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The UK: England - Scotland - Wales - Northern ireland
London: History - Places to Visit - Transport
The British Parliament has two houses, or chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is the most poweful and decides national policy, but the House of Lords can ask the House of Commons to rewrite certain parts of a bill before it becomes a new law.
The House of Commons consists of Members of Parliament, MPs. Each MP is elected by voters in one constituency (region). There are 651 MPs, or seats, in the House of Commons (524 for England, 72 for Scotland, 38 for Wales and 17 for Northern Ireland). In 1994, there were only 59 women MPs.
The 1203 members of the House of Lords are not elected. some are life peers: they are members of the House of Lords, but their sons or daughters cannot be members. Life peers are usually former members of the House of Commons. There are also a number of judges or bishops. The majority (774), however, are hereditary peers, the heads of aristocratic families. This means that most members of the House of Lords are there because of something their ancestors did. The head of the both House of Parliament is the Queen, but she has very little power.
Forming a government
The party with most MPs forms the government. The leader of the winning party automatically becomes Prime Minister and appoints the Cabinet. The members of the Cabinet are the leading government ministers. The Prime Minister is the most important person in Parliament (Britain does not have a President). The party who comes second is the Opposition and forms its own Shadow Cabinet.
British Prime Minister have lived at 10 Downing Street since 1731. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (responsible for money and finance) lives next door at number 11. People often talk about "Downing Street" when they mean the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet.
Every five years, British people over the age of 18 can vote in a general election. People vote for the candidate they want in their constituency (region). The candidate who wins becomes the MP in the House of Commons, even if he or she gets only one vote more than the candidate who is second. This is called the first past the post system.
The first past the post electoral system in Britain promotes the two most poweful parties at the expense of the smaller parties. Since the 1920s, the two main parties have been the left-wing Labour Party and the right-wing Conservative Party.
The Liberal Democrats, a centre party, are not happy with the current first past the post electoral system. This is because it is a party which does not win many seats in Parliament, but comes second in many constituencies. It would prefer a system of proportional representation, in which the number of MPs is based on the number of people who vote for a party in the whole of the country.
The Monarchy. What does the Queen do?
Britain is a constitutional monarchy. This means that the monarch, at the moment Queen Elizabeth II, is the Head of State. The Queen is also head of the judiciary (all the judges) and of the Church of England, as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Her face is on all British bank notes, coins and postage stamps.
The Queen's constitutional role, however, is mainly symbolic. true power lies in the hands of the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet. It is the Queen who formally opens Parliament every autumn, but the speech she makes from the throne, giving details of the government's future plans, is written for her by politicians. Nothing becomes British law without the monarch's signature, but the Queen would never refuse to sign a bill which has been passed by Parliament. It is the Queen who officially appoints the Prime Minister, but traditionally she always asks the leader of the party with a majority in the House of Commons.
The Queen: representing Britain.
The most important function of the Queen is ceremonial. On great occasions, such as the State Opening of Parliament, She is driven through the streets in a golden carriage, guarded by soldiers. She gives a state banquet, usually in her home Buckingham Palace, when foreign monarchs or Heads of State visit Britain and soldiers dressed in eighteenth-century uniforms help her welcome them.
The Queen is head of the Commonwealth (a group of former and present-day British colonies). As head of the Commonwealth, she meets and entertains prime ministers of the member states.
Since Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, she has represented Britain in visits to most parts of the world. Prime Ministers come and go, but she carries on above politics, a symbol of British traditions.
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