Photographic Book France
Government and monarchy of the United Kingdom with the Queen of England
Photographs book England

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary monarchy—that is, the head of state is a monarch with limited powers. Britain’s democratic government is based on a constitution composed of various historical documents, laws, and formal customs adopted over the years. Parliament, the legislature, consists of the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the monarch, also called the crown. The House of Commons is far more influential than the House of Lords, which in effect makes the British system unicameral, meaning the legislature has one chamber. The chief executive is the prime minister, who is a member of the House of Commons. The executive branch also includes Her Majesty’s Government, commonly referred to simply as “the government.” The government is composed of ministers in the Cabinet, most of whom are members of the House of Commons; government departments, each of which is responsible to a minister; local authorities; and public corporations. Because the House of Commons is involved in both the legislative and executive branches of the British government, there is no separation of powers between executive and legislature as there is in the United States.

The British constitution and the monarchy

The British constitution comprises multiple documents. The written part consists of the Magna Carta, written in 1215; the Petition of Right, passed by Parliament in 1628; and the Bill of Rights of 1689. It also includes the entire body of laws enacted by Parliament, precedents established by decisions made in British courts of law, and various traditions and customs. The democratically elected House of Commons can alter these laws with a majority vote. The constitution continually evolves as new laws are passed and judicial decisions are handed down. All laws passed by Parliament are regarded as constitutional, and changes or amendments to the constitution occur whenever new legislation overrides existing law. Although the crown gives its royal assent to legislation, this is a mere formality.

The British monarchy stands for the continuity of British history going back to Anglo-Saxon times, and today it serves as a figurehead for the state. In theory, the British monarch has enormous powers, but in reality those powers are limited and the crown follows the dictates and advice of the ministers in Parliament. The British monarchy has been a hereditary position since the 9th century, although Parliament has stepped in at times to alter the succession, for example, in 1701 when the House of Hanover was selected to replace the Stuart dynasty.

British abbey

British horse guard

Primogeniture, the passing of the throne to the eldest son when a monarch dies, has been the rule of succession, and when there are no sons, the eldest daughter ascends the throne. This was the case when Elizabeth II succeeded to the throne in February 1952 upon the death of her father, George VI. Her husband, Prince Philip, has the title of Prince Consort, but no rank or privileges. The current heir to the throne is Elizabeth II’s eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales. According to the Act of Settlement of 1701, only Protestants are eligible to succeed to the throne. A regent may be appointed to rule for the sovereign if he or she is underage or incapacitated. As the official head of state, the monarch formally summons and dismisses Parliament and the ministers of the Cabinet.
The monarch also serves as head of the judiciary, commander in chief of the armed forces, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. In reality, the government carries out the duties associated with these functions.

Theoretically, the monarch appoints all judges, military officers, diplomats, and archbishops, as well as other church officers. The monarch also bestows honors and awards, such as knighthoods and peerages. In reality, all of these appointments are made upon the advice of the prime minister. The prime minister declares war and peace and concludes treaties with foreign states in the name of the crown. The monarch serves as the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth of Nations and is the ceremonial head of state for 16 Commonwealth countries. The real work of the monarchy consists largely of signing papers. The monarch has the right, however, to be consulted on all aspects of national life and review all important government documents.

The monarch may also meet with the Privy Council, a now largely ceremonial body made up of Cabinet members that serves in an advisory capacity to the monarch. Since Britain is a democracy, the monarchy could potentially be abolished if a majority of the population decides to do so. In the early 21st century the monarchy generally remained popular, despite unpleasant media coverage surrounding the marriages and relationships of the royal family. Only Scotland had a small majority that wanted to make the United Kingdom a republic. Encarta

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