Politics of the United Kingdom

overview of the political system of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
(Redirected from British politics)

The United Kingdom is a unitary state with devolution that is governed within the framework of a parliamentary democracy under constitutional monarchy in which the monarch, currently Charles III, is the head of state. It was formed by the merger of Scotland and England in 1707.

Britain is blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous. ~ David Brooks

Legislative power is held by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which is divided between a democratically elected House of Commons and a House of Lords appointed from the aristocracy. The United Kingdom also has devolved parliaments and assemblies for its constituent countries of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It also once had a large colonial empire which once controlled the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and large parts of Africa and Asia. Many of these former colonies remain members of the Commonwealth of Nations after decolonization. The United Kingdom is also a member of the OECD, the G7, the Council of Europe, and NATO. It was a member of the European Union, but exited the union in 2020.

Although they were once powerful, today the monarchy and the House of Lords are both mostly ceremonial institutions that enjoy little actual power, with most actual power concentrated in the House of Commons. The left-wing Labour Party currently enjoys a majority in the House of Commons, and its leader Keir Starmer currently serves as Prime Minister and head of government. The second-largest party in the House of Commons is the right-wing Conservative Party, and its leader Rishi Sunak currently serves as Leader of the Opposition. Other major political parties include the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin, and Plaid Cymru.


  • Overall, the picture that emerges from British political history is clear. Beginning in 1832, when Britain was governed by the relatively rich, primarily rural aristocracy, strategic concessions were made during an eighty-six-year period to adult men. These concessions were aimed at incorporating the previously disenfranchised into politics because the alternative was seen to be social unrest, chaos, and possibly revolution. The concessions were gradual because, in 1832, social peace could be purchased by buying off the middle classes. Moreover, the effect of the concessions was diluted by the specific details of political institutions, particularly the continuing unrepresentative nature of the House of Lords. Although challenged during the 1832 reforms, the House of Lords provided an important bulwark for the wealthy against the potential of radical reforms emanating from a democratized House of Commons. This was so at least until just before the First World War, when the showdown with Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government over the introduction of elements of a welfare state led to substantial limitations of the power of the Lords. After 1832, as the working classes reorganized through the Chartist movement and later the trade unions, further concessions had to be made. The Great War and the fallout from it sealed the final offer of full democracy. Although the pressure of the disenfranchised was more influential in some reforms than others, and other factors undoubtedly played a role, the threat of social disorder was the driving force behind the creation of democracy in Britain. The emergence of democracy in Britain and its subsequent consolidation took place in a society that had long shed nearly all the remnants of medieval organization and that had successfully resisted the threat of absolutism. They also took place in the context of rapid industrialization, urbanization, expansion of the factory system, rising inequality, and – in the period after the Repeal of the Corn Laws – rapid globalization of the economy.
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (2006)
  • Britain is blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.
  • British democracy approves the principles of movable party heads and unwaggable national tails.
    • Winston Churchill, address to a joint session of Congress, Washington, D.C. (17 January 1952); reported in Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963, ed. Robert Rhodes James (1974), vol. 8, p. 8,326
  • I know about your [British] system of democracy, but in that system the workers 'hold keys of straw', as an expression of ours puts it. It is democracy for the capitalists, for the lords, but not for the workers. When we win we shall establish democracy, but not like that democracy of yours.
Jim Hacker: Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.
  • "A Conflict Of Interest" (31 December 1987), by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Prime Minister, United Kingdom: British Broadcasting Corporation
  • Decades, if not centuries are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits [for democracy]. In Britain, the road to [democratic government] took seven centuries to traverse.