Everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about British politics

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Over the weekend, I asked Facebook friends to send me their questions on what’s happening in aftermath of the UK election, which resulted in a hung parliament. Below are some of their questions and a few I added to clarify a few things. Hope this helps my American readers understand British politics a bit more:

  1. Does the Prime Minister always get to decide when to call special elections? Has this situation ever happened before?

Yes and no. Before 2010, the Prime Minister had almost sole discretion on when an election would be called. One had to be held at least every five years, but when that happened was largely down to the whims of the government of the day (led by the Prime Minister). As you may expect, this led to a lot of elections called when the government felt it was advantageous for it (such as when they’re leading in the polls) or not called unless absolutely necessary if the party in power was suffering the polls. This was the case in 1997, when the Conservatives lost power to Labour after 18 years in government.

The Fixed Terms Parliament Act 2010 was meant to change this. Brought in by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, it was meant to ensure stability during the 2010-2015 Coalition Government (more on this later). It set out a fixed date for the next election, which was held in May 2015. The next subsequent election was not due until May 2020. However, there was a provision in the Fixed Terms Parliament Act which allowed for the dissolution of Parliament – necessary for the calling of another election – if there was a vote of no confidence in the government of the day  or if the Prime Minister requested dissolution.

Theresa May requested a dissolution of Parliament in April, setting the date for the next election as 8 June. As she was not the leader of the Conservative Party in 2015 (that was David Cameron, who resigned last year following the Brexit vote), some argued she was seeking a mandate of her own. She wanted to increase her majority to strengthen her hand when negotiating Brexit. It didn’t quite work out as well as she’d have liked though, as the Conservatives lost their majority. No one party has a majority of Members of Parliament now, which means Mrs May must seek coalition or a minority government.

  1. What does it mean to “form a government?”

    There are 650 Members of Parliament (MPs), so to have a majority a party must win at least 326 seats. There are two main parties – the Conservatives and Labour – and only they have formed a government since 1922. In the simplest of times, forming a government just means the largest party appoints people to the cabinet (as the leader of the party would be Prime Minister) and puts forward its agenda in a Queen’s Speech (we’ll get to her role later). But these are not simple times.

    In 2010, like now, no one party had a majority of seats – a scenario known as a “hung parliament.” David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party (also known as the Tories), sought coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who held 57 seats. The Lib Dems accepted, and a coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat government ran things until 2015, when the Conservatives secured a majority of seats and governed on their own.

 Mrs May has squandered that majority, losing 13 seats and taking her party’s total to 318. The Lib Dems have ruled out another coalition – they suffered greatly for their role in the last one, losing 49 seats in 2015 – which means Mrs May needs to find another minor party to bolster her numbers. She looks set to do that with the Democratic Unionist Party out of Northern Ireland, which has 10 seats.

This is where it gets tricky, though, as the DUP really can’t join the government due to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics, but that’s another story for another day. Right now it looks like the DUP will prop up Mrs May’s government but not join it, meaning she’ll form a minority government with the understanding that she can depend on the DUP to support her agenda in most cases.

  1. I read that Prime Minister May was going to propose something to the Queen. What is the monarchy’s involvement with the elected government (and vice versa)?

The role of the monarchy is entirely symbolic in practice yet vast in theory. Theoretically, the sovereign is an absolute monarch – all power is vested in the crown. However, the doctrine of crown-in-parliament means that whilst Her Majesty technically holds these powers, in practice and custom they are exercised by Parliament and the government (which consists of MPs – even the Prime Minister is an MP). This goes back hundreds of years in a system that has largely haphazardly developed. Britain has no written constitution, like the United States, so its democracy functions largely on customs and a body of separate laws collectively referred to as “the constitution.”

Because these powers are technically the Queen’s, she must invite someone to form a government in her name. She does this to whoever wins the most seats. Mrs May won the most seats (even if she didn’t secure a majority), so by custom she has the first shot to form a government. She went to see the Queen to be invited to form a government. If Mrs May can’t form a government (that is, get enough support to get through her agenda, laid out in a Queen’s Speech), then the second-place Labour Party could try to form a minority government and get enough votes to pass its Queen’s Speech. If no party can get their Queen’s Speech passed, another election will be held.

  1. What is a Queen’s Speech?

The Queen’s Speech is essentially the ruling party’s agenda. It is a set of proposed laws the new government hopes to pass. During the state opening of Parliament, the Queen travels to the Palace of Westminster (where the House of Commons and House of Lords both convene) and, from the House of Lords, delivers a speech written by the party seeking to form a government. She has no political input (though could have some stylistic critiques, since she’s the one who has to say the damn thing). Why does the Queen, and not the Prime Minister, give this speech? Because the powers are actually the Queen’s, even if they are exercised by the Prime Minister and Parliament, so she’s telling the Lords, the Commons, and the country what she is instructing her government to do – even though it’s the government telling the queen what to tell them to do.

The state opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech is surrounded by a lot of really complicated pomp and circumstance. C-SPAN typically airs it live, and I encourage you all to watch it, because it really is a sight to behold. We have nothing like it in the United States.

