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The British Government: a Brief Overview

The System of Government

Britain is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as head of the State. The British constitution, unlike those of most countries, is not set out [излагать] in a single document. Instead it is made up of a combination of laws and practices which are not legally enforceable [могущий быть принудительно осуществленным в судебном порядке], but which are regarded as vital to the working of government.

The Monarchy

The stablility of the British government owes much to the monarchy. Its continuity has been interrupted only once (the republic of 1649-60) in over a thousand years.

Today the Queen is not only the head of State, but also an important symbol of national unity. Her complete official royal title is ‘Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms [королевство] and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith‘ [защитница веры], but she is usually referred to as Her Royal Highness or Queen Elizabeth.

According to the law the Queen is head of the executive branch of the government, an integral part of the legislature, head of the judiciary, the commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of the Crown and the ‘supreme governor’ of the established Church of England [официальная (официально признана государством и частично финансируется им) англиканская церковь]. While that sounds like a lot of responsibility, the real power of the monarchy has been steadily reduced over the years to the point where the Queen is uninvolved in the day-to-day operation of the government. She is impartial and acts only on the advice of her ministers.

The Queen, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles and the other members of the royal family take part in traditional ceremonies, visit different parts of Britain and many other countries and are closely involved in the work of many charities.


Parliament, Britain’s legislature, is made up of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Queen in her constitutional role. They meet together only on occasions of ceremonial significance, such as the state opening of Parliament, although the agreement of all three is normally required for legislation.

The House of Commons consists of 659 elected members called Members of Parliament or MPs. Election to the House of Commons is an important part of Britain’s democratic system. The main purpose of the House of Commons is to make laws by passing Acts of Parliament, as well as to discuss current political issues.

The House of Lords currently consists of 688 non-elected members (hereditary peers [наследственный пэр] and peeresses [супруга пэра, леди], life peers [пожизненный пэр] and peeresses and two archbishops and 24 senior bishops of the established Church of England). Its main legislative function is to examine and revise bills from the Commons, but the Lords cannot normally prevent proposed legislation from become law if the Commons insists on it. It also acts as the final court of appeal. In recent years the House of Lords has undergone a process of reform to make it more democratic and representative. As a first step, the rights of some 750 hereditary peers to sit and vote in Parliament solely on the basis that they inherited their seats were removed. The remaining 92 hereditary peers are allowed to sit temporarily in the transitional chamber until the full reform programme is in place. The next phase of the House of Lords reform would remove the remaining hereditary peers and create a partly-elected upper house.

The centre of parliamentary power is the House of Commons. Limitations on the power of the Lords is based on the principle that the Lords should complement [служить дополнением] the Commons and not rival it. Once passed through both Houses, legislation requires the Royal Assent [королевская санкция (одобрение монархом законопроекта [bill], принятого обеими палатами парламента, после чего законопроект становится законом [act of Parliament])] to become law.

Parliament has a number of ways to exert control [осуществлять надзор] over the executive branch. Parliamentary committees question ministers and civil servants before preparing reports on matters of public policy and issues can be debated before decisions are reached. However, ultimate power rests in the ability of the House of Commons to force the government to resign by passing a resolution of ‘no confidence’. The government must also resign if the House rejects a proposal so vital to its policy that it has made it a matter of confidence [вотум доверия]. The proceedings [работа] of both Houses of Parliament are broadcast on television and radio, sometimes live or more usually in recorded and edited form.

General elections are held after Parliament has been ‘dissolved’, either by a royal proclamation [королевская декларация] or because the maximum term between elections — five years — has expired. The decision on when to hold a general election is made by the Prime Minister.

For electoral purposes Britain is divided into constituencies, each of which returns one MP to the House of Commons. MPs are elected by the relative majority method — sometimes called the ‘first past the post’ principle — which means the candidate with more votes than any other is elected.

In elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the European Parliament in 1999, forms of proportional representation (PR) were used for the first time in Great Britain. PR was also used in the 1998 elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Northern Ireland has used a version of PR in European Parliament elections since 1979.

All British citizens together with citizens of other Commonwealth countries and citizens of the Irish Republic resident in Britain may vote, provided they are aged 18 years or over and not legally barred from [запрещать; исключать] voting. People not entitled to vote include those serving prison sentences, peers and peeresses who are members of the House of Lords, and those kept in hospital under mental health legislation [законодательство по охране психического здоровья].

Commonwealth Содружество, британское Содружество, британское Содружество наций (объединяет Великобританию и ее бывшие доминионы и колонии)

Voting is by secret ballot. At a general election the elector selects just one candidate on the ballot paper and marks an ‘X’ by the candidate’s name. Any person aged 21 or over who is a British citizen or citizen of another Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic may stand for election to Parliament, provided they are not disqualified. People disqualified include those who are bankrupt, those sentenced to more than one year’s imprisonment, members of the clergy, members of the House of Lords, and a range of public servants and officials. Approved candidates are usually selected by their political party organisations in the constituency which they represent, although candidates do not have to have party backing.

The leader of the political party which wins most seats (although not necessarily most votes) at a general election, or who has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons, is by convention invited by the Sovereign to form the new government.

Political Party System

The political party system is essential to the working of the constitution. The Government is formed by the party with majority support in the Commons. The Queen appoints its leader as Prime Minister. As head of the Government the Prime Minister appoints about 100 ministers. About 20 ministers make up the Cabinet, the senior group making the major policy decisions. Ministers are collectively responsible for government decisions and individually responsible for their own departments. The second largest party forms the official Opposition, with its own leader and ‘shadow cabinet‘. The Opposition has a duty to challenge [оспаривать] government policies and to present an alternative program.

Shadow cabinet "теневой кабинет" (парламентский комитет главной оппозиционной партии [Opposition]. Состоит из ведущих деятелей парламентской фракции этой партии, которые занимаются теми же вопросами, что и члены кабинета [Cabinet]

Policies are carried out by government departments and executive agencies staffed by politically neutral civil servants. Agencies perform many of the executive functions of the government, such as the payment of social security benefits [пособия по социальному обеспечению] and the issuing of passports and drivers’ licences.