People often get the name of this country wrong because it is very confusing. But the names mean different things.
United Kingdom: The correct name for the country is the ‘United Kingdom’. This is a short version of the full name, which is ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. It is a state created by political union between Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
The Channel Islands and Isle of Man are looked after by the UK, but govern themselves.
Great Britain: Great Britain means the big island that is home to Scotland, England and Wales, plus most of the small islands around it. The word ‘great’ does not mean ‘excellent’ – it is an old way to say ‘big’. Great Britain is a historical name, from a time when ‘Britannia’ could mean the island of Britain or the smaller French region of Brittany. Today, the word ‘Britain’ is often used by itself.
The British Isles: The British Isles is the name for Great Britain and all the surrounding islands – including Ireland. It is only used in geography, but the Irish do not like this name. The ‘British and Irish Isles’ is a better way to say it.
The Commonwealth is an association of countries that support each other in areas like trade and human rights. Canada, Australia and island nations like Fiji and the Seychelles are among the countries. The Queen is the ceremonial head, but has no power over the individual members.
The two main political parties in the UK are the Conservatives (right-wing) and Labour (left-wing). Both are reasonably moderate. The Liberal Democrats are placed in the centre.
There are parties promoting independence for their area of the UK, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.
Among other smaller parties is the environmentally-focused Green Party.
The UK government is the group of people who run the country. The people in control are from the political party that wins the most seats in a General Election. They choose a leader, who is called the Prime Minister. They cannot change laws or taxes without the agreement of parliament, which is made up of ‘MPs’ (democratically elected people) and ‘Peers’ (specially chosen representatives).
Yes, the United Kingdom has more than one government. There is the UK government, based in London, which oversees the UK as well as England.
There are also separate governments for Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. These governments are for more local issues, such as health, culture, education and language. Northern Ireland has no government at the moment.
In Scotland and Wales, the governments are overseen by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
The Scottish Parliament: The 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are led by the First Minister of Scotland. All MSPs are voted by election, which takes place about every four years. The parliament building is located in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Read more on the Scottish parliament website.
The Welsh Assembly: The National Assembly for Wales is made up of elected members (called Assembly Members, AMs). It is led by the First Minister of Wales. The Assembly meets at The Senedd in Cardiff. Elections are every five years. Read more on the Welsh Assembly website.
The UK parliament building is located in Westminster, London. Inside it there are two chambers – or houses – the House of Commons and the House of Lords (which is why the building is called ‘the Houses of Parliament’).
The House of Commons is for democratically elected representatives.
The House of Lords is for people chosen because of their background, experience or community position. They are not elected. They check laws made by the House of Commons to make sure they are OK.
The civil service is people who are employed to serve the government in areas like education, transport and trade. The civil service is not political – the people stay in their jobs regardless of which party is in power. Civil service workers are known as ‘civil servants’.
The classic TV comedy series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are about the relationship between the civil service and government.
Peers are people who have the right to vote in the House of Lords. The House of Lords has been part of the English parliament since about 1500CE.
Historically, peers were either titled members of the upper class or high-ranking members of the Church of England. Since the year 2000, there was a change to the way the House of Lords was organised. Members are now:
Life peers: people who have been given a title through their own achievements. There are usually about 700 life peers. They are approved by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, an independent organisation.
Hereditary peers: upper class men with a hereditary title, for example dukes or earls. There are about 90 hereditary peers.
Christian leaders: There are about 26 archbishops and bishops
Many members have a political background, but many others have a professional background – for example medicine, law, business, the arts, science, sports, education, military, diplomacy and public service. There is no upper limit on members. About 6% are not white British.
Making the membership of the House of Lords more diverse is a slow process because membership is usually for life, although people can choose to retire.
Chequers is a country house outside London that the Prime Minister can use.
The house was donated to the country in 1921 by Arthur Lee and his American wife Ruth Lee. At that time, prime ministers came from rich families who had their own country estates. However, World War 1 brought many social changes. The Lees realised future prime ministers might come from less wealthy backgrounds and believed they should have somewhere to relax or entertain in the countryside.
One special group of MPs within the House of Commons is called ‘the Cabinet’. It is made up of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the ministers who are head of the government departments. These people are chosen by the Prime Minister.
Cabinet roles include:
Chancellor of the Exchequer (head of the Treasury, which manages the economy)
Home Secretary (head of the Home Office, which manages crime rates, the police and immigration)
Foreign Secretary (head of the Foreign Office, which manages relationships with other countries)
Secretaries of State (heads of other departments)
The largest opposing political party will choose people to be members of a ‘Shadow Cabinet’. Their role is to question the actions of the people in the main Cabinet.
