Revision:Government of the uk

It should be noted that while these notes are comprehensive and very usable, some sections are lacking more immediate details of events from the last few years.

Prime Minister and Cabinet


  • Prerogative Powers (traditionally vested in monarchy)
    • Declare War (Iraq)
    • Foreign Relations (treaties – niece)
    • National Security (MI5/MI6)
    • Dissolution of Parliament
    • Patronage (ministers, senior civil servants, ambassadors, judges, BBC chairman)
    • Create Peers
    • Give our honours
  • Powers as head of his party
    • Determine Parliamentary agenda
    • Ensure passage of government legislation
  • Power as head of government
    • Chair the cabinet (what is discussed) and main committees
    • Head of civil service



  • Retain party support – poll tax, Iraq, foundation hospitals/top-up fees.
  • Retain cabinet support – Blair – Clare Short/Robin Cook
  • Retain parliament support – required for legislation, James Callaghan removed.
  • Retain electorate support – Poll Tax, Blair and Europe.
  • Size and complexity of government
  • Political Circumstances – ‘events’, Hutton enquiry, majority of in House, state of economy. More recent example is MPs Expenses and the pressure this put on Brown to resign.

PM Styles (Norton)

  • Innovators – Seek power to achieve a future goal taking the party with them (BLAIR)
  • Reformers – Seek power to achieve a future goal drawn up by party (ATLEE)
  • Egoists – Seek power for the sake of power (WILSON)
  • Balancers – Achieve a balance in society/the party – often a compromise choice (MAJOR)

Thatcher: Dominant, charismatic, workaholic, ensured cabinet were her supporters Major: Listened to party, less dominant, mix of opinions on cabinet, worked with cabinet, indecisive



  • ‘System is driven more from No. 10 under Blair even than Mrs Thatcher at her height’
  • Strong leadership (Sept 11, Iraq, Kosovo)
  • Control Freak? (Wales – Imposed Micheals instead of Morgan)
  • Charismatic (‘spirit of the nation’ – Diana / Sept 11th)
  • Cabinet meetings infrequent + short
  • Bilateral meetings
  • Promotion of supporters (Milburn, Irvine, Byers)
  • Prime Ministers Department
  • ‘Spin’ (Hutton Enquiry – ‘sexed up’)
  • Image
  • Special policy advisers
  • Ignores parliament (5%)
  • “Big Tent” – seeks to become an electable party rather than ideologically strong.




  • Decision making Arena (War on Iraq – 2 days)
  • Arbitrating in departmental disputes (spending v treasury)
  • Dealing with emergencies (ERM, foot and mouth)
  • Coordination of govt. polices (‘joined up govt.’)
  • Developing government agenda/parliament business (Queen’s speech)
  • Leadership for the party in parliament


  • Standing Committees: Permanent policy areas (economic affairs)
  • Ad Hoc: temporary to deal with expected problems (HoL reform)

Collective Responsibility

  • Convention – not legally binding
  • Most important for cabinet, but is for all government members (John Denham over Iraq)
  • All members of the government are collectively responsible for successes or failures
  • Share responsibility of decisions even if they had no part in them
  • They must refrain from criticising the government public ally
  • If a minister cannot do they – resign
  • Unity
  • Cabinet should all resign if defeated on a motion of no confidence
  • Collective responsibility not collective decision making
  • Robin Cook and Clare Short.


  • Clare Short – no immediate resignation
  • People may resign for other reasons (leadership challenge etc.)
  • Doctrine was suspended by Wilson (EEC)
  • Coalition Government (if PR)
  • ‘Off the record leaks etc.’


