northern Ireland issues.
- People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA)
(1 MLA, 5 local.)
Current leader: Collective.
A non-sectarian socialist party. Also contests elections in the Republic of Ireland with the Anti-Austerity Alliance.
- Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV)
(1 MLA, 6 local.)
Current leader: Jim Allister (MLA, North Antrim).
Even more right-wing unionist party than the DUP. Supports very socially conservative policies, and repeatedly advocates for the ceasing of the Irish language (used occasionally by Sinn Féin MLAs) in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and removal of the Northern Irish Assembly itself in favour of direct rule from Westminster. In 2015 a TUV local councillor in Larne opposed the erecting of a plaque in memory of eight women convicted of witchcraft in the 18th century, on the grounds, he said, that the women might have been actual witches.
- Progressive Unionist Party (PUP)
Current leader: Billy Hutchinson (Local Councillor, Belfast).
Left-wing NI unionist party, with "close ties" (in the vein of Sinn Féin) to loyalist (not in the vein of Sinn Féin) paramilitaries. Occasionally gains representation in the Assembly. Currently the only left-wing unionist party contesting elections in Northern Ireland.
The minor national parties
- The Green Party
(1 MP, 2 Lords, 6 MSPs, 2 MLAs, 2 London AMs, 409 local.note )
Current co-leaders (England and Wales): Siân Berry (London AM, additional member) and Jonathan Bartley (local councillor, Lambeth).
Scotland co-conveners: Patrick Harvie (MSP, Glasgow) and Lorna Slater (no current seat).
Northern Ireland leader: Clare Bailey (MLA, Belfast South).
Technically three separate parties — one each in England and Wales, in Scotland, and in Northern Ireland — but with broadly similar policies throughout, and usually considered nationally as one party in the media. Originally an environmental single-issue movement, they have branched out, with mixed success, into other areas of policy in which they tend to take a standard British-left-wing viewpoint. The Scottish Greens in particular, being the joint-fourth largest party in the Scottish Parliament, tend to develop a very fleshed-out policy programme.
The Greens used to differ from other left-wing parties with regard to science, where they embraced many 'alternative' (and scientifically disproved) ideas such as homeopathy, partially as a result of their manifesto being completely democratic, even to people not versed in either science or politics. Nowadays, their only 'anti-science' policies are opposition to nuclear power and scepticism of GM crops — though many of their members still favour 'alternative' medicines. Their position on Europe is to take a 'reformist Eurosceptic' view: they would prefer to stay in the EU but want to see it massively reformed. The Scottish Greens are pro-independence (and have the backing of Franz Ferdinand), while the Northern Irish Greens purposely take no position on The Irish Question. The English and Welsh Greens won the first Green seat at Westminster in 2010, then-leader Caroline Lucas beating Labour's Nancy Platts to win the seat of Brighton Pavilion in East Sussex. Lucas has represented the constituency since, but she has been the only Green MP despite the party getting well over one million votes nationally. The Greens' colour, surprisingly, is green, and the Anglo-Welsh party's icon is a sunflower. The Scottish, Anglo-Welsh, and Irish branches of the Greens use their own variations on the theme.
- The UK Independence Party (UKIP)
(1 MS, 27 local.)
Current leader: Neil Hamilton.
A party which has attained victories primarily in Britain's elections for members of the European Parliament, but ironically want to change that situation by pulling the UK out of the EU altogether. Although founded as a "wide-spectrum" single-issue party united by opposition to British membership of the European Union, they ended up metamorphosing into a populist, nationalist, anti-immigration grouping of disgruntled Thatcherite Conservatives disillusioned with their "home" party, and their general outlook is very similar to that of the right "Sir Bufton Tufton" wing of the Conservative Party that was dominant in The '80s but unofficially marginalised post-2005. In later years, however, they made a play for disgruntled Lib Dem and Labour voters, and in the 2015 election arguably emerged as the main opposition party in traditionally Labour areas, making second place in many safe Labour seats. The party's first European parliamentarians tended to make embarrassing jingoistic far-right gaffes, although a succession of leaders later made effective efforts to improve the party's image. Their party colour is purple, and their icon is a pound symbol (£) — representing their opposition to the Euro — with the party initials "UKIP" forming the bar across the middle. Following the defection of Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives in 2014 and his subsequent win for their party in the Clacton by-election, they gained their first MP; Mark Reckless also defected shortly afterwards, won his seat of Rochester & Strood in the by-election, but lost it in the subsequent general election). The party was the third largest in vote share in the 2015 general election (with the best part of four million votes), but won only one seat, Douglas Carswell's. In the 2016 devolved elections, they won seven seats in the Welsh Assembly, mostly from the regional vote which is based on proportional representation. Most of their votes come from disgruntled Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem voters in regions that combine high levels of poverty, unemployment, and immigration. Several of these new UKIP AMs are former Tories, including the aforementioned Mark Reckless, though one AM has since resigned the whip due to an argument over who gets to be in charge, and indeed Mr Reckless has now returned to the Conservatives.
With the UK voting in a 2016 referendum to leave the European Union, thereby removing the party's entire reason for existence, they found themselves in the process of wondering what on earth to do now. While many in the press talked up their chances of replacing Labour as the main opposition party (by seizing their working-class support in northern England, à la how the SNP obliterated Labour north of the border at the previous election), any chance of this was derailed by a disastrous few months in which long-standing leader Nigel Farage retired, only for his favoured successor to be unable to stand to replace him due to not filing the correct paperwork in time (and subsequently resigning from the party following a physical altercation with another MEP). Farage's eventual successor, Diane James, resigned from the leadership after just a few weeks, leaving Farage back in charge until another leadership election installed Paul Nuttall as leader. While Nuttall's appointment was widely praised by the press and claimed by some to be what the party needed to displace Labour at last, his attempt at getting into Parliament via a by-election in February 2017 (at Stoke-on-Trent Central) ended in failure after a campaign where he was accused of lying about being a survivor of the Hillsborough disaster and committing electoral fraud, putting the party back to square one.
