This is a primer for Welshman's promised series (with me, Febble, not Hebble) on the forthcoming general election in the UK. As there was quite a bit of interest shown in the series, it would be good to get some recommends so that this diary can stay up long enough for those interested to see it - thanks!
Britain, notoriously, and unlike most sensible countries, has an unwritten constitution. This, I am rapidly discovering, is because when you write it down it looks so bloody daft.
However, here goes:
Like you, we have a Head of State. Your Head of State is a President, and you elect him/her (or try to). Our Head of State is a monarch, and is selected by recombinant DNA and assortative mating. However, whereas your Head of State has real power, derived from his mandate (if not his man-date), ours has none. Any funny business, and either s/he loses his head, or we hire the Dutch to invade Devon.
So the prime function of the Queen is not to exercise power, but to prevent others from exercising it. She's a dummy variable (stats joke), a tombstone entry (data-base joke), a washer (engineering joke), a buffering compound (chemistry joke).
Nonetheless, technically, Britain is ruled by "the Crown" through Parliament.
Parliament is the equivalent of your Congress, and, like Congress, consists of an upper and lower house, known as the Houses of Parliament, which also refers to that spiky building on the Thames with Big Ben at one end, properly called the Palace of Westminster.
The upper house is the House of Lords (as in "Englishmen dearly love a Lord"). And no, we do not elect the members of the House of Lords either. In the past, Lords, like monarchs, were selected by recombinant DNA and assortative mating, i.e. one of your ancestors happened to be made a Lord. However, in recent times, non-hereditary life "peerages" were created, by which you can be made a Lord for life (regardless of your DNA) but your first-born son will not automatically take your place at your death. You can also be a Baroness (a female Lord). Certain bishops are de facto Lords ("Lords Spiritual" as opposed to the "Lords Temporal") and also sit in the House of Lords. Very recently (under Blair's tenure) most (but not all, embarrassingly) the hereditary peers (another name for Lords/Baronesses) were booted out. They are still technically Lords, but don't have a seat in the House of Lords. Top judges are also Lords, but don't "sit in the Lords" either, being part of the judiciary not the legislature. Actually, even in the bad old days not all Lords "sat" in the Lords - if your brother was a Duke he got your seat- but I digress. As I say, it all looks even sillier written down. (And a seat in "the Lords" is different from one at "Lords", which is a cricket ground....)
Where were we? Oh yes: nowadays, the House of Lords (and Baronesses) consists of (mostly) non-hereditary appointed life-peers drawn from the ranks of the "great and good" (quotes essential to the concept - Harold Wilson notoriously appointed the maker of his favourite raincoats). In addition, in an attempt at a more demotic balance, Blair has introduced "people's peers" (the not-so-great-but-still-good). As a peerage means you are kept warmly wrapped in ermine until the end of your days, the average age of members of the House of Lords is about 93 (that is almost not a joke). Peers may or may not take a party whip. Peers not affiliated with a party are called cross-bench peers.
The House of Lords, however is a revising chamber only. Primacy in parliament rests, counter-intuitively, with the lower house, the House of Commons (as in "never wear high heels with slacks - it looks common.") Members of the House of Commons are actually elected, and it is from this electoral mandate that it derives its sovereignty. This sovereignty is embodied in elaborate ceremony at the State Opening of Parliament. The Queen's throne is in the House of Lords (see illustration above). She issues a royal summons to the House of Commons to attend the Queen's Speech. The summons is delivered by a man in a fancy suit called Black Rod. At his first attempt to deliver the summons to the Commons, the door is ritually shut in his face. He has to knock three times on the closed doors (with a black rod - duh), respond to the challenge "who is there?" with his title ("Black Rod!") before he is admitted. He then delivers the summons.
What all this means is that when we have a General Election in Britain, we vote for new Members of Parliament (MPs) to sit in the House of Commons and represent our constituency. There are a total 659 constituencies in the country and they are smallish, smaller than counties. I live in Nottinghamshire which has 11 constituencies, and 4 of these cover the city of Nottingham itself. Each returns one MP to the House of Commons. When you vote, you vote for an MP to represent your constituency, and, in theory at least, your interests.
Political parties select candidates, by various arcane procedures that vary from party to party and from time to time, so that although you are voting for an individual candidate, you are also voting for that candidate's party, as the new government will be drawn from MPs belonging to the party with the most successful candidates. MPs sometimes live in the constituency but often don't. Candidatures of constituencies that are "safe" for a particular party will be allocated to prominent members of that party to ensure that if the party gains enough seats to form a government, it will have enough competent MPs to run the country. Notoriously, Peter Mandelson, Labour's urbane, gay ex-spin-meister, is the MP for Hartlepool, a hardbitten northern port where they live on fish and chips and mushy peas (don't ask). Peter Mandelson allegedly mistook the mushy peas for guacamole.
We vote using paper ballots, usually at a polling station (though postal voting is growing - more on that later, perhaps), and the votes are counted by hand, under public scrutiny. If the vote is close, there is a recount. When all candidates are satisfied with the count, the result is "declared" by the "returning officer". The candidate with the most votes (a plurality not a majority) wins that constituency and is "returned to parliament" as MP. It is therefore a First-Past-The-Post system.
Elections are traditionally held on a Thursday, and the votes are counted overnight. By morning of the next day usually enough constituencies will have been "declared" that one party will already have an overall majority of MPs in the House of Commons.
When that happens, the Queen invites the leader of the majority party (provided the leader has actually won his/her seat) to "form a government", consisting of ministers, one of which is the "prime" minister, i.e. the leader of the winning party, who moves into number 10 Downing Street that day. Technically, she could ask the other guy, but she might lose her head. The Queen always refers to the government as "my government", and at the opening of a new Parliamentary session, she makes a speech - the "Queen's speech" - in which she announces "my government's" program for that session. This is probably the closest we have to your "state of the union" address.