Prime Ministerial Government


  • PM is more than ‘first among equals’ – dominates/dictates cabinet business
  • PM dominants policy making – cabinet becomes a rubber stamp
  • PM makes full use of prerogative powers
  • PM acts as principal spokesperson – media focus on PM
  • PM supervises individual departments – ministers must clear important decisions with *PM
  • PM distain for parliament – 5%


  • PM appoints/dismisses cabinet
    • Blair has been seen to promote supporters (Irvine, Milburn) and to demote those who are disloyal/Ineffectual (Cook/Mandelson)
  • PM is chairman of cabinet
    • Decides agenda (refusal to discuss Westland affair) and sums up (can twist decision)
  • Fewer/Shorter cabinet meetings
    • ‘Call me Tony’ last under an hour meetings
  • Important decisions without cabinet approval
    • Independence for BoE / Abolition of Lord Chancellor
  • Bilateral Meetings
    • ‘Seat of government is a sofa’
  • Status of the PMs office
    • 200+ staff, outside advisers (Alistair Campbell), committees reporting directly to the PM – Social exclusion Unit
  • Media focus on PM


Cabinet Government


  • PM does not dominate cabinet
  • PM is just ‘first among equals’
  • PM is chairman who just sums up discussion
  • Cabinet is main decision making body
  • Lengthy and Frequent meetings
  • Collective Responsibility
  • PM is effectively constrained in the use of prerogative powers
  • PM respects parliament
  • Media is not solely on PM
  • No inference in individual departments


  • Constraints on appointments and dismissals
    • All political beliefs of party represented (Old and New Labour – Prescott), must balance age/gender/ethnicity, could never dismiss senior people (i.e. Brown)
  • Cabinet often defeats PM
    • Threats of resignations caused Thatcher to back down over ERM entry
  • Too many dismissals gives wrong impression
    • Blair dismissals of Mandelson and Byers made media think govt. was in crisis.
  • Cabinet possess ultimate sancation – withdrawl of support
    • Thatcher
  • Personal Constraints
    • It is not possible for a PM to have complete control due to size of government!
  • Major decisions require the cabinet to be onside
    • 2-3 day conference over Iraq


Presidential Government


  • Behave as if they were head of state
  • Control all major policy developments
  • Massive personal authority
  • Focal point of government and the state


  • Huge use of patronage powers by Blair (Tonies Cronies)
  • Media – spin and presidential style press conferences
  • Outside advisers
  • Policy Units that report directly to him
  • Detached role as a leader of a nation – SPACIAL LEADERSHIP (Sept 11th)
  • Short cabinet meetings
  • Control Freak
  • Lack of concern for parliament
  • Politicisation of civil service (Alistair Campbell)


  • President is also head of state, president has authority directly from people, popularity of president does not depend on party, president has constitutional constraints etc.



  • Power fluctuates with time because it depends on the type of Prime Minister and what he chooses and is able to make of his office
  • Events and Personalities
  • Is this debate irrelevant? With multi-level governance it is not just the traditional centre that must be focused on. We must also take into account poll standings and Commons majorities.

The Constitution

A Constitution stipulates the structures and powers of government and the relationships between the different parts of government and between government and the individual citizen



  • Fundamental statement of laws
  • Covers the powers functions and duties of the state
  • Covers the rights and duties on the individual
  • Allocates power but also limits the powers, divides or separates them
  • Check and balance
  • Establishing unifying values and underlying beliefs
  • Providing stability
  • Protecting freedom
  • Legitimising a regime



  • Statute Law – takes precedence, European Communities Act
  • Common law – when no statue law exists, judges make it and it must be followed in future
  • Royal Prerogative – The prerogative powers of the PM that were vested in the monarchy
  • Conventions – established customs, not legal rules – ‘oil in the machinery’
  • Works of Authority – provides guidance on uncertain aspects
    • Parliamentary Practice
    • The English Constitution (Bagehot)
  • European Union Law – takes precedence over UK law – size of lorries on roads