After numerous reports of party infighting, their only MP, Douglas Carswell, eventually decided in 2017 that he'd had enough, and left the party to sit as an independent. This means UKIP now no longer had any representation in Westminster. Worse was to follow at the 2017 local elections, in which every UKIP councillor standing for re-election was defeated, and the party only managed to gain a single council seat from the other parties. In the June 2017 general election, as noted, UKIP's vote utterly collapsed nationwide, with UKIP voters returning to both the Conservatives and Labour in relatively even numbers. As such, they now have no Westminster representation, and were again forced to search for a new leader following Paul Nuttall's resignation the day after the election (he came a distant third in Boston and Skegness, the constituency estimated to have the highest proportional Leave vote of the entire country, going almost three to one for Leave in the referendum). This leadership election was won by Farage supporter Henry Bolton, seeing off a challenge from far-right extremist Anne-Marie Waters, who wanted to turn the party into the political arm of her anti-Islam organisation. Four months into Bolton's leadership, the party dissolved into outright civil war sparked off by a controversy over Bolton leaving his wife for a model who turned out to be a racist, with the party's ruling body passing a vote of no confidence in Bolton only for him to refuse to resign, and MEPs and councillors quitting the party en masse. The party finally managed to get rid of Bolton after he lost a confidence vote amongst the wider membership, leaving the party facing its fourth leadership election in less than eighteen months, which eventually resulted in interim leader Gerard Batten being elected unopposed as permanent leader (with it being widely theorized that other potential candidates held off on contesting the leadership on the grounds that the party simply couldn't afford another leadership contest on top of the six-figure payout they faced having to make due to a libel suit). Batten's leadership initially saw an improvement in the party's polling ratings, as Theresa May's government increasingly came under fire for its indecisive handling of Brexit. However, everything went horribly wrong near the end of 2018, as Batten recruited several prominent members of the alt-right, along with former BNP and English Defence League activist Tommy Robinson, the latter of which in particular saw many prominent members, including Nigel Farage, quit the party in disgust to form the Brexit Party.
With Farage's new party taking most of their former vote, the 2019 European Parliament elections saw UKIP wiped out completely (it was only defending three seats as all their other MEPs had left the party), sparking off the fifth leadership election in less than four years due to Batten losing his own seat — with Batten's replacement, Richard Braine, resigning from the party after just two months as leader following accusations of stealing party data. He was eventually replaced by Freddy Vachha in 2020 (after an period of time with Patricia Mountain as interim leader), only for Vacha to be suspended and be replaced by Neil Hamilton three months into his leadership; Vachha maintains that he is still UKIP's leader. Many current and former members now acknowledge that UKIP is effectively dead as a serious electoral force, something only emphasized when the party finished behind the Monster Raving Loonies at the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in August 2019, and then gained only a paltry 22,000 votes nationwide at the general election later that year.
- Change UK: The Independent Group
(No current representation)
Final leader: Anna Soubry (No seat).
Not a newspaper conglomerate.
A group of independent MPs who were a little different from actual Independents (see below). The Independent Group formed in 2019 when a group of MPs resigned from both the Labour and Conservative parties over dissatisfaction with their current leadership and party policies. By resigning their party's whip, they automatically become Independent MPs, but have chosen to form themselves into a like-minded aligned group ... hence, "Independent Group".
This move attracted both support and criticism from all sides of the Commons.
Their policy programme took time to be fleshed out, with their primary unifying aspect being their opposition to Brexit and desire for a second referendum on the UK's EU membership.
While the Group claimed they weren't a political party (unlike the SDP breakaway of the 1980s), the coincidentally quick appearance of a corporate back structure and branded logos indicated that things were swiftly going to move in that direction. And indeed, they formed into an actual party (re-branded as "Change UK") in time for the 2019 European Parliament elections.
The results of the 2019 EU elections did not bode well for their future, and shortly afterwards the group split, with six of its eleven MPs choosing to sit as actual independents instead. Several of them since found their way over to the Liberal Democrats (who unequivocally managed to become the strongest pro-Remain party at the EU elections). Subsequently, at the 2019 general election, the party lost all three of their seats in the Commons,note and finally wound itself up in December 2019 after the election.
- Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party)
(4 MSs, 12 local)
Current leader: Richard Tice (no current seat).
A party that wants Brexit.
A single-issue party formed by Nigel Farage in 2019 to contest the European Parliament elections, taking over where UKIP left off.
Other than wanting a "clean" Brexit, no one really knows what they're about, as the party long refused to produce a manifesto or otherwise answer any policy questions whatsoever where the answers aren't 'Get out of Europe.'
Some people like this, some people don't.
In the 2019 EU Parliament elections, they basically swapped places with UKIP and picked up a few extra MEPs — not really changing things much compared to the previous elections in 2014. It remains to be seen whether they'll have any kind of impact in other elections; their first test domestically came in the Peterborough by-election shortly after the EU election, where they did have an impact, but perhaps not in the way that had been expected — the Tories had been predicted to win the seat in a landslide after the previous Labour MP was kicked out of office for obstruction of justice, but instead found their vote being split by the Brexit Party, allowing Labour to retain the seat narrowly.
In the 2019 general election, the Brexit Party tried to avoid this by agreeing an informal electoral pact with the Conservatives, apparently on the orders of Donald Trump — where the Brexit Party didn't stand in any seats that were normally Conservative-held. This appears to have paid off, with the Conservatives retaining most of their seats from 2017 and the Brexit Party draining votes from Labour in traditional Labour heartlands, allowing Conservative candidates to take the seat. While Farage announced his intention to rebrand the party as the "Reform Party" in order to help it succeed where UKIP failed in displacing the Labour Party as the main opposition, little has been heard from them since the general election, and questions remain as to the likely success of any rebrand considering they're even more of an explicit one-issue party than UKIP were. Currently the Reform Party is acting as an anti-Lockdown Party, though with Farage having announced his (supposedly) final retirement from politics in early 2021, they still appear to be struggling for future direction.
- The British National Party (BNP, colloquially known as the British Nazi Party)
Current leader: Adam Walker (no current seat).
