UK Government for Dummies… and Americans


The UK held an election this last Thursday,
but it wasn’t a regularly scheduled election, it was a snap election, as sort of a way to
say “Okay for real though, Brexit, for real this time.” If you’ve heard anything about the results,
you know that it ended up being fairly controversial and anything but a landslide. After a few requests yesterday, I put my topic
this weekend to a vote on twitter. This is why you should follow me on there. As you can see, UK Politics only earned 43%
of the vote, so just like the Tories, it wins. Wait what? Not all democracies work the same way, and
here in America we have a number of misconceptions about other democracies in the world. Particularly when it comes to the United Kingdom. Because of that, in an attempt to explain
how the British government works, I’m going to relate it to how the US government works. So while this video is supposed to explain
the UK to non-Brits, I suppose any Brits watching could reverse engineer what I’m about to
say in order learn about the US, so yeah, two for one! First we need to get some structure and vocabulary
out of the way. The United Kingdom is a country that exists
in the British Isles. Some of you may know this, but the official
name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Where is Great Britain? This is Great Britain, the largest island
in the British Isles. On Great Britain, there are three countries. England, Scotland, and Wales. So the United Kingdom is a country, which
consists of four countries, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If it helps, you can think of these four countries
like states, they have their own governments and parliaments which capitulate to the overall
United Kingdom government, just like states which fall under the federal government. The term British refers to the collective
government of the UK, and while you can call all of the people British, some of them might
take offense to that. Anyway… The first misconception: The queen is just
a figurehead. This is something Americans like to say because
it’s something they’ve heard over and over either from the media or in school…
maybe as a way to delegitimize the idea that the UK is still a monarchy? But it’s simply not true. Here in America we have a president. This president has many roles, like head of
government, head of state, chief executive, and commander-in-chief. These are all very different jobs, all lumped
into one person. But in the UK, they have two people. The Prime Minister, or PM, who is the head
of government and chief executive. And the Monarch, who is the head of state
and the commander-in-chief. Since in America, one person does all of these
things, we don’t really pay attention to what the differences are, and may not even
really realize they exist. So let’s break them down a bit. The head of state is the leader of the people,
not necessarily the government. In the United Kingdom, the government serves
in her majesty’s name and by her permission, but I’ll get to that later. In America, most of the background responsibilities
of the head of state are performed by the Secretary of State. In the UK, all of these responsibilities are
on the Queen. She appoints all ambassadors to other countries. In fact, the British Ambassador to the United
States is not “The British Ambassador,” he is a representative of the Crown, not the
government, and is therefore “Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United States of America”
and the United States does not have an ambassador to the UK. It’s the “Ambassador of the United States
to the Court of St. James.” Which is the royal court of the Queen. In practice, obviously, they are ambassadors
to and from the government, but in reality, they are ambassadors to and from the Crown,
separate from the government. The Queen is also the commander-in-chief of
the military. In the United States, when you swear in, you
are swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution – which says that you will obey the lawful
orders of the President. But in the United Kingdom, and the Commonwealth
Realm, you swear allegiance to the Crown. Not the constitution, not the government,
not your country. All of the ships in the navy are HMS, Her
Majesty’s Ship. Now, in practice, the government, under the
Ministry of Defence, spelled with a C, directs the day to day operations of the military. But in the end, she is the commander-in-chief. She has the ability to declare war, not parliament. It’s the reverse in the US. The President directs the day to day operations,
and the Congress declares war. The Queen has a number of other functions
that don’t necessarily come with a nice neat label. Like the President, she appoints all judges,
in England and Wales anyway. The court system there is royal. Until 2005, the House of Lords, which I’ll
get to in a moment, acted as the Supreme Court, but now there is a separate body, still appointed
by the Queen. The Queen is also the head of the church. Since we are a secular government and have
no state religion, we don’t really have an equivalent to that in the US, but if it
helps, you can think of her as the Anglican Pope. And like the President, she has final veto
power, or Royal Assent, on all acts passed by parliament – which then makes it a law. Just like how the President signs a bill from
Congress which then makes it a law. The Crown has not exercised its veto power
in over 300 years, but it is still there and is still possible. To make matters more complicated, the Crown
is also the head of state for most of the Commonwealth Nations, like Canada, Australia,
and New Zealand… which is why she is on all of the money there. She has less power there, but power nonetheless. So now let’s talk about the Prime Minister,
the head of government and the chief executive. This means that this person is the actual
leader of the government and runs its day to day operations. The Cabinet is chosen by the Prime Minister
and they mostly run government departments, much like the cabinet in the US. In the US we have a Secretary of State, a
Secretary of Defense, and twenty others, not all of them are heads of government departments. In the UK they have a Secretary of State for
Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, a Secretary of State for Defence, and again, strangely
enough, twenty others. These names are usually shortened to Foreign
Secretary and Defence Secretary – again spelled with a C. Unlike the US, the UK Cabinet
does not require approval from parliament. So how is the Prime Minister chosen? This is what the election on Thursday was
about, but the people don’t directly vote for Prime Minister. We don’t directly vote for President either,
but that’s a complicated and- there are dozens of videos out there on the Electoral
College and for those of you who follow my channel regularly, you know that I have a
pretty strict “no beating dead horses” policy when it comes to my content- so I’ll
