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Students' Views - The Government of Britain


From the essays Polish students sent into the British Council Poland ‘Britain Now’ competition it appears like most sensible people, they have more important things to think about than that boring subject of politicians and how they govern the country.   Such mythical topics as ‘Nessie’, or that incomprehensible game ‘cricket’ evoked more interest than the machinations of government.   Most young people appear to have other more pleasurable interests than worrying about how many MPs are in the House of Commons, or how laws are passed.  The only organ of government which seemed to arouse any interest and comment was the monarchy, or the Iron Lady, Mrs Thatcher.

However, there were some interesting views about how the British govern themselves.  Here are a selection of these with a few comments.

Renata Kranasielska from Wałcz writes

‘The second really amazing fact for me is that the British party system consists of only two parties’

Yes, Renata, it is amazing, but it is no longer really true. The dominance of the two-party system has often been attributed to the 'first past the post' voting system.  This means that a candidate is elected to parliament if he or she, obtains more votes than any other candidate, even though all the other candidates together may poll a great deal more than 50% of the votes cast.  This system has favoured the big parties who got far more members elected than their share of the poll justified.  The new government has appointed a commission to look into different systems of voting such as proportional representation.  This would mean, if it is adopted, that a party’s strength in the House of Commons would more closely resemble the party’s share of the popular vote.  Perhaps, if Britain changes to such a system, the British political scene will come to look more like Poland’s, and Britain too will have more coalition governments.

Dominika Jóźwiak of the Liceum Ogólnokształcące w Żyradowie succinctly described the present state of affairs of the House of Lords

‘The House of Lords is the upper house of Parliament.  It can delay but never defeat any bill that the House of Commons is determined to pass.

Dominika this will soon change.  No longer will a duke be able to sit in the House of Lords by virtue of the fact that an ancestor was an actress who caught the eye of the king. Other peers are there because their ancestors lent impoverished monarchs money.  In the 1920’s there was the so-called ‘honours scandal’when, during the premiership of Lloyd George, peerages were sold for party political contributions.  Thus many of the hereditary peers are there because of the misdeeds rather than the good deeds of their ancestors.  Life peers are peers who cannot pass their title on to their children.  These peers are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister and are supposed to represent the ‘great and the good’ .  They are often elderly when appointed, and many are regarded by the popular press as worn out old politicians who are kicked upstairs into the House of Lords.  Others may be friends of the political party in power, Tony’s cronies or Major’s minions. The present government has completed one stage of reform which left only a rump of hereditary peers and is in the process of introducing a second stage.

The British Royal family continues to fascinate Polish people as much as people anywhere.  Pick up a Polish magazine like ‘Halo’ or ‘Życie’, and more likely than not you will find an article on one or other of the members of the House of Windsor.

Wojciech Różański of III Liceum in Katowice summed up this interest well when he wrote

‘People in Poland know that monarchy is the British political system’

While Krystyna Śliwińska of the II Liceum in Brzeg believes that

‘One of the differences which makes the country more special than other countries is the Queen’.

However, Krzysztof  Potempa of the III Liceum in Tarnów correctly points to the limitation of this regal power when he says

‘Nowadays the Queen remains influential but has little power in the daily running of the government’

Government in Britain today is in a state of flux: the House of Lords is being reformed; discussions are taking place about introducing some form of proportional representation for the Commons; London has an elected mayor; and representative assemblies sit in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. With such changes, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is facing a constitutional upheaval greater than any since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when absolute monarchy was overthrown to be replaced by the beginnings of a constitutional parliamentary democracy.


GLOSSARY

The Iron Lady: This was a phrase which was probably first used in a cartoon to cast fun at Margaret Thatcher. However, it was seized on by her advisers to advertise her strength in the Conservative election slogan of 1979: 'What Britain needs is an iron lady'.

Liberal Democrats: This party was formed in 1989 when the Liberal Party joined with the Social Democrats. Its present leader is Charles Kennedy and it is the third largest party in the House of Commons.

First past the post: This colloquial phrase is used to describe the British voting system. Under this system the candidate with the largest number of votes in any constituency is elected even if the total number of votes cast for other candidates is more than his or her total.

Proportional representation: This voting system, which is used in many countries of the European Union, like the Republic of Ireland, means that a political party will secure a number of seats in Parliament proportional to the number of people who voted for it. This system is used in the United Kingdom for elections to the European Parliament.

Coalition government: This happens when no party has an absolute majority in Parliament, so several parties join together to form a coalition. The present Polish government is a coalition. Coalition governments are rare in the UK. The last one was during the Second World War.

Kicked upstairs: This is a colloquial phrase used when a member of the House of Commons is made a peer and so moves to the House of Lords.

House of Windsor: Royal dynasties are usually called 'houses'. The name of the present 'House of Windsor' was changed in 1917 during the First World War, when King George V decided that the German name of Saxe Coburg and Gotha was not suitable for the sovereign of a country that was at war with Germany. Queen Elizabeth is the fourth sovereign of the House of Windsor.

Glorious Revolution of 1688: The word 'revolution' usually implies some sudden upheaval like the French or Russian Revolution. The Glorious Revolution was not like this. It was more like a palace coup d'etat, when the government of James II was overthrown by his son-in-law, William of Orange. William then became joint monarch along with his wife, Mary, James's daughter. However, the change of Crown was approved by Parliament, who from this date gradually gained more and more power.


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