Proof that the Second World War didn't really teach some British people anything, they are an ultra-populist far-right (so far-right they believe the Conservatives to be Marxist) party and believe in withdrawal from the European Union, isolationism, strongly authoritarian anti-crime measures, "better rights" for "native" (i.e. white) Britons, and "voluntary repatriation" of what they regard as "non-native" Britons (i.e. deporting anyone who isn't white).note They are usually elected in areas with high levels of racial tension. They are derided by other far-right groups such as the National Front for trying to make themselves appear respectable. They have been playing up their anti-immigration policies in order to gain popular support, but remain very niche and have no MPs, although they had several councillors and had a few MEPs in the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014. Their colours are red, white, and blue, and the party's logo is a heart with a Union Jack pattern beneath.
The appellation "far-right", by the way, applies strictly to their social, foreign, and law and order policies; their economic policy is somewhat standard and, as long as you're white, you'd probably get the same financial assistance from the state as you would under Labour. One of the only political parties to be banned from most university campuses, due to their policies. They are almost universally hated and are considered Acceptable Targets, as demonstrated when their leader Nick Griffin went on Question Time. For everyone except him, Hilarity Ensued.
- Mostly appears in Fictional Counterpart form.
- Had its membership list leaked by a disgruntled party worker, and, rather hilariously, declared its intention to use the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights into UK law and that it actively campaigned to have repealed, against the leaker. Sandi Toksvig on The News Quiz said: "Sometimes you don't have to write jokes." The worker was ultimately fined, but only a pittance, due to the BNP's aggressive case.
- Their campaign literature tends to suffer from Critical Research Failure; for instance, one campaign leaflet showed pictures of ordinary Britons and images from World War II such as a Spitfire. However, it turned out that most of the 'ordinary Britons' were stock photographs of non-British models, and the Spitfire belonged to 303 (Polish) Squadron — a delicious irony given that one of the BNP's particular bugbears is immigration from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Likewise, as any far-right nationalist party would, they have a love of using England's patron saint, St George: a Palestinian who would've almost certainly have been told to go home under their policies.
- Since the threat of racial discrimination lawsuits looked to cripple the party financially, they are now required to allow the entry of people of ethnic minorities — and have, in fact, one non-white member,note as of 2010.
- During the 2015 election, it put up eight candidates and got 1,667 votes nationwide. In January 2016, the Electoral Commission deregistered the British National Party after it had failed to pay its annual registration fee of £25. The party was subsequently reregistered, and it still exists, but it has no representation on any level and only contested 10 seats at the 2017 election.note
- They were to the 2000s decade as the National Front were to The '70s and the British Union of Fascists were to The '30s. In other words, they were mostly a one-decade wonder as far as popularity and media attention went.
- The National Front
The main ultra-nationalist party in the 1970s and The '80s and a predecessor of the BNP, it still fields a handful of candidates, although most of its members have moved to the BNP. The main difference between the NF and the BNP is that the BNP at least pretends not to be racist. In a lot of more politically aware fiction set in the Thatcher years (This Is England for example), the NF (or a Fictional Counterpart) often loom on the horizon.
- RESPECT: The Unity Coalition
A hodgepodge of anti-Iraq War socialists and ultraconservative Muslims. "RESPECT" was an acronym for "Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community, and Trade Unionism." Notable for electing famous cat imitator and useful idiot George Galloway in 2005 after he moved from a safe Labour seat in Glasgow to the very Muslim Bethnal Green and Bow following his expulsion from the Labour Party for bringing the party into disrepute on charges including inciting Arabs to fight British troops. Galloway moved a little south to Poplar to contest the 2010 election and crashed and burned, leaving RESPECT with a handful of council seats in Muslim-heavy areas in Birmingham and London. However, in April 2012, Galloway was elected MP for Bradford West in a by-election. He lost the seat at the subsequent general election, winning 8,557 of the 9,989 votes the party's four candidates won between them. The party deregistered "voluntarily" in August 2016.
- There are also several communist and socialist parties, mainly notable for their sheer number; most famously the Socialist Worker's Party, but also including the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Communist Party of Britain, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Totally insignificant from a practical point of view, having membership in the hundreds rather than thousands. Came in for a lot of ribbing in Monty Python's Life of Brian, where the Judean separatist movements and their in-fightingnote were a parody of this. The CPGB actually won two seats back in 1945 before news of Stalin's purges made communism unpopular, and they lost them both at the 1950 election and proceeded to collapse into irrelevance thanks to their following the Moscow party line (their support for the 1956 invasion of Hungary revolted nearly all more rational leftists and earned them the pejorative nickname "tankies") and eventually disbanded in 1991. Since 2010, many of these far-left groups have stood for election under the banner of TUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition). This is more a flag of convenience than a genuine party, though.
Notably, these parties had — and to a degree still have — an incredibly High Turnover Rate of activists and members, especially the Moscow-backed CPGB. There are two reasons for this: first, they attracted young, intelligent, rebellious, free-thinking radicals ... who were then expected to become rigidly obedient drones the moment they had their membership cards. Second, the CPGB's rank-and-file who did stay were told that the allegations of the party being reliant on "Moscow gold" from the KGB to survive was a filthy smear spread to discredit the British left ... until they became senior enough to learn that it was completely true.
Not really parties, but listed for completion:
(4 MPs* , 2 MSPs* , 1 MS* , 3 MLAs* , 2 mayors, ~2,000 local)
A small part of political process, mostly being in the legislatures from being elected for local issues (such as Dr. Richard Taylor, who was elected an MP in 2001 and 2005 to save his local hospital), leaving their own party in protest to some issue (such as Sylvia Hermon, who was an ex-UUP member; and Douglas Carswell, who was an ex-Conservative and ex-UKIP member), or being kicked out of their own party for misbehaviour (Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry had to withdraw from the SNP whip, Charlie Elphicke had to withdraw from the Conservative whip, and Simon Danczuk had to withdraw from the Labour whip, all four due to being the subject of police investigations; all four were still independents at the time of their next election and were barred by their former parties from standing againnote ). Genuine independents are rare in the House of Commons (Sylvia Hermon being the only MP directly elected as an independent in the 2010s), and most of them are far more likely to be people who originally represented a party before having the whip removed.
