British Studies Web Pages



Is Parliament representative?
The following item is taken from Crossing Cultures 1998 British Council, Bucharest

Just Representation

Introducing the Idea
Have you ever considered what a strange thing representation is? What does it mean? It’s no simple uncomplicated matter -  it’s not “just representation”.

Look at the following statements:

• An elected member of parliament represents you in a democracy.
• The Queen, who is not elected, can be said to represent Britain.
• Her Majesty’s ambassador represents her in Poland.
• The film represents how we all feel.
• My clothes represent how I feel about myself.
• She represents the school in the competition.
• Realistic art accurately represents objects that we can see.
• TV represents Britain as multicultural society.
• Princess Diana represented the modern British woman in many ways.

i) Symbolises 
ii) conveys the views of 
iii) reflects 
iv) is empowered to speak on behalf of (but remains independent of) 
v) gives a mental image of 
vi) embodies 
vii) is typical of 
viii) stands for 

Now consider which of the words and phrases in the box above can replace the usages of represents above. In some cases several can be used, but with different meanings.

Just Representation in Britain?

A. 1
Quickly answer the following by replying true or false, first in small groups and then as a whole class.

• Political representation always involves all the population of a country.
• Political representation is a result of the "imagined community".
• Political parties simplify choice for voters by providing a limited range of coherent policies.
• The possibilities for political representatives are:

1) they do whatever they think is best for the country
2) they embody the nation
3) they do what they promised during election time
Now read the passage.

Representation in government is the process of enabling the citizens of a country, or at least some of them, to participate in making legisaltion and governmental policy through deputies chosen by them. The rationale of representative democratic government is that in large countries not everyone can physically assemble together to decide issues, as the male citizens used to in the marketplace of Athens. If, therefore, people are to participate in government, they must elect a small number from among themselves to represent and to act for them. Elected representatives are also more likely - according to the theory - to provide greater stability and continuity of policy to a nation.
Because of the need to formulate systematically the demands of citizens, political parties have come to act as intermediaries between the citizens and their representatives. Political debate along party lines has thus become a characteristic feature of most representative systems of government.
How answerable representatives should be to their electors is an issue that has long been debated. The basic alternatives are that the representatives of the people act as delegates carrying out instructions (that is, they have a mandate from the people they represent) or that they are free agents, acting in accordance with their best ability and understanding (they are representatives subject to recall).

Not everyone can become an elected representative in Britain.
Which of the following do you think are able to stand for Parliament in Britain? Why?

• Polish citizens
• Prisoners
• Bankrupts
• Peers of the realm (A peer of the realm is a "noble")
• People with no political party
• EU citizens
• Judges
• People over 21
• Members of the clergy
• People who have no money
• People with mental problems
• Citizens of the Commonwealth

Who may be represented in the British Parliament? (who may vote?)
Quickly read the table, tick the answer you think correct and compare your answer with your neighbour’s before checking in plenary. Then consider the questions which follow the table (in groups or whole class).

Category of person
British citizens aged 18 or more    
British citizens aged 99 or more    
Peers of the realm    
British citizens with no property    
Women under 21    
People who have not registered to vote by a certain date    
Citizens of other countries resident in Britain    
Diplomats from other countries resident in Britain    
People kept in hospitals under mental health laws    
People in prison    
People convicted of corruption    
British citizens working overseas as British Government employees    
British citizens on holiday out of the country while elections are taking place    
 Discussion questions
• Is it right that some people should not be politically represented?
• Why do you think men and women have struggled to get the vote in the past?
• What are the advantages and disadvantages of having the vote?
B. Justice in Representation?
In small groups read the passage and use the information to answer the questions after it. Then discuss your answers in plenary.

