British elections: how are they different from ours?
Britain has just got a new government. Actually it looks a lot like the old government. This is because the voters of Britain, which consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, decided to vote the Conservative Party back into power. The Conservative Party is led by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Soon after the result of the election became clear, the Queen as the head of state summoned Mrs. Thatcher to Buckingham Palace. There Mrs. Thatcher, as the leader of the party that won the most number of seats in the election, was asked to form a new government.
To Americans, one of the remarkable things about British politics, unlike US politics, is that an election campaign is so short. The latest British election campaign, which ended when voting took place on June 9, lasted only three weeks. In the United States the campaign to elect a president takes up to two years.
Although Britain and the US have much in common, including a common language, their political systems are very different.
The US has a presidential form of government. Britain has a parliamentary system.
In America the chief of state is the president. He is the most powerful figure in the US. The biggest election decision Americans ever make is to vote for a single person to be president.
Britons never vote for a single person to lead their country. Instead they vote only for a political party, although the people who lead those parties may play a big part in the voters' decision. The United States is a republic. That is why it has a president as head of state. Britain is a monarchy. That is why in Britain the chief of state is a queen or a king, depending on who is the monarch.
But unlike the president of the US, the British queen has no real political power. She reigns, but she does not rule.
In a parliamentary form of government, parliament is where real power lies. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that power lies in Britain with the political party that controls Parliament. The party that does that is the party whose members hold the most seats in the lower house of Parliament.
Since the Conservative Party has more elected members in Parliament than any other political party, it forms the government.
The important thing to remember is that British voters do not vote directly for Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party or Michael Foot of the Labour Party, or David Steel of the Liberal Party or Roy Jenkins of the Social Democratic Party.
What they do is vote for the party of their choice, but only in the area where they live. These local areas or districts are known as constituencies or seats since the duly elected candidates occupy seats in Parliament in London.
The party that wins the most seats then forms the government. The prime minister is then drawn from the government that is voted into power.
Soon after the elections the new representatives meet at Westminister, which is the name given to the Houses of Parliament standing on the banks of the River Thames in London.
With its majestic buildings which include 11 courtyards and Big Ben, the famous bell in the clock tower, the British Parliament is known as the Mother of Parliaments. This is because it has been a model for other world parliaments. It is not the world's oldest parliament. That honor belongs to the Althing in Iceland. It was set up in AD 930.
It was in 1295 that Edward I convened Britain's model parliament. Over the years it has changed in its character and functions. In the earliest days the king did have great powers that he wielded in collaboration with his lords.
But within the last century the most powerful body to emerge in British politics has been the House of Commons, or lower house of Parliament. Here is where the laws of the land are debated and decided.
The name Commons is used because it means that membership is open to all citizens - the common people - not just to the lords or other members of the aristocracy who once had dominated British history. Even though she is the head of state, the Queen cannot enter the Commons.
Unlike Congress in the United States, ministers of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of Scotland also cannot sit in the House of Commons.
Some high ranking church figures do sit, however in the upper house, or House of Lords, which usually comprises lords who either have had their titles handed down over generations or who had their titles appointed only for life. In this last category lords cannot pass on their titles to their children. The House of Lords has had its powers greatly reduced and is much less important than the House of Commons.
In the Parliamentary system the government stays in power by winning important debates on a vote count. Should some members of the ruling party rebel against their leadership they could even vote with members of other parties, known as opposition parties. If the number of votes against the government were greater than those for the government, the government could fall.
Situations such as this have happened in the past. The government can be forced then to dissolve Parliament. That means Parliament does not sit any more. Under these circumstances, the government that was in power when the vote went against it must call a fresh election. The party which then wins the most votes is elected to office.