Their numbers were somewhat inflated in September 2019 when Boris Johnson expelled 21 members of the Conservative Party for rebelling on a no-deal Brexit vote (a deeply controversial move for a number of reasons beyond just how many of them they were; the rebellion included two former Chancellors, three other former cabinet ministers, and Winston Churchill's grandson).
After the 2019 election, the Commons was back to one independent — an SNP member who was suspended from the party after nominations closed, meaning he still appeared on the ballot as SNP and won the seat. With Sylvia Hermon standing down at the 2019 election, the Commons no longer contains any MPs directly elected as independents.
Current convenor:note Lord Judge.
The most common Lords version of independents,note and account for about 20% of the members of the upper house. Generally, they are composed of experts in certain fields (for example, back in The '80s, the Lords brought in several veterinarians to help with the animal welfare debate) and people given a peerage as a form of honour because they'd run out of knighthoods to give them/the things they'd done warranted more than a knighthood (e.g. the architect Norman Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank), and have no official affiliation. Sit on the "crossbenches" in the Lords (between Government and Opposition, directly across from the Woolsack and Throne), unsurprisingly. Latter-day Commons Speakers who were awarded peerages tended to sit as crossbench peers.
- Lords Spiritual
(Set by statute as the 26 most senior bishops in the Church of England)
Current convenor:note David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham.
This curious inclusion in the House of Lords is due to Anglicanism being the "established church" of England (i.e. it is partially funded by the Treasury and the Government has some input in the selection of bishops). Generally, they only vote on ecclesiastical matters, but modern secularism and their hand in immensely watering down a government bill in 2010 are gradually making this arrangement ... unpopular.
And last, but certainly not least...
- The Official Monster Raving Loony Party (OMRLP)
Current leader: Alan "Howling Laud" Hope (local councillor, Fleet).
Joke party that exists to draw attention to political issues through satire. For a long time, the party was led by Screaming Lord Sutch, but after his suicide, their current leader, Howling Lord Hope, took over. Notable for actively trying not to get elected; their performance in the 1990 Bootle by-election, beating The Remnant of the SDP (who had almost won Richmond a year prior) both killed off the SDP and deeply disturbed Sutch. Several apparently 'Loony' policies of theirs have actually been implemented over the years, including lowering the voting age to eighteen (the party's original platform as the "Teenage Party"), the issuing of passports for pets, and all-day opening for pubs.
- While having few seats, they in fact get a surprisingly large number of votes, considering their stance.
- When the first National Front councillor was elected, the media predictably went into crazy mode. Screaming Lord Sutch defused the situation by pointing out that, at the time, there were also three serving Loony councillors.
UKIP's first major electoral success occurred in the National Assembly of Wales elections in 2016, where they gained seven AMs from zero as a result of disaffected Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem voters in regions that combine high unemployment, poverty, and immigration. Nationally, UKIP and the Green Party have had very little electoral success, despite levels of support that would suggest returning a handful of legislators (2015: 12.6% and 3.8% respectively); the first MP from either party to get elected to the Commons was the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas in 2010. However, they have been more successful in getting members elected to the European Parliament, although UKIP, in common with a few other minor parties in history, have had a party member defect to them. Until 2009, the BNP (2010: 1.9%) had never been elected to anything more significant than a few local council seats until electing two MEPs in 2009, though they now have none. Before anyone gets too worried about the implications, they actually received fewer votes than the previous election, but lower turnout, in part due to an ongoing political scandal affecting the main parties more than hardline BNP supporters, meant they received a higher proportion of the total. Given that it effectively disenfranchises a great deal of the population, this, along with the Liberal Democrats' low seats-to-votes ratio, is one of the most common arguments for proportional representation. This can be seen in the 2016 Welsh elections where the regional vote, which is based on proportional representation, is how UKIP gained its seven AMs.
Political parties based in Great Britain, especially Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats, do not generally contest elections in Northern Ireland, although the Conservative party has contested elections and failed to make much of an impact. Instead, there is a completely separate set of political parties: Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) are nationalist parties, supporting Northern Ireland leaving the UK and becoming part of the Republic of Ireland; while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) are unionist parties, favouring Northern Ireland continuing as part of the UK; and the Alliance Party is non-sectarian.
Sinn Féin is an abstentionist party, i.e. when its candidates win an election to the House of Commons, they refuse to take their seats as they would have to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Sinn Féin also fields candidates across the border in the Republic of Ireland (where they do take their seats, but have historically done far worse; the 2011 elections did see a large improvement, however, and their candidate finished third in the 2011 presidential election, which was a seven-person contest). It is one of two political parties to operate actively in both the UK and Ireland.note
- The Whigs: (1678–1868) Supported aristocrats, the Hanoverian succession, and Presbyterians. Opposed to absolute monarchy. The roots of the Liberal Party. The Whigs were the anti-war party during The American Revolution, with prominent Whig Edmund Burke making several impassioned speeches at least vaguely supportive of the American cause in Parliament. As a result, the American revolutionaries identified themselves with the Whigs and the Loyalists with the Tories. This had a few strange consequences. On one hand, when the New England wing of the Democratic-Republicans merged with the remainder of the Federalists, they decided to call themselves the Whig Party (go figure). On the other hand, the American Whigs, being anti-slavery, were responsible for naming and providing the ideology for the True Whig Party of Liberia, which, starting in 1870 (and ending only in 1971), was the ruling party in the world's first one-party state. Oops.
- The Radicals (late 18th century–1859): Progressive grouping which supported parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation, and freedom of the press. They opposed the Corn Laws (a high tariff on cereal crops designed to protect rich landowning British aristocrats from Canadian and American competition; this policy made bread and beer more expensive, to the detriment of Britain's poor).
- The Peelites' (1846–59): Members of the Conservative Party who backed Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, they followed Peel when he left the Tories over his opposition to the Corn Laws. Supported by intellectuals and entrepreneurs, the Peelites advocated for free trade and what we would term technocracy in the civil service. Twenty years after the split with the Conservatives, they merged with the Whigs and Radicals, creating the Liberal Party. Noted Liberal PM William Gladstone was originally a Peelite.
