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Parliamentary Government in United Kingdom

The right of the commons to share the power of the king and lords in legislation, the exclusive right of the commons to impose taxes, the disappearance of the clergy as a separate order, were all important steps in the movement towards popular government. The extinction of the old feudal nobility in the dynastic wars of the 15th century simplified the question by leaving the crown face to face with parliament. The immediate result was no doubt an increase in the power of the crown, which probably never stood higher than it did in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth; but even these powerful monarchs were studious in their regard for parliamentary conventionalities.

After a long period of speculative controversy and civil war, the settlement of 1688 established limited monarchy as the government of England. Since that time the external form of government has remained unchanged, and, so far as legal description goes, the constitution of William III. might be taken for the same system as that which still exists. The silent changes have, however, been enormous. The most striking of these, and that which has produced the most salient features of the English system, is the growth of cabinet government. Intimately connected with this is the rise of the two great historical parties of English politics. The normal state of government in England is that the cabinet of the day shall represent that which is, for the time, the stronger of the two. Before the Revolution the king’s ministers had begun to act as a united body; but even after the Revolution the union was still feeble and fluctuating, and each individual minister was bound to the others only by the tie of common service to the king.

Under the Hanoverian sovereigns the ministry became consolidated, the position of the cabinet became definite, and its dependence on parliament, and more particularly on the House of Commons, was established. Ministers were chosen exclusively from one house or the other, and they assumed complete responsibility for every act done in the name of the crown. The simplicity of English politics has divided parliament into the representatives of two parties, and the party in opposition has been steadied by the consciousness that it, too, has constitutional functions of high importance, because at any moment it may be called to provide a ministry. Criticism is sobered by being made responsible. Along with this movement went the withdrawal of the personal action of the sovereign in politics. No king has attempted to veto a bill since the Scottish Militia Bill was vetoed by Queen Anne. No ministry has been dismissed by the sovereign since 1834.

Whatever the power of the sovereign may be, it is unquestionably limited to his personal influence over his ministers. And it must be remembered that since the Reform Act of 1832 ministers have become, in practice, responsible ultimately, not to parliament, but to the House of Commons. Apart, therefore, from democratic changes due to a wider suffrage, we find that the House of Commons, as a body, gradually made itself the centre of the government. Since the area of the constitution has been enlarged, it may be doubted whether the orthodox descriptions of the government any longer apply. The earlier constitutional writers, such as Blackstone and J. L. Delolme, regard it as a wonderful compound of the three standard forms: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.

Each has its place, and each acts as a check upon the others. Hume, discussing the question “Whether the British government inclines more to absolute monarchy or to a republic,” decides in favour of the former alternative. “The tide has run long and with some rapidity to the side of popular government, and is just beginning to turn toward monarchy.” And he gives it as his own opinion that absolute monarchy would be the easiest death, the true euthanasia of the British constitution. These views of the English government in the 18th century may be contrasted with Bagehot’s sketch of the modern government as a working instrument.(1)

Leading Features of Parliamentary Government

The parliamentary government developed by England out of feudal materials has been deliberately accepted as the type of constitutional government all over the world. Its leading features are popular representation more or less extensive, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet or consolidated ministry. In connexion with all of these, numberless questions of the highest practical importance have arisen. The issue is addressed in the entry about the double chamber in Europe and the Cabinet Government (the peculiar functions of the English cabinet, which are not easily matched in any foreign system).


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

See Also

Further Reading

Bagehot’s English Constitution
Sidney Low’s Governance of England.

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Schema Summary

  • Article Name: Parliamentary Government
  • Author: International
  • Description: The right of the commons to share the power of the king and lords in legislation, the exclusive right of the commons to [...]

This entry was last updated: October 26, 2016

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