So government and politics, quite a broad topic as you can imagine. In this section we’re going to take a look at some of the themes that are likely to creep up in an exam – a sort of introduction.
We’ll touch on civil liberties, elective dictatorships and parliamentary votes just to name a few.
Let’s start with looking at some parliamentary conventions. You may or may not have heard about parliamentary whips – well I can assure you they’re not literal!
Whips are MPs or Members of the House of Lords appointed by each party in Parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business. One of their responsibilities is making sure the maximum number of their party members vote, and vote the way their party wants.
In the UK a three line whip is a written instruction given to MPs via the whips telling them they must vote in a way that the party wants them to on a particular subject. The vote in question is underlined three times on the order paper.
Defying a three-line whip is very serious, and has occasionally resulted in the whip being withdrawn from an MP or Lord. This means that the Member is effectively expelled from their party (but keeps their seat) and must sit as an independent until the whip is restored.
One of the powers of parliament is the ability to impose acts, or laws. An Act of Parliament creates a new law or changes an existing law. An Act is a Bill that has been approved by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and been given Royal Assent by the Monarch. Taken together, Acts of Parliament make up what is known as Statute Law in the UK.
There are a few key acts that are worth knowing! So here they are:
The Communications Act 2003 came under fire as it was said to limit freedom of expression in the UK. The Communications Act of 2003 created a crime of ‘sending a malicious communication using social media’. It was controversially used to prosecute some users of social media in cases such as the Twitter Joke Trial of 2010.
The right to free speech was also said to be undermined by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 created an offence in England and Wales of inciting hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion.
Some critics argued that this undermined free speech because it could criminalise both racists who sought to incite violence against people of other religions and satirists who sought to mock them.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 created a public ‘right of access’ to information on them held by public authorities. The Act covers any recorded information that is held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by UK-wide public authorities based in Scotland.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 introduced fixed-term elections with the provision that Parliamentary elections must be held every five years, beginning in 2015. The Act received Royal Assent on September 15, 2011.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 introduced control orders which can contain restrictions that the Home Secretary or a court ‘considers necessary for purposes connected with preventing or restricting involvement by that individual in terrorism-related activity’. These might include denial of access to Internet, restrictions on work and business arrangements or being forced to surrender a passport.
Now let’s take a look at civil liberties. Civil liberties are basic rights and freedoms granted to citizens of a country through common or statute law.
They include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religious worship.
Such rights and freedoms form the basis of a democratic society and are often denied to those living in a dictatorship.
Freedom of religion is considered to be a core civil liberty in the UK. Alternatively the right to bear arms is a civil liberty in the USA. Free healthcare is not a civil liberty, although it is arguably provided by the NHS (with charges for some services for some individuals). UK citizens do not have a right to a free university education.
Civil liberties should not be confused with the civil service. Legitimacy has no place in the civil service as its employees are not elected.
However, they are expected to do their roles impartially in terms of providing advice, neutrally in terms of carrying out the wishes of the Minister regardless of whether they agree with the policy and without revealing details of departmental discussions.
A permanent secretary is the most senior civil servant in a department. Each supports the government minister at the head of the department, who is accountable to Parliament for the department’s actions and performance.
The permanent secretary is the accounting officer for their department, reporting to Parliament. They are responsible for the day-to-day running of the department, including the budget.
And finally in this section we’re going to touch on an elective dictatorship.
An ‘elective dictatorship’ is a phrase popularised by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, in a lecture at the BBC in 1976. It describes the state in which Parliament is dominated by the government of the day.
In essence it would occur when a government is elected with a large enough majority to completely dominate the legislature.
This would mean that once elected, is able to behave like a dictator owing to the weakness of Parliament, particularly if it has a large majority. This is also known as executive dominance.
Of course in this topic you’re going to cover a lot of ground, but as in all things, you have to start somewhere!