- The Liberal Party: (1859–1988) Successors to the Whigs, Radicals, and Peelites. One of the two major parties in the 19th and early 20th century (along with the Conservatives). Supported Home Rule for Ireland and the expansion of the electoral franchise. Destroyed by The Irish Question, internal fighting, the rise of the Labour Party and the First World War. Precisely what was ultimately responsible is a subject of historical debate, with one analogy being that of a man being run over by a bus while having a heart attack. The remnants much later merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the modern Liberal Democrats. Of course, this being the UK, a remnant of the remnant continues to call itself the Liberal Party and claim a continuity with the earlier party. Said remnant is only popular in a few small places (read, the councils of Ryedale, Peterborough, and Liverpool, which have five, one, and three Liberal councillors respectively). Famous members included Prime Ministers William Gladstone, David Lloyd George and, before he went back to the Tories, Winston Churchill.
- The Irish Parliamentary Party, also known as the Home Rule Party: (1873–1918) Another fallen giant. A moderate Irish nationalist party that was the third largest party in Westminster during its existence, and even held the balance of power at several points. Campaigned for Home Rule, a precursor of the current devolution situation. Destroyed by the rise of Sinn Féin, the party has the rather sad honour of the worst election meltdown in British political history: they went into the 1918 general election with 76 seats and emerged with just seven. A remnant staggered on in Northern Ireland until the 1970s as the Nationalist Party, eventually merging with the Northern Ireland Labour Party and a few other stragglers to become the SDLP. Famous members included Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond.
- The Social Democratic Party (the SDP): (1981–1988) A mildly centre-left party formed in the early 1980s by members of the Labour Party who felt that the Labour Party was moving too far left to be electable. They got a few dozen Labour MPs and one Conservative MP, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, to join the party. The SDP almost immediately formed a close electoral alliance with the Liberal Party. For a time, this "SDP/Liberal Alliance" looked like they could win the 1983 election and forever alter the political landscape of Britain (Liberal leader David Steel even said "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" at their 1981 conference). But then The Falklands War broke out, they came out with only 25 MPs (despite a vote share the Lib Dems have been unable to match since) and, after limping along a few more years, merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats. Like the Liberals, a remnant exists that claims continuity with the old SDP; it does even worse than the Liberal remnant.
Wikipedia has a list of all political parties of note here.
The upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament. Members are one of three possible components:
- Life peers — appointed by the monarch on behalf of the government of the day. These appointments can be for political reasons (to reward a donor, a minister who lost their seat, or just to butter someone up); or for technocratic reasons (to inform debates by including expert opinions in the chamber). As you can imagine, the former tends to be distinctly more common. Can choose to take or leave a party whip. If they do not wish to identify with a political party, they can sit as crossbenchers or non-affiliated lords (see above).
- Lords Spiritual — the twenty-seven senior-most bishops of the Church of England. This is a holdover from the fact that the Church of England is technically part of the state. Normally don't play a part in actual debates but have been known to flout this now and then.
- Hereditary peers — members whose peerages are passed from parents to children. The chamber used to be almost entirely composed of this variety (who are traditionally from the landed gentry and upper classes), until the House of Lords Act 1999 had most of them replaced with appointed life peers. A set number of 92 remain, 'elected' by all hereditary peers eligible to sit in the House. Can choose to identify with or without a party whip in the same manner as life peers.
The purpose of the House of Lords is to act as a checking system for the House of Commons and to scrutinise any bills that are passed through Parliament (although they can also submit new bills, this happens only rarely). This rather divides opinion in political experts and non-experts alike: some think that having unelected members of Parliament vitiates the principles of democracy and that the second house should also be elected by the public, while others believe that having two elected chambers would be a bad idea, since it could lead to the same party being dominant in both, and thus be able to force bills through with no opposition.
The Lords consist of 741 active members and have the power to veto or delay any move by the Commons, which explains why they still exist. However, there are restrictions: the Lords cannot permanently affect any bill that seeks to fulfill promises made in the government's manifesto, nor can they affect any bill that is concerned solely with public money or taxation. The government may also force a bill past the House of Lords via the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, although this is rare, being last done over fox hunting. If you were wondering how a bill allowing the Commons to bypass the Lords was created, the Lords voted in favour of it (eventually; the Prime Minister got the King to threaten to stack the House in his favour by appointing more Lords).
The House of Lords historically featured Law Lords (formally the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary), who acted as the highest court of appeal in the UK (usually as the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, with decisions being presented and pro forma passed as motions by the Lords as a whole). However, the Blair government, desiring to increase the separation of the judiciary and the legislature (partly because the EU had made some noises about the arrangement being suspicious), abolished the system. The new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom was established in 2009, taking over the Appellate Committee's duties ... and pretty much everything else about the Appellate Committee, as well, since the Law Lords all became Supreme Court Justices, the Law Lords who had become Justices got to keep their seats in the House (not that it mattered, since they never used them), and future justices would be given baronial titles without seats. So essentially, nothing changed.
The Privy Council has nothing, usually, to do with toilets. It has a lot less power than it used to (the Cabinet, a subcommittee, has most of that). It consists of former and current Cabinet members, leaders of the big three political parties, plus a few other people that get invited to the show. The main advantages of membership is that (A) it's for life, (B) you can call yourself "Right Honourable", (C) you can sit on the steps of the throne during debates if you're a member of the House of Lords, and (D) you get access to top-secret documents.
The Privy Council also has a Judicial Committee, consisting of the Justices of the Supreme Court and a few other judges. Its domestic jurisdiction, once wide-ranging, is now limited to a few random tribunals which very few people have heard of or care about (the ecclesiastical courts? the High Court of Chivalry? The Disciplinary Committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons?note ); the main exception is that it hears cases on appeal in admiralty — that is, the law of seagoing vessels — from certain courts. It may also give "advice" should the Government ask for it.note However, it serves as the highest court of appeal for Britain's Crown Dependencies (The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) and Overseas Territories (numerous, most notably Gibraltar and The Falkland Islands), certain Commonwealth realms, certain Commonwealth republics, and the Sultanate of Brunei. When sitting for this purpose, jurists from the country in question are appointed to the Privy Council to hear the case. This procedure has been abolished in the more developed Commonwealth realms, although it existed more recently than you might think — Australia abolished it so recently that one of the most famous Judicial Committee decisions, the "Wagon Mound" case of 1961, was actually an appeal from the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
Upon the death of the monarch, sovereign power devolves to the Privy Council until the latter officially proclaims the heir to be king or queen; the Council, in turn, generally does so right away and in any case is required to do so as soon as the monarch takes his/her oath to protect the Church of Scotland (the only oath the monarch is required to take upon taking the throne rather than at coronation).
