United Kingdom : Constitution and politics


Monarchy under Queen Elizabeth II
UK Parliament

The UK does not have a written constitution. Acts of Union integrated England with Wales (1536–42), with Scotland (1707) and with Ireland (1801). In 1921 southern Ireland became the Irish Free State (later Republic of Ireland). The constitution is made up of common law, statute law and conventions, and may be changed by a simple act of parliament without any special procedure or majority.

The UK is a constitutional monarchy (with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state) and a parliamentary democracy (with parliament as the legislative organ). Parliament is bicameral, with an upper chamber, the House of Lords (comprising 88 hereditary peers, 667 life peers and 24 bishops in January 2014), and a lower chamber, the House of Commons (with 650 elected members). The Prime Minister and cabinet lead the executive. Parliamentary elections are held at least every five years, with universal adult suffrage.

A major constitutional process to change the membership of the House of Lords was begun in 1998. Of some 700 hereditary peers, only 92 were allowed to keep their seats after November 1999, whereon a second stage of reform was due to lead to the final removal of all hereditary peers and a wide-ranging debate about possible new methods to select members of the upper chamber.

Local government is conducted through local authorities, with specified powers in education, social services, etc. Councils are directly elected by voters in the relevant area.

The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for local government in their own regions. In England local government is devolved to two levels of authority: county/metropolitan area and district. In certain instances government is delivered by councils at both levels with responsibilities divided between the two, and in others, by the county/metropolitan area or district but not by both.


In the hard-fought May 2005 general election, the ruling Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, won fewer seats (355) than in 2001, and received a reduced share of the votes (35.2 per cent); while both the Conservatives (with 198 seats and 32.4 per cent) and the Liberal Democrats (with 62 seats and 22.0 per cent) made gains. At 61.8 per cent, voter turnout was only two per cent higher than in 2001 and this was mainly due to an increase in postal voting. In December 2005 shadow Education Minister David Cameron became Conservative Party leader. In June 2007 Prime Minister Blair was succeeded as Labour Party leader and Prime Minister by Gordon Brown, who was the only candidate.

In the May 2010 election, the Conservative Party won 306 of the 649 seats contested (voting in one constituency was postponed following the death of a candidate) and 36.1 per cent of votes, but failed to secure a parliamentary majority; the Labour Party took 258 seats (29.0 per cent) and the Liberal Democrats 57 (23.0 per cent). The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with Cameron as Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister; it was the country’s first full coalition government for 65 years.

Head of government

The RT Hon Teresa May, Prime Minister
Theresa May became Prime Minister on 13 July 2016. Theresa served as Home Secretary from May 2010 until July 2016. She was elected Conservative MP for Maidenhead in May 1997.