  1. Could the Queen step in and stop the nonsense or deny any requests?

No she could not. Okay, technically she could – all these powers are hers in theory – but if she did you can bet that parliament and the people would vote to abolish the monarchy. Her Majesty is actually quite committed to democracy and the constitution, so the thought of intervening in the business of parliament would appall her.

The best example of this happening is actually not in Britain, but in Australia, where Elizabeth II is also the Queen (represented by a Governor General, since she lives in London and not Canberra). In 1975 the Governor General dismissed the Australian Prime Minister because of political instability in the House of Representatives and Senate (think Commons and Lords in Britain). This was the greatest constitutional crisis in Australian history, and Her Majesty refused to be drawn into it.

  1. What are the main belief systems of each party (and dot he ones with similar sounding names have similar beliefs/policies – ie is the UK Conservative Party similar to an American conservative)?

There are two main parties in the UK: the Conservatives (aka the Tories) and Labour. The Conservatives are capitalists, whilst Labour consists of varying shades of socialism (from democratic socialism akin to Bernie Sanders to some out-and-out Trotskyites). In the middle of this is the Liberal Democrats, which formed from the merger the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, which had broken off from the Labour Party. It is more of a centrist party.

Then you have several smaller parties. The Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales), and the Green Party all have MPs and are all centre-left to varying degrees. If Labour were to form a minority government, they would rely on these three parties.

There are only two parties with seats from Northern Ireland: Sinn Fien and the before-mentioned DUP. Sinn Fien is a left wing Irish nationalist party, mostly identified with Catholics in Northern Ireland. The DUP is a far-right unionist party backed by Northern Irish protestants.

If you want to get into who analogous parties, the Conservatives are probably closer to moderate Democrats than they are Republicans. Labour is probably closer to Bernie Sanders or the US Green Party, though current leader Jeremy Corbyn is far to the left of either of these parties. The Liberal Democrats are probably more like Barack Obama, though some Obama advisors have also advised the Conservative Party.

  1. Who believes in LGBTQ equality, women’s rights, racial equality?

    All of the main parties would tell you yes, they support a broadly socially progressive agenda. The Conservatives haven’t always been great on LGBT equality, initially opposing it and passing some of the most homophobic laws in modern British history. However, over the past decade – particularly under the leadership of David Cameron – they became much more progressive, supporting the Labour government’s bringing in civil partnerships in the mid-2000s and later introducing marriage equality under Cameron. However, the majority of Conservative backbenchers (that is, Members of Parliament not in government) voted against equal marriage, so whilst the Conservative-led coalition government introduced the bill, it passed only because of support from the other parties.

    Most Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voters favour the Labour Party, though there is growing support from BME voters for the Tories. Theresa May, as Home Secretary, was critical of racial profiling in policing, even as her own government was accused of Islamophobia through its anti-terror Prevent programme.

    The fact is that race doesn’t really play as large a role in UK politics as it does in the US, though many BME people think it should. This is down to the relatively recent influx of a significant number of BME people (from the mid-20th century to now) and the entrenched class system. British politics is getting more intersectional, but it has a long way to go.

    None of the main parties oppose abortion access, though Labour would be more likely to relax abortion law than the Tories. Labour has introduced all-women shortlists for parliamentary candidates, which the Tories haven’t, yet the Tories have produced both female Prime Ministers. On economic issues that effect women, such as childcare and pay equality, the Tories have faced a lot of criticism from feminist activists, but Labour has also been accused of having a sexist culture in its far-left reaches.

    Now let’s talk about the DUP – who register as important since Mrs May is looking to rely on them to govern. They are anti-gay marriage, anti-choice, refuse to meet or work on Sundays, believe in creationism and deny climate change. So it’s kind of like if the state of Alabama became a political party. There are lots of people, including the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party (who is an out lesbian), expressing serious reservations about any deal – yet it looks to be the only way Mrs May can hang on.

  2. Does ideology split parties there?

As discussed, the Conservatives are capitalists and the Labour party are socialists. So ideology has a much starker impact on the parties in the UK than it does in the US, where both major parties are capitalist.

  1. This all seems really convoluted. Isn’t our system simpler?

Those in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones. A minority of voters elected Donald Trump because of our Electoral College, which to British voters seems just as maddening as the parliamentary system seems to many Americans. And when you look at how gerrymandered many of our districts are, it becomes difficult to argue that the American system as it currently exists  is more democratic.

  1. What happens next?

Right now no one knows. Theresa May met with her backbenchers earlier today, and she’s still trying to finalise any deal with the DUP. It does look likely that Theresa May will form the next government and continue on with a minority government, but her position looks increasingly untenable. She may well be gone by Christmas, with another top Tory politician taking her place as Prime Minister.

If you have any other questions, leave them in the comments below and perhaps I’ll do another blog.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes the blog The Curious American. A contributing editor at The GayUK Magazine, Skylar writes about British and American politics and society for an array of publications, including the Independent and Huff Post UK. He is based in Chicago but makes frequent trips to London, where he hopes to relocate soon.

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