The House of Commons and House of Lords both have special groups called Select Committees. They oversee the work of government. The results of their work are public.
House of Commons: Each committee has at least 11 MPs and will sometimes also employ specialists to help them. There is a Select Committee for each government department. They examine spending, policies and administration. There are also Select Committees for long investigations, for example Political & Constitutional Reform.
House of Lords: The Select Committees look at 6 main areas: Europe, science, economics, communications, the UK constitution and international relations.
The Speaker is an MP chosen to chair the debates in the House of Commons. That person must not be a member of a political party while they are the Speaker.
Although being neutral is important for the role as Speaker, it is not so good for the people who are in the Speaker’s constituency. This is because they don’t have any effective representative in parliament.
A Whip is an MP who has the job persuading the backbenchers to vote in parliament in line with their political party. The Chief Whip has the job of trying to ensure the government gets new legislation and policy approved.
Cobra is the name given to the group of ministers and experts who make decisions in national emergencies, for example COVID-19. The real name is the Civil Contingencies Committee – the name Cobra comes the place where they have their meetings, the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR). The members of Cobra change, depending on the emergency.
Sage is the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. It is made up of a group of scientific and technical experts (and others) who help the government make decisions in emergency situations. Membership of the group varies depending on the emergency.
If the Prime Minister leaves or dies while in power, there is not automatically a General Election – instead the ruling party would choose a new leader. However, it might mean that a General Election is earlier than normal.
The Prime Minister earns about £150,000 a year. Although this is a lot of money, the use of the apartment at 10 Downing Street is a taxable benefit and the Prime Minister must also pay to have guests at the country house, Chequers.
There are many civil servants who earn more than the Prime Minister, including 50 people at Network Rail (which looks after the railway infrastructure).
Every part of the UK has an elected representative, called an MP (Member of Parliament). MPs help make the decisions about the daily running of the country and suggest new laws. Each MP has a place in the House of Commons.
MPs act as a link between people and parliament. They have a duty to everyone in their constituency. They split their time between the House of Commons (where they will fight for the best deal for the people in their constituency, among other things) and meeting the people of their local area. You can go to visit your MP at certain times (called ‘surgeries’) or you can write to them.
MPs can help you if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly on an issue related to central government, such as benefits and state pensions, taxes, the NHS, or child support.
They can also help with local issues like school closures. You can also ask your MP to support you if you wish to create a petition. You do not need to be a registered voter, but you do need to live in their constituency.
Be aware that depending on your problem, your MP might not be the best person to help you. Sometimes it is better to contact a government department or your local council. The Parliament website gives more details.
The Parliament website that lets you find your MP if you know your postcode. It will also give you information about which political party they belong to and contact details/website. British citizens living abroad should use the postcode from the last time they registered to vote in the UK.
If it is something to do with the area you live in, try your local council.
You can also go to your local Citizen’s Advice. This is an independent organisation with trained advisors who can help with topics like debt, healthcare, workplace rights, housing, family issues and the law. See the Citizens Advice website for details.
People who wish to vote must register before the election. In general, any British citizen over the age of 18 can register to vote in a General Election (the rules are slightly different for British citizens living abroad). Irish and many Commonwealth citizens can also vote, as long as they are resident at a UK address.
People who are not allowed to vote in a General Election include members of the House of Lords, most prisoners and people recently convicted of electoral fraud.
An exit poll is used to predict which party will win an election. People are asked whom they voted for when they leave specially chosen polling stations on voting day.
There are 39,000 polling stations, so only a few places are chosen. These will be in constituencies where no-one is sure which party will win. The exit polls are often right, but sometimes they are very wrong!
If no political party gets a majority (326 seats) in a General Election, this is called a ‘hung parliament’. This is because the largest party would not be sure it could win enough votes in parliament to pass the laws it wanted.
The problem might be solved by two parties forming a coalition and agreeing to work together. Sometimes a new General Election is called.
A local council (also known as local authority) is one of the highest levels of local government. Local councils get their money from central government and council tax. They look after services that affect the county or suburb, including schools, fire services, roads, pavements, libraries, social housing, social care, waste collection and planning (permission to build or change buildings).
Councils are made up of councillors (elected representatives, unpaid) and paid council workers who do the administrative work.
There are different types of local council:
A county council. This is common in rural areas.
A borough council. In some counties there is no county council (for example, Bedfordshire is split into Bedford Borough Council, Central Bedfordshire Council and Luton Borough Council).
A unitary authority (UA). Some towns or cities are so big they are controlled independently of the county council. Examples are Portsmouth, Derby and Blackpool