Government Departments, Agencies, and the Civil Service
For the actual work of administering the country, there are a fair few government bodies. The highest in rank are the Government Departments (the name "Ministry" is virtually unused now), many of which are based in Whitehall — although, in true British fashion, stuff will be farmed out elsewhere. These departments tend to chop and change with each new administration, since there is no law regulating them. However, the ones that have stood the test of time are:
- The Cabinet Office:
Current Cabinet Office Minister: Michael Gove (MP, Surrey Heath)
Based in Downing Street, they aid the PM in his or her job. For the benefit of confused Yanks, that makes them roughly equivalent to the Executive Office of the President, i.e., the immediate staff of the leader him/herself. They have a rather cool briefing room called COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A), which ministers will meet in during a crisis.
- Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster:
Current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: Also Michael Gove (MP, Surrey Heath)
Ostensibly the office for the person responsible for the estates and rents of the British sovereign's private estates, in practice the holder of this post's involvement in these affairs is slight, and the post tends to go to someone considered the prime minister's 'fixer', providing cross-departmental oversight; indeed, the position has frequently been doubled up with that of Cabinet Office Minister in the past.
- The Treasury:
Current Chancellor of the Exchequer: Rishi Sunak (MP, Richmond (Yorks))
Current Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Stephen Barclay (MP, North East Cambridgeshire)
By far the most important institution of British government following Parliament itself; indeed, the prime minister's official title, which gives them most of their perks, is 'First Lord of the Treasury'. Featuring two Cabinet ministers — the Chancellor of the Exchequer and their deputy, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (although since the 2015 election the latter has been downgraded to "also attending Cabinet" rather than a full member). The Chancellor is usually either one of the most powerful M Ps after the Prime Minister, and often The Starscream (e.g. Gordon Brown), or someone more pliant and easy to control (e.g. Rishi Sunak, the current incumbent, who replaced the more difficult and powerful Sajid Javid). Sets taxation policies.
- The Home Office:
Current Home Secretary: Priti Patel (MP, Witham)
Nothing to do with housing, this is the department that deals with the police and the security services. Was split into two in 2007, with the new Ministry of Justice getting prisons and absorbing the Department of Constitutional Affairs, after being declared "not fit for purpose". Officially the "Home Department", but nobody ever calls it this.
- The Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
Current Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State: Dominic Raab (MP, Esher and Walton)
Formerly the Foreign Office, which people often still call it today, it's run by the Foreign Secretary and its job is rather obvious. The bit about the "Commonwealth" is because Commonwealth countries — and especially Commonwealth realms, which do, after all, have the same head of state as Britain — are not technically "foreign"; witness how Britain has an ambassador to the U.S. but a high commissioner to Canada and India. The position of Foreign Secretary is one of the 'four great offices of state', but the department is possibly the most difficult to wrangle, as it's notorious for being the weirdest in the Civil Service. While more conventional these days, ambassadors and high commissioners were routinely (and not entirely inaccurately) accused of Going Native and were frequently Bunny Ears Lawyers. With a default setting of 'pragmatic', it routinely ignores the Foreign Secretary whenever it feels it can get away with it. Later in 2020, it will merge with DFID (the Department for International Development) - a move which is seen as politicising Britain's aid policy.
- Ministry of Defence (MoD):
Current Defence Secretary: Ben Wallace (MP, Wyre and Preston North)
Again self-explanatory. Home is a large, imposing white building in Whitehall, with statues around it, which is not particularly advertised, but rather obvious.
- The Northern Ireland Office, The Scotland Office, and The Wales Office:
Current Northern Ireland Secretary: Brandon Lewis (MP, Great Yarmouth)
Current Scotland Secretary: Alister Jack (MP, Dumfries and Galloway)
Current Wales Secretary: Simon Hart (MP, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire)
Before the devolution settlements of the 1990s, these were the people in charge of running the local affairs of the non-English parts of the UK.note Many of their powers, particularly those of the Scotland Office, were removed after devolution, and nowadays the departments chiefly act as liaisons and lobbyists between the Westminster government and the devolved government, and have certain reserve powers to intervene if the devolved government falls apart.note Because of this, these offices are seen as less important as they were prior to devolution, and for several years the Scotland secretary would simultaneously run another department as well (Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander were both simultaneously Secretaries of State for Scotland and Transport, and Des Browne doubled up with Defence).
The other departments in the Cabinet have been known to change on the whim of a prime minister (the last change being in 2018 when the Communities and Health Departments were randomly renamed for no terribly compelling reason), but are currently the following:
- Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS):
Current Business Secretary: Alok Sharma (MP, Reading West)
Created in 2016 from the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Responsible for business policy, consumer affairs, competition regulation, research, energy policy, intellectual property ... and outer space.
- Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS):
Current Culture Secretary: Oliver Dowden (MP, Hertsmere)
The department responsible for trying to make people excited about the British Olympics team, while attempting to stop everyone complaining about the country's broadband infrastructure.
- Department for Education (DfE):
Current Education Secretary: Gavin Williamson (MP, South Staffordshire)
Responsible for schools, teachers, the curriculum, and adoption. But only in England.
- Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA):
Current Environment Secretary: George Eustice (MP, Camborne & Redruth)
Responsible for keeping the farmers happy. Also handles national parks, air quality, conservation ... basically anything environmental. Most of this department's work only applies to England, with the devolved administrations having their own equivalent departments.
- Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC):
Current Health Secretary: Matt Hancock (MP, West Suffolk)
Responsible for keeping the NHS running (though in which direction is debatable depending on your views) and telling junior doctors that they don't know anything about being junior doctors. But again, only in England.
- Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government (DHCLG):
Current Housing Secretary: Robert Jenrick (MP, Newark)
Deals with the cries of local councils. Also responsible for housing,note building regulations, the fire service, and making people be nice to each other. But, yet again, only in England — Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have their own regional equivalents (see the "Devolution" section).
- Department for International Development (DfID):
Current International Development Secretary: Anne-Marie Trevelyan (MP, Berwick-upon-Tweed
Manages the UK's aid budget and foreign development schemes. Due to be subsumed into the Foreign Office in September 2020.
- Department for International Trade (DfIT):
Current Trade Secretary: Liz Truss (MP, South West Norfolk)
The department responsible for convincing people that they want to stock British things in their country. Re-formed in 2016 (the department had been divided up since the 1980s) when the need for international trade deals (formerly negotiated by the EU on behalf of Britain) suddenly became a bit ... more pressing. Also serves as President of the Board of Trade (a role held by the Business secretary prior to 2016).
- Ministry of Justice (MoJ):
Current Justice Secretary: Robert Buckland (MP, Swindon South)
For the whole UK — responsible for human rights, data protection, and the Supreme Court. In England and Wales only, also gets to deal with all the prisons (after the Home Office didn't want to do this any more). The Justice secretary also holds the post of Lord Chancellor.
- Department for Transport (DfT):note
Current Transport Secretary: Grant Shapps (MP, Welwyn Hatfield)
Responsible for Network Rail (but not the trains, or most of the stations, or anything in Northern Ireland), and selling the rights to run trains on UK railways to other countries' state railway companies, while otherwise attempting everything possible (even against all reason) to avoid having any UK state railway company themselves.
- Department for Work and Pensions (DWP):
Current Work and Pensions Secretary: Thérèse Coffey (MP, Suffolk Coastal)
The ones responsible for benefits, employment, and health and safety. But only in England, Scotland, and Wales - NI goes its own way on this. Gets a little bit of controversy for accusing everyone of being benefit cheats and for doing things like asking double-amputees to prove they're disabled.
Also not strictly Cabinet posts, but included for completion since their holders usually attend Cabinet meetings:
- Leader of the House of Commons/Lords:
Current Leader of the House of Commons: Jacob Rees-Mogg (MP, North East Somerset)
Current Leader of the House of Lords: Natalie Evans, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
The people responsible for dealing with all the procedural nonsense in either House, and basically helping arrange what goes on in the government's allotted speaking time (the Speaker or Lord Speaker decides how much time in general that the government and opposition get).
- Attorney General
Current Attorney General: Suella Braverman (MP, Fareham)
The government's in-house legal advisor ... but only in England and Wales. Basically, they make sure the government is acting within established law.
- Chief Whip
Current Chief Whip: Mark Spencer (MP, Sherwood)
Responsible for government discipline — making sure government MPs vote the way they're supposed to, trying to avoid the leaks of any embarrassing information to the press, and acting as a communication channel between the backbenchers and Cabinet. Usually a rather secretive (and occasionally forgotten) role as the Chief Whip naturally avoids interviews. Given a new light and brought into the public consciousness by an entirely fictional character — the Machiavellian Magnificent Bastard Francis Urquhart of House of Cards.
The Civil Service are the people who run the departments. There are a lot of people with the title "Secretary" in these departments, but they're not actual secretaries: there's a Yes, Minister scene that ends with the line "Mrs. McKay types ... She's the secretary."
The Prime Minister may also appoint a Deputy Prime Minister or First Secretary of State (the latter of which is usually referred to as "deputy prime minister in all but name", and indeed some people have held both posts simultaneously), although this is not obligatory and both offices have gone unused for extended periods of time. Indeed, in Theresa May's ministry, David Lidington held neither office but was considered her de facto deputy.
Despite implying seniority over all other members of the Cabinet, both titles are purely honorific and carry no specific power or authority of their own and are often doubled up with another Cabinet-level post (George Osborne was both Chancellor and First Secretary in the second Cameron ministry). The post of deputy prime minister is currently vacant; however, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also wears the first secretary of State's hat, notably having to fill in for Prime Minister Johnson while the latter was very ill with COVID-19 in 2020.
Although the UK Parliament is in the Westminster area of London, England, three of the four constituent countries have their own regional administrations: the Scottish Parliament (established in 1999), the Welsh Parliament (also created in 1999), and the Northern Ireland Assembly (pre-dating both in 1998). London also has its own devolved administration in the form of the London Assembly, created in 2000. England at large, however, does not have any devolution in that sense, although several attempts have been made in the past.
The members of each devolved legislature have their own titles equivalent to Westminster's "Member of Parliament":
- Scotland has Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).
- Wales has Members of the Senedd (MSs, previously known as Assembly Members [AMs] prior to 2020).
- Northern Ireland has Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
- London has Assembly Members (AMs, not to be confused with the former name for Wales' legislators above)
These structures have limited powers over their respective countries; with several matters remain in the hands of the UK national government. They each have different degrees of self-control, with Scotland having devolved the most power (and having its own, entirely different legal system).
Each of the three devolved administrations also contains a distinguishable nationalist element. The Scottish Parliament has the SNP, the Welsh Parliament has Plaid Cymru, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has Sinn Féin and the SDLP. These parties all advocate a separation of their respective country from the United Kingdom in some form or another. Except for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, however, these elements have not usually been in the majority in devolved elections. Although Plaid Cymru has held greater power in Wales than its voting success might initially indicate, it's been the main party to support the Welsh Labour government through successive minority or weak-majority assembly terms, either through formal coalition government or less formal 'agreements'. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin has formed one half of the mandatory coalition government since 2005, and tends to fare somewhat similarly in elections to the very-unionist DUP.
England does not currently have its own parliament, possibly because England's size relative to other parts of the UK is such that an English parliament will not be more representative than the UK parliament. There have been proposals for English regions to have devolved parliaments or 'regional assemblies', and there is currently a Greater London Assembly that has similar powers to a devolved parliament, but no others yet.