Britain is usually called a parliamentary democracy, but in fact government is divided up into three sections: parliament, the executive and the judiciary.
A Parliament comprises the House of Commons, whose members are elected, the House of Lords (consisting of peers) and the Monarch. They meet all together only on occasions of symbolic significance such as the State opening of parliament each year when the Commons are summoned by the Monarch to the Lords. The Monarch’s role is constitutional, that is, s/he acts only on the advice of ministers. In the twentieth century the Lords have only ever debated and slowed down laws proposed by the Commons in order to give more time for debate, although amendments are frequently suggested.
Although Britain has no written constitution it is made up of various laws and conventions (these are not legally enforceable but are regarded as indispensable to the working of government). Parliament may in theory pass laws as it pleases, but it is now subject to its obligations as a member of the EU. Besides passing laws it ensures, by voting for taxation, that the work of the executive branch of government can be carried out. It also scrutinises government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure, and debates the major concerns of the day, thus -  in theory - drawing the attention of the electorate to the relevant facts and issues.

  • In May 1997 120 women MPs out of a total of 659 were elected, the highest number ever, due largely to the determination of Labour party to win women’s votes by fielding women candidates;
  • 9 MPs were from ethnic minorities
  • 51% of the total population of the UK is female
  • 5.5% of the total population of the UK belongs to an ethnic minority
The executive is not completely elected. While at the head is the Cabinet of Ministers who are almost all elected Members of Parliament (MPs), there is also a professional Civil Service whose duty it is to serve whatever government is in power to the best of its ability: there are strict rules determining how active they can be in party politics (though of course they can vote for whomever they choose). The same Civil Service remains whoever is in power. But at the same time it is concerned to represent the country: it is committed to achieving equality of opportunity for all of its staff. In support of this commitment, the Civil Service, which recruits and promotes on the basis of merit (and goes to elaborate lengths to ensure this is so and avoid any form of clientelism or patronage), is actively pursuing policies to develop career opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

In April 1996:

• Women represented 51% of all non-industrial civil servants
• 47% of all staff at Executive Officer level (the first management grade) were women
• 17% at senior management level were women
• 5.5% of non-industrial civil servants were from ethnic minorities
• 2.9% of all disabled people were employed in the non-industrial Civil Service

The Judiciary is the third branch of government: like the Civil Service, it is not elected. Judges are completely independent of ministers and are normally appointed from amongst practising lawyers.
The police are divided into 43 local police forces. These are each watched over by "local police authorities", a board of 17 members of which 9 are elected in local elections, and 3 are magistrates. Each police force operates an equal opportunities policy, and discriminatory behaviour by police officers, either towards other officers or members of the public is a punishable offence. Police forces recognise the need to recruit more women and members of ethnic minorities to ensure they fully represent the community. No statistics were given for the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the judiciary.*

* Information derived from (and quoted verbatim where relevant) Britain 1998: An Official Handbook, Office for National Statistics, 1998, pp. 50-96. This is one of the official guides to Britain produced by the government itself.

  1. Why might there be no statistics for sex and ethnic comparison for the Judiciary in the Official Handbook?
  2. What are the different kinds of representation in this passage?
  3. Which is the most just in terms of representation of the population of Britain as a whole: Parliament, the Civil Service or the Judiciary?
  4. What does this imply about an election system?
  5. What is "Equal Opportunities"?
  6. How may "Equal Opportunities" be connected to the idea of just representation?
  7. Is there/should there be an "equal opportunities" policy in Poland?
Follow-Up Tasks
The internet allows in theory Participatory Democracy — that is, a democracy where people directly make their views heard and can vote for or against all laws, propose their own laws, etc. They can do this by using email and on-line discussion groups.
Would this be truly just political representation?
  • Write about the advantages and disadvantages of “IPD” – “ Internet Participatory Democracy”.

Teachers' Notes

A2. Any person aged 21 or over who is a British citizen, or citizen of another Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic, may stand for election to Parliament, provided they are not disqualified. People disqualified include those who are bankrupt, those sentenced to more than one year's imprisonment, members of the clergy, members of the House of Lords, and a range of public servants and officials. There is a financial deposit which may be lost if the candidate does not poll enough votes.

A3. All British citizens together with citizens of other Commonwealth countries and citizens of the Irish Republic resident in Britain may vote, provided they are 18 years or over and not legally barred from voting. People not entitled to vote include those serving prison sentences, peers and peeresses who are members of the House of Lords, and those kept in hospital under mental health legislation. You must, however, be on the electoral register.

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