  • Parliamentary Sovereignty – cannot bind successor, make/unmake any law
  • Cornerstone of the British Constitution (Dicey)
  • All laws take precedence
  • Could be used to destroy components of the constitution (rule of law)
    • EU LAW
    • Referendums – entrenchment
    • ECHR
  • Rule of Law
    • Nobody can be punished unless convicted of an offence by a court
    • Equality before the law – equal access and treatment
    • Independence and impartiality of the judiciary
      • Government proposals to remove trial by jury
      • No equal access in reality
      • Terrorism Bill 2001 – detainment without trial
      • MPs are move the law – ‘Parliamentary privilege’ (slander laws)
  • Unitary State
    • One body holds all the important powers
    • This being parliament and the government
    • This principle is decreasing in importance due to devolution
  • Separation of Powers
    • The three branches should be kept separate
    • Protect individual liberties each of the three parts should be a check and balance on the other parts
      • British Ministers all sit in Parliament
      • Executive is too strong to hold to account at times.


Written Constitution?

Most counties have a written constitution in which it is all codified in a single document – the UK does not. The UK’s constitution is described as unwritten but in fact it is just not codified – it is from masses of different sources. Britain has a part-written but un codified constitution.


  • ‘No democracy can be considered safe whose freedoms are not encoded in a constitution’
  • Protect against elective dictatorship
  • Protect citizens rights
  • Citizens would know more clearly what their rights are and how to enforce them
  • Bring up to date
  • Move in line with Europe
  • Constitutional Awareness – educational tool, people will know and assert rights


  • ‘It is a curious argument that we should adopt a radical change in our constitution on the hypothesis that evil may come, but without any evidence that it has’
  • Unnecessary – we don’t suffer from arbitrary government
  • Undesirable
    • Lose flexibility
    • Written constitutions make laws very hard to alter (right to carry arms – USA)
    • Transfers power to an unelected body of judges
    • No real agreement on what would replace the existing system (watering down)
  • Unachievable
    • No body can authorise or legitimise it
    • Using the authority of the current constitution to destroy the constitution
    • Using X to destroy X…illogical.


  • Transfer of power to a subordinate elected body
  • Transfer of power on a geographical basis
  • Transfer of function at present exercised by parliament
  • No loss of sovereignty (powers can be regained)
  • Transfer of political decision making
  • Decentralisation of political power



  • Sharing of sovereignty
  • Powers cannot be overruled/removed by central government
  • Independently take responsibility for a set of functions different to central government
  • Written constitution setting out which powers are whose
  • Have an umpire to adjudicate in disputes
  • More likely to have tax raising powers


For - Every Important Politician Doesn’t Like Facts

  • Efficiency – services targeted where required…better than those miles away dealing with it
  • Identity – assemblies represent the region, encourages a sense of identity
  • Participation – people are closer to their government so care more
  • Diversity – not all regions wants the same (eye tests Wales)
  • Legitimacy – voted for by the people, Scotland always had Labour majority
  • Fairness – gives them what they want


Against – Wet Babies Cry At Bedtime

  • West Lothian Question – Scottish MPs voting on English laws
  • Break up of UK – might end up wanting independence (no evidence)
  • Conflict – between devolved/central (had none so far as same party)
  • Anomalies – service provision (isn’t this the point) – Barnett Formula (20% per capita more!)
  • Bureaucracy – expensive bureaucracy…can we say cost is a real reason to stop legitimacy?


Labour’s Constitutional Changes

  • Reform of House of Lords (92 hereditary peers left, all to be abolished soon)
  • Devolution
  • Incorporation of ECHR
  • Freedom of Information Act (open government)
  • Wider use of referendums to entrench laws (devolution, Euro, PR)
  • Elected Majors (Hartlepool)
  • AMS for Scotland
  • STV for Wales / NI
  • Bank of England Independent
  • Abolition of Lord Chancellor


  • The fact no party since the war has ever had 50%
  • Growing demands for less control from London
  • Growing dislike for unelected bodies (HoL)
  • EU
  • Growing concern that liberty was being reduced (Terrorism Bill?)

