These days, it seems like you can’t scroll through a social media stream without stumbling over a paparazzi photo of Princess Kate or a post on the latest Game of Thrones plot twist. However, despite the glitz and glam of sensationalized kingship, very few modern nations place their power in a monarchy-based system. Even in the United Kingdom, the inspiration for countless historical dramas and fictional television shows, real monarchs have little power of governance. To understand how political power distributes in the UK, we need to cut through the media romanticization and look at the facts.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy; that said, similarly to Spain, the nation’s monarch serves as the ceremonial head of state rather than that of government. Hence, executive power is instead centralized in the government’s executive branch and its elected Prime Minister. As a unitary state, the UK holds governance over Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – however, most executive power is delegated to devolved governments in these countries. Each sub-government has its own legislature and executive, although all are subject to UK-wide rulings.
Branches of Government
The UK government is tri-part, consisting of executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
Headed by the Prime Minister, this branch is responsible for exercising governmental power. The ruling monarch is responsible for appointing a Prime Minister from the House of Commons, and traditionally chooses the leading member of the political party with the largest majority to serve. The Prime Minister, in turn, selects ministers from the parliament or peerage to act as members of her cabinet and serve as heads of the various departments within Her Majesty’s government.
Parliament holds legislative power in the UK. This governing body is twofold: the (upper) House of Lords and the (lower) House of Commons. The latter is particularly important to the Prime Minister, who needs its support to continue holding office. The House of Commons is responsible for drafting bills and is comprised of 650 elected representatives who hold their positions until Parliament dissolves for elections. The House of Lords is similarly comprised of 650 members; 558 officials are appointed to lifelong membership by the ruling monarch, often on advice from the prime minister. The remaining 92 members hold similarly lifelong, hereditary appointments. Responsible for reviewing legislation before enactment, the House of Lords is capable of delaying bills it deems problematic. Ultimately, though, the government is responsible to the House of Commons.
As a united country of formerly disparate nations, UK judicial matters can seem somewhat confusing from the outside. English law applies to the mainland and Wales, while Scotland and Northern Ireland maintain semi-independent systems. In England and Wales, the Courts of England and Wales maintains the law and are in turn presided over by the Senior Courts of England and Wales. The latter consists of three sections, each handling a different subset of legal matters: the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil concerns), and the Crown Court (for criminal cases).
The UK has a multi-party system; however, the Labour and Conservative parties have maintained their frontrunner statuses over the past century. That said, both have relied on the support of various smaller, third-party political factions to rise above the other during election seasons.
In the press, on television, in glossy magazine pages; the monarchy is flashy. However, a monarch’s role in government is largely relegated to figurehead and master of ceremonies in Western nations. But while that might be disappointing to those who appreciate the allure of the throne, it can’t be denied that elected governments today are far more efficient, democratic, and fair than those in the past.