just leave it at. So again, how is the Prime Minister chosen? The United Kingdom has two houses of parliament. The House of Lords and the House of Commons. The House of Lords is the upper house and
consists of 800 appointees by the Queen, yet another way that the Queen still has significant
power. House of Lords is actually the shortened name,
the official name is “The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.” They’re mostly hereditary position, but
they are bishops of the church, who are the Lords Spiritual, and most of the Lords, Dukes,
Barons, and Counts, who are the Lords Temporal. All acts of Parliament, go through them before
going to the Queen. They can scrutinize and amend acts, but they
can’t prevent them from becoming law. So if you want to talk about who the figurehead
is in this situation… The House of Commons is the elected lower
house, kind of like the US House of Representatives. The United Kingdom is divided up into 650
constituencies. You can kind of think of them like the 435
congressional districts in the US, but those are way larger. You have to remember that the UK is the size
of Oregon, with the populations of California and Texas crammed in. Typically, a constituency in the UK represents
about 70,000 people, whereas in the US, it varies dramatically because of the way we
apportion them by state, with the lowest being 526,000 in Rhode Island and the highest being
994,000 in Montana, but still on average, about ten times as many people. (710,000) Anyway, each of these constituencies
is represented by a Member of Parliament, or MP. And this is what people are voting for, they
don’t vote for Prime Minister. Each constituency is a race for both local
representation and for national government. Each Member of Parliament is chosen by a simple
majority which just means whoever got the most votes. Which means there are some constituencies
represented by MPs who only got 24% of the vote, but they were the highest voted candidate. And that can happen because the UK has a multi-party
system, unlike the US and our two-party system – they still only have two main ones, but
in the election on Thursday, nine parties won seats. The United States has 538 electoral votes
for President, and someone has to get 270 in order to win. The United Kingdom has 650 constituencies,
so a party must get 326 to win. I said party there, because again, people
are not directly voting for Prime Minister. They vote for their MP, who represents a party. The party that gets the most MPs choses their
Prime Minister, you usually know who that’s going to be before you vote. But what happens when no party gets the required
326, which is what happened on Thursday? They can form a Coalition Government. The Conservatives, or Tories, won 318 seats. The Labour Party, spelled with a U, won 262. These are the two main parties and you can
kind of think of them as the Republicans and Democrats and they hold somewhat similar views
on the issues with their US counterparts. The next biggest party is the Scottish National
Party with 35 seats, and as you might have guessed, only ever wins in Scotland, and since
Brexit they’ve been pushing for independence. Then with 12 seats, the Liberal-Democrats,
who formed a Coalition government with the Tories in 2010. And then the Democratic Unionist Party, with
ten seats, are the ultra-right wing party, if it helps, you can think of them like the
Tea Party. And then there are four other smaller parties
which I’m not going to talk about because… c’mon the screen is already pretty full. So the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats
had formed a Coalition Government in the past, which just means the two parties getting together
to cross that 326 threshold, elect the main party’s candidate as Prime Minister, and
they usually share some cabinet positions. Why didn’t they this time? Because of Brexit. The Liberal-Democrats are very much against
Brexit, while the Conservatives are apparently now for it. I say that with some uncertainty because the
Conservatives weren’t always for it. In the last general election in 2015, in order
to sway UKIP (UK Independence Party) voters, the Tories promised to allow a referendum
on the UK leaving the EU or British Exit or “Brexit.” That unstated coalition made them win. The Tories didn’t really think that the
people would go for it, but in 2016, they did… so David Cameron resigned. Since then there has been a lot of turmoil
in the UK over whether the people really honestly knew what they were voting for, so the new
PM, Theresa May called for a snap election. As I said in the beginning, this was more
or less a re-vote on Brexit without calling it that, in order to save face. So now that we’re caught up, back to the
election results on Thursday. The conservatives didn’t get the 326 majority,
so in order to make the process easier anyway, they have to form a coalition government with
one of the other parties. Labour is against Brexit, the Scottish National
Party is against it, the Liberal Democrats are against it, but the DUP is for it. And that’s who they’re going to form a
coalition with, which will put them at 328 seats. And that’s why I also didn’t mention the
smaller parties, because while they could form a coalition with the Green Party and
their one seat, that won’t really make a difference. The coalition with the DUP is controversial
because of their super right-wing stance on the issues, like being against abortion, gay
marriage and other LGBT rights, but they are for UK independence from the EU, so there
you go. Could the Labour party have formed a coalition
to get the needed 326? In theory, yes, but it would have had to include
the DUP AND three other parties… so no. So the Prime Minister is chosen by whichever
party has a majority in the House of Commons. Who then asks the Queen for permission to
form a government. They could, in theory, do away with everything
that is already established and form an entirely new government, which would likely be chaos
and they’d probably lose in a vote of no confidence, which is kind of like impeachment
but way easier, so they don’t. But then they fill the cabinet to lead the
various ministries. And because of that, the UK government is
described as a one-party government. Unlike in the US where the President can be
from one party and the Houses of Congress can be from the other. Everything from the Prime Minister on down
all belong to a single party. The second largest party in the House of Commons
is then known as the Opposition, and their leader is the Leader of the Opposition. That person doesn’t really have any power
outside of the one on one debate they have with the Prime Minister in sessions of parliament. So the next time you hear the American media
say that Theresa May was elected or you hear that the Queen is just a figurehead or tourist
attraction, hopefully now, you’ll know better. I’m almost to one year and one thousand
subscribers, so stay tuned for a special video soon! But if you enjoyed this video, or you learned
something, make sure to give that like button a click. If you’d like to see more from me, I put
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