Labours reforms GOOD

  • Modernisation
  • Delivered Devolution (what they wanted)
  • Begun to take liberties seriously
  • Begun to give open government
  • Begun the process of Lords reform that has been avoided by other governments
  • Begun in general to consider system reforms
  • Step toward the separation of powers (constitutional principle)

Labours reforms AGAINST

  • Avoided issue of a written constitution
  • Failed to address the issue of executive power
  • No changed voting system (nor is it likely)
  • Freedom of information act is very restricted/watered down
  • Made a mess of HoL reform
  • Anti-Terrorism legislation has undermined their commitment to civil liberties
  • Lord Chancellor was a fiasco
  • Concern over the appointments commission for judges.

Conservatives argue they are running tradition and it is dangerous to meddle with the constitution

Liberals argue that they have no gone far enough and the overall plan lacks coherence.

House of Commons


  • Legitimation – Commons gives legitimacy to any law, majority voted for it
  • Scrutiny – Scrutinising government proposals, expenditure etc.
  • Representation – MP represent the people who elected them, express the publics opinion
  • Recruitment of Ministers – Most ministers come from the Commons
  • Law making – giving assent the governments proposals
  • Deliberation – debating chambers



  • Oral or written
  • Good : government on spot, forces an answer, supplementary questions, opposition media attention
  • Bad: Planted questions, disportionate cost excuse, often dodge questions, not enough time (especially PMQ)



  • Adjournment- Puts on public record / woeful attendance, nobody cares
  • EDM – not expected to be debated, but makes government re-think policy
  • Good : make of brake politicians career, on public record, may influence policy (Gulf 1990)
  • Bad: party political point scoring, rarely any influence on policy, filibustering


Select Committees

  • Shadow department
  • Good : Call all people/papers, produce damming reports (F1 exemption), delayed drop effect, gain expertise as permanent, less ‘whip’ control
  • Bad: lack of time/resources, can’t force government to act, refusal to let Dr Kelly answer on anything other than Gilligan affair, Scarlott refuses to come, may not even have reports debated in Commons.


Standing Commitees

  • Not permanent, ‘ad-hoc’ – scrutinise legislation
  • Good: allow scrutiny and members to get involved, check and balance on bad legislation
  • Bad: Can railroad legislation (guillotine), rarely change legislation, no expertise, whips are ‘on’; poor legislation has passed through – Dangerous Dogs Act.

House of Lords


  • Vital check and balance – especially with Labours majority in Commons
  • Highest Court of appeal in the land – may be losing this to supreme court
  • Key functions of revision/review/amendment and delay of legislation
    • Allowing gay couples to adopt
    • Fox Hunting
  • Scrutiny of legislative proposals from EU (regarded as best)
  • Deliberation – Debates
    • Quality of debate enhanced by depth/range of experience
  • Investigation and scrutiny
    • Select committees on Europe, Science and Tech.
    • Question time
  • Legislation
    • Non controversial legislation initiated in commons
  • Constitutional guardian



  • Only delay for one year
  • Budget cannot be delayed or amended
  • Monetary bills can only be delayed for one month
  • Salisbury Convention


Against Lords

  • Democratic deficit
  • Unaccountable
  • Unrepresentative (98 women, 9/10 attended Oxbridge)
  • Hereditary Peers
  • Elitist views on issues like fox hunting
  • Poor attendance by some peers
  • Life peers tend to be retired politician


Rejuvenation Hypothesis

  • Good track record on scrutinising primary legislation
    • 4000 amendments made in Labours first parliamentary session
  • Increased attendance
    • Reduction in hereditary peers
  • Willingness to defeat government
    • Labour 36 defeats 99-2000
  • Higher quality of debate
    • ‘House of interests’ not a ‘house of constituents’
  • Diversity and experience of peerage
    • Examine the longer-term implications
  • Select Committee System
  • Cross benchers
  • Salisbury convention means they don’t infringe on what voters wanted, only restrain it.
  • Lords often amends/corrects poorly drafted legislation from Commons.