The government is the executive, as opposed to parliament (both houses) which is the legislature. But as government ministers are also Members of Parliament, these roles are not as separate as perhaps they should be.
The prime minister
The prime minister is the leader of the winning party, invited by the queen to form a government. The prime ministers appoints ministers (less than "prime"), who are usually, but not always, drawn from the House of Commons (occasionally there's a Lord), and a subset of these ministers are appointed to form a cabinet. The prime minister is also called "First Lord of the Treasury" (again, don't ask - he's not a Lord, and doesn't have much to do with the treasury if Gordon Brown has anything to do with it). The Treasury is actually run by the Chancellor of the Exchequer ("second Lord of the Treasury", also not a Lord), currently Gordon Brown, who lives next door to the Prime Minister at number 11 Downing Street, and is responsible for the national budget. (Actually, Brown currently lives in the prime ministerial flat at number 10, and Blair lives in the rather larger flat at number 11, as he has more kids. But don't tell anyone I told you.)
When the Prime Minister wants to call a general election, s/he has the right to ask the Queen to dissolve parliament, and the election can be held a minimum of 17 days later. There has to be an election at least once every 5 years.
So to take stock:
Our prime minister is not constitutional the equivalent to your president, and we do not vote for her/him.
The only people in Britain who will vote for Blair at the general election are the voters of Sedgefield, Blair's constituency. It is perfectly possible (though unlikely) that they will vote for someone else (it is a "safe" Labour seat). What we vote for is an MP who is a member of the party that we want to form a government.
Party leaders (and therefore potential prime ministers) are selected by methods that vary from party to party, and depend on the current state of that party's constitution. They are not part of the country's constitution. We have no equivalent of your primaries.
In the Labour party, the leader (and a "running mate") is voted by members of the parliamentary Labour party (Labour Party MPs), the rank and file of the Labour party (I got a vote, and voted for Blair) and trade unionists (I got another vote, and used that for Blair as well). Getting rid of a party leader (including a governing prime minister) is also a party matter, and methods vary from party to party and from time to time (Tories used to offer a "pearl-handled revolver in the library"). Margaret Thatcher was brought down by her own party, while still in office. Harold Wilson (Labour) resigned while in office, apparently voluntarily. Most prime ministers survive as leaders of their party until their party loses an election. Blair, I sincerely hope, will not.
While the prime minister appoints ministers and cabinet members, all (apart from the odd stray Lord) are elected MPs (which at least spares us Condoleezza Rice).
Although an election has to be called at least once every five years, the government's term is not fixed. Even if the leadership of the governing party changes, meaning that there is a new Prime Minister, there does not have to be another general election until five years have elapsed since the last one.
This means that one of the big perks of being prime minister is that you can choose when to hold your election, and do it at really short notice. Sometimes elections are forced on governments, if they lose a vote of no confidence in the Commons. It happens more often than you might think.
Because, as in the US, we have a First-Past-The-Post system, it is possible for the party with the most seats to win fewer than half the votes. It is also possible, as in the US, for the winning party to have fewer votes than the losing party.
This is a major bar to the emergence of a third party as a serious force in parliament. Also, gerrymandering of constituency boundaries happens, generally in favour of the governing party (duh, again). So at present, the boundaries favour Labour, and the Tories will have to do very much better than Labour to win a majority. This means that a lot of tactical voting takes place, so that if your sitting MP is a Tory, and the person best placed to unseat him is a Liberal Democrat, you might vote for the Lib Dems, even if you want a Labour government. Or variants of the above.
Also worth noting:
The United Kingdom consists of three and a half countries (yes, we call them countries): England (the biggest in terms of both land mass and population), Scotland (my native land), Wales (where Welshman lives) and a bit of Ireland. Some of these countries have different laws and legal systems (Scotland for instance); some have devolved parliaments (intermittently, in the case of Northern Ireland), with members elected by residents of those countries. As people, we tend to identify ourselves as "English" or "Scottish" rather than "British. In fact, strictly speaking, only England, Scotland and Wales form "Great Britain". The full name of the whole caboodle is "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". But you can't really say "I'm Ukish". The United Kingdom is also part of the European Union, and so we also elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). EU laws form part of our constitution.
As I said, it all looks pretty daft written down. It is not a product of Intelligent Design. However, I will stick my neck out and say that, warts and all, it is a tribute to the merits of Natural Selection. You'd never design a constitution like ours from scratch, but it has evolved in response to selective pressures including civil wars, revolutions, and over-weening monarchs, and although it creaks, it sort of works. A sort of warthog, in fact. The Queen is useful by being useless - she is a block to prime ministerial power without wielding any herself, and serves a harmless conduit for patriotic sentiment, enabling us to lambast our prime minister cheerfully without feeling we are insulting our homeland. Plus, of course the whole Royal family is excellent low-brow entertainment, and although they are expensive to keep, at least we are preserving some splendid ancient buildings and parkland at the same time.
And believe it or not, our logically indefensible House of Lords is a remarkable institution, owing at least some of its merits to its non-elected status. As no Lord has to worry about a constituency or re-election, they can cheerfully ignore their party whips, and as age and experience often breeds wisdom, they can be bloody useful, as recently when they managed to curb the worst of the idiocies of Blair's attempt to shaft civil liberties.
(But our unelected upper house has still got to go.)
Update 14.33 GMT: some corrections (thanks to commenters below!) Total number of MPs in the House of Commons now stands at 659. Each represents one constituency. Female Lords are not Dames (who are female knights, i.e. sirs), but Baronesses. For more enlightenment see Gary J's comment below