Northern Ireland previously had a devolved parliament with an actual prime minister from 1921 to 1972 (the term "first minister" hadn't been invented yet). Members of the Northern Irish Parliament were also known as MPs (sometimes abbreviated to "MPNI" or "MP(NI)" to avoid confusion), rather than the modern "MLA". The Northern Irish Parliament wielded a great deal more power than the current NI Assembly (and indeed its modern counterparts in Wales and Scotland) but was suspended in 1972 due to the worsening Troubles, and eventually abolished altogether in 1973, with Westminster ruling the country directly from then on. The current Northern Ireland Assembly was only officially established in 1998.
Each devolved administration also tends to get referred to by a more colloquial geographical name, in the same way "Westminster" is used in reference to the UK Parliament:
- The Scottish Parliament is usually referred to as Holyrood, after the area of Edinburgh in which the Parliament is based.
- The Welsh Parliament gets Cardiff Bay, again after the area of Cardiff where it's based.
- The Northern Irish Assembly is usually called Stormont, after the name of the estate in Belfast that it occupies.
- The London Assembly occasionally gets City Hall, after its home building, but this doesn't get used as often as the other examples.
The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly, and the London Assembly are elected for fixed terms of four years.Although... That said... . All devolved legislatures have an element of proportional representation in the electoral process (or in the case of Northern Ireland, are entirely proportional) to ensure that the eventual composition of the elected assembly more nearly reflects the proportion of votes cast for the various parties; e.g. the Welsh Assembly has 60 members, 40 of whom are elected for geographical constituencies which match the 40 House of Commons seats which Wales has; the other 20 members are elected from regional lists to adjust the overall seat distribution in each region in line with the proportion of votes cast between the parties.
Following the 2016 elections, control of the devolved parliaments is as follows:
- The Scottish Parliament and Government are run by the Scottish National Party (SNP), who lost their overall majority in the 2016 elections, and now operate as a single-party minority government, holding 63 out of 129 seats. (Note that the electoral system used by the Scottish Parliament was designed in such a way that one party winning an overall majority was meant to be impossible.) The Conservatives have now become the official opposition of the Scottish Parliament, after winning 31 MSPs to Labour's 24 in the 2016 election.
- The Welsh Parliament and Government are run by Labour. Labour won exactly 29 seats in the 60-seat assembly, falling short of the traditional majority. To get round this, Labour have incorporated Wales' only remaining Liberal Democrat MS into the Cabinet to reach a majority, so technically are governing as a Labour-LibDem coalition.
- The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are run by a coalition government of five parties — the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, UUP, and Alliance Party. The NI Assembly is designed to be run by a mandatory coalition of at least two parties (one nationalist, one unionist), to prevent either the unionist or nationalist 'sides' from excluding the other. Smaller parties (that are relatively large enough) may also join the Executive if they wish. The DUP supplanted the UUP as the largest unionist party, and Sinn Féin supplanted the SDLP as the largest nationalist party, in the mid-2000s. This situation has remained unchanged since.
- The London Assembly is under no overall control (the council equivalent to saying 'hung parliament'), but Labour is the biggest party, holding 12 out of 25 seats. The current mayor of London is Labour's Sadiq Khan, who upon election in May 2016 became the first Muslim mayor of a major Western capital, as well as the politician with the largest personal mandate in the history of the United Kingdom.
The Mayor of London should not be confused with the Lord Mayor of London. The latter is an entirely ceremonial position in the separate administrative area of the City of London, which has its own police, and serves only for a year at a time, while the former oversees the governance of the Greater London area. The most famous lord mayor of London is Richard Whittington (c.1350–1423), who served as the inspiration for the pantomime character Dick Whittington.
The devolution of Scotland has brought something called "the West Lothian question" to greater prominence.note This is the rather odd situation in which a Scottish MP can vote on English education policy, but not vice versa (despite Scottish education being devolved and there being no restriction on English MPs also running as MSPs): this was exactly how top-up fees got introduced in 2004; Scottish Labour MPs, who wouldn't be affected by their introduction, voted overwhelmingly in favour for them, giving the party their majority (of five!) votes to push the legislation through. The Conservatives want Scottish MPs to be barred from these sorts of votes, while the SNP argue that that will create two tiers of MPs, and as a UK party, they should vote on UK issues.
This issue was partly solved in 2016 when the Conservative government introduced what it called "English votes for English laws". This allowed the Speaker to designate sections of bills as "England only" or "England and Wales only". These would then first be voted on by a so-called "legislative grand committee" of all English MPs (or English and Welsh MPs as appropriate), before later being considered by the House as a whole. While not a complete solution, given that Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish MPs can still vote on these laws at a later stage, it is at least a start. This dilemma was further complicated by the 2017 Conservative minority government relying on the votes of Northern Irish DUP MPs (who would not be affected thanks to devolution) to pass its legislation. With the return to a majority government in 2019, this "East Antrim question" has been resolved.
Local government in the UK is a remarkably complex subject, with not all areas having the same system. Most areas of England have county councils, with district councils below them (many districts are called boroughs or cities). However, there are some unitary authorities (whose councils are either called London boroughs, metropolitan boroughs, cities, counties, districts, or just councils) which can be best thought of by Americans as what you would get if the entirety of Southern California became one state and combined its local and state authorities into one government. The whole of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are divided into unitary authorities. Northern Ireland has districts (though two have city status), Scotland has council areas (four — Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow — being city councils) and Wales has principal areas known as either counties, cities or county boroughs.
In most rural parts and some urban areas of England the districts are subdivided into civil parishes which are run by parish councils. Despite their depiction in the BritCom The Vicar of Dibley, they have nothing to do with the Church of England (which is also divided into parishes which are run by parochial church councils). Sometimes the two councils may have overlapping membership, but they are totally separate entities. Parish councils have little power, normally, but if they cover a small town, the local district or county council may devolve certain matters to them, e.g. public parks. Parish councils that cover towns are called town councils, and those that cover cities are, naturally enough, city councils; such councils are led by a town or city mayor. Some parishes have too small a population to have a council and instead have an annual parish meeting where the whole parish is invited to discuss local matters. Wales has similar bodies called community councils. The equivalent bodies no longer exist in Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Local government is responsible for things like planning, schools, libraries, and refuse collection.
Local councils are elected every May: which ones and which seats vary from year to year, but most seats have terms four years long. These elections, like US midterm elections, are often an opportunity to protest the government. Local issues also play a big role.