House of Lords Reform

Fully elected

  • Commonest method used in other countries
  • Legitimacy and lessens democratic deficit
  • Reduces excessive patronage powers
  • Accountable
  • Would act as a stronger check and balance (gain more power)
  • Directly elected using some form of PR would provide regional representation
    • Commons would lose legitimacy
    • Conflict between chambers
    • Parties would dominate – voting for party badge/cohesion


  • Could ensure more representative of society
  • Allow Lords to become distinctive from Commons
  • Appointments would allow Lords to reflect party balance in Commons
  • Peers have independence – more willing to hold government to account
  • Elected would not allow independent candidates
  • “House of talents”
  • Meritocracy based on recognition of contribution to society
  • High levels of expertise – better debate and ultimately better thought out legislation
    • Not democratic
    • Increases PM Patronage
    • Less independent – used as a reward for funding


  • Only realistic target because of problems of other systems
  • Unicameral system works in Denmark/Sweden
  • Reformed Commons could take on the work load
    • Worsen elective dictatorship
    • No constitutional guardian
    • Commons could not cope.

Labour has sought to seek a permanent settlement within the Lords


Wakeham Report

  • 67 87 or 195 elected members
  • 15 year serving time
  • Appointments commission would ensure party balance in the house with 20% of members being cross-benchers
  • 30% would be women and regional/ethnic balance would be fair
  • 3 new committees on the constitution, human rights and devolution

MPs were given a free vote on various options for the Lords, however they were all rejected and now the Lords reform has been pushed back to committee stage.

Members of Parliament

  • 659 Seats
  • Most MP’s are unrepresentative
    • Middle class, male
    • White
    • Anglo
    • Saxon
    • Protestant
  • HoC NOT a microcosm of society
  • 2001 – only 18% elected were women
  • Business and private sector professionals = Tories
  • Teachers and Lecturers = Labour
  • Party’s head for ‘safe’ candidates (WASP’s)


Theories of Representation

Burkean Theory

  • MP’s elected because of Talents and Wisdom
  • Emphasis on listening BUT follow ‘own nose’ and FREEDOM from ties
  • Party discipline undermines this

Delegate Theory

  • MP’s should vote according to Constituent’s views since they elect them

Mandate Theory

  • MP’s elected because of party badge
  • Must stick to party AT ALL TIMES!

The decline of parliament

Golden Age

  • Period in 19th century when it was strongest over the executive
  • Governments typically lacked stable parliamentary majority
  • Absence of party ties meant legislation was decided on merits
  • Amount of business was small and easy to understand



  • Emphasises the fusion of the legislative and executive power in the majority party
  • Government has policy making role
  • Parties dominate parliament
  • Party discipline ensures passage of government legislation
  • Opposition is to criticise the government and show itself as an alternative government
  • Pendulum theory of power



  • Change in executive-legislative in which power has shifted to the executive
    • Party loyalty
    • MPs cohesive
  • Why are MPs so loyal?
    • Natural sympathy of the causes and purposes of their party
    • Large payroll vote (collective responsibility)
    • Loyal behaviour results in promotion
    • Rise in the career politician
    • Disloyalty may result in the withdrawal of the whip
    • Whips can get candidates deselected (George Gardener)
    • Labour can brush aside rebellion due to large majority
  • Media focus (announced more money for NHS on frost)
  • Downgrading of Question time
  • Government controls the timetabling of legislation etc.
  • Outside Advisers
  • Tony Blair only voted at 5% of divisions


Revival – To COMPLETE

  • MP’s may vote against party because:
    • Dissatisfaction with party
    • Concern on the issue
    • Desire to do what’s right for the constituency

Reforms of the Commons

  • Family friendly working hours
  • Abolition of old practises
  • Some bills may be carried over to the next Parliament

Proposals for FURTHER Reforms

  • More power to select committees
  • More time to debate on select committee reports

Responsible Government

  • Trustworthy, Responsive and ACCOUNTABLE
  • Executive is chosen from Legislature


These notes are aimed at people studying for OCR A Level Politics, Unit 3 - Government of the UK.

Originally written by cor on TSR Forums.