United Kingdom: Government
Principal Government Officials
Chief of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Head of Government: Prime Minister David Cameron
The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The equivalent body of law is based on statute, common law, and "traditional rights." Changes may come about formally through new acts of Parliament, informally through the acceptance of new practices and usage, or by judicial precedents. Although Parliament has the theoretical power to make or repeal any law, in actual practice the weight of 700 years of tradition restrains arbitrary actions.
Executive power rests nominally with the monarch but actually is exercised by a committee of ministers (cabinet) traditionally selected from among the members of the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords. The prime minister is normally the leader of the largest party in the Commons, and the government is dependent on its support.
Parliament represents the entire country. It legislates for the entire country in matters that are not devolved to the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, such as foreign policy, energy policy, immigration and border control, and monetary policy. The devolved legislatures in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have varying degrees of legislative authority over other matters. England does not have its own separate legislative body and Parliament can therefore legislate in all fields for England. As of May 2010, the maximum parliamentary term was 5 years, and the prime minister could ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a general election at any time. Following the May 6, 2010 election the newly-formed Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government announced plans to institute fixed 5-year Parliament terms. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed in early 2011, bringing in the 5 year parliamentary term. There are two ways an early election could be called, both of which involve votes in the House of Commons. One requires a vote of no confidence in the current government, which can be passed by a simple majority (326-324). If an alternative government then cannot be formed within 14 days from the parties already in the House, then a general election must take place. The other is a vote explicitly for a general election, and requires a two-thirds majority, or 434 MPs, to pass. The 650-member House of Commons has sole jurisdiction over finance. The House of Lords, although shorn of most of its powers, can still review, amend, or delay temporarily any bills except those relating to the budget. The House of Lords has more time than the House of Commons to pursue one of its more important functions--debating public issues. In 1999, the government removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to hold seats in the House of Lords. The current house consists of appointed life peers, who hold their seats for life, and 92 hereditary peers, who will hold their seats only until final reforms have been agreed upon and implemented. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches, although the most senior judges (Law Lords) have seats in the House of Lords. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means that the judiciary cannot review the constitutionality of legislation.
Following approval of referenda by Scottish and Welsh voters in 1997, the British Government established a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, both of which were launched in 1999. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland now each have legislative and executive bodies that legislate on and administer many matters, though there is significant variation in the extent of powers enjoyed by each of the devolved governments. The devolved governments have taken over many of the functions previously performed by the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland offices, whose primary purpose now is to coordinate between Westminster and the devolved administrations and to represent their interests in non-devolved matters. Scotland has always maintained different systems of law (Scots Law), education, local government, judiciary, and national church (the Church of Scotland instead of the Church of England). In January 2012 the ruling Scottish National Party announced its intention to hold a referendum in Scotland on full independence from the U.K. in 2014, and the U.K. government began discussions with the devolved Scottish government as to the terms of such a referendum.
Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and prime minister from 1921 to 1973, when the British Government imposed direct rule in order to deal with the deteriorating political and security situation. From 1973, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, based in London, was responsible for the region, including efforts to resolve the issues that lay behind the "the troubles."
By the mid-1990s, gestures toward peace encouraged by successive British and Irish governments and by President Bill Clinton began to open the door for restored local government in Northern Ireland. A Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) cease-fire and nearly 2 years of multiparty negotiations, led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, resulted in the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) of April 10, 1998, which was subsequently approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Key elements of the agreement include devolved government, a commitment of the parties to work toward "total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations," police reform, and enhanced mechanisms to guarantee human rights and equal opportunity. The Good Friday Agreement also called for formal cooperation between the Northern Ireland institutions and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and it established the British-Irish Council, which includes representatives of the British and Irish Governments as well as the devolved Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Devolved government was reestablished in Northern Ireland in December 1999, although certain key functions, such as policing and justice powers, remained under Westminster control.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for a 108-member elected Assembly, overseen by a 12-minister Executive Committee (cabinet) in which unionists and nationalists share leadership responsibility. Northern Ireland elects 18 representatives to the Westminster Parliament in London. However, the five Sinn Fein members of Parliament, who won seats in the last election, follow an abstentionist policy in which they refuse to take their seats, although they do maintain offices and perform constituency services. Progress has been made on each of the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Most notably, a new, more-representative police service has been instituted, and PIRA and the other main republican and loyalist paramilitary groups have decommissioned their weapons. However, a small number of splinter republican groups continue to oppose the peace process and engage in violence, particularly against the police, U.K. military, and the justice sector. Disagreements over the implementation of elements of the agreement and allegations about PIRA's continued engagement in paramilitary activity troubled the peace process for several years. In October 2002, Northern Ireland's devolved institutions were suspended amid allegations of IRA intelligence gathering at Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland's government. Assembly elections scheduled for May 2003 were postponed. Elections were held in November 2003, but the Assembly remained suspended. Finally, in 2007, the parties signed the St. Andrews Agreement, which paved the way for the Northern Ireland Government to stand up and for the devolution of powers to Belfast to occur. Responsibility for police and justice issues in Northern Ireland were the last component of devolution to take place; the transfer of these powers from London to Belfast occurred on April 12, 2010, having been provided for by the signing of the Hillsborough Agreement on February 4, 2010. The United States remains firmly committed to the peace process in Northern Ireland and to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, which it views as the best means to ensure lasting peace. The United States has condemned all acts of terrorism and violence, perpetrated by any group.
The United States is committed to Northern Ireland's economic development as a means of supporting a secure and stable peace, and works closely with local government and trade and investment bodies to highlight opportunities in the region. The United States has also been a strong supporter of the International Fund for Ireland, which has sought to enhance indigenous business prospects, redress inequalities of employment opportunity and community services, and improve cross-border business and cross-community ties.
The Labour government that had been in power since 1997, first under Prime Minister Tony Blair and then under his successor, Gordon Brown, lost its majority in the House of Commons in the May 6, 2010 election. For the first time since 1974, however, no party was able to win a full majority in the Commons, which led to several days of intense negotiations between the Conservatives (Tories), who won the most seats, and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), who placed third in number of seats won. On May 11, when it became clear that Labour would be unable to form a government, Prime Minister Gordon Brown resigned, and David Cameron became the new Prime Minister. Cameron subsequently announced a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which would ensure Liberal Democrat support for a Conservative-led government in exchange for five Liberal Democrat cabinet seats and policy compromises. As part of the coalition deal, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg became the Deputy Prime Minister. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has an 83-seat majority in the House of Commons, and the Labour Party forms the official opposition. Gordon Brown resigned as Labour leader on May 11, and was succeeded by Ed Miliband in a September 2010 Labour party election.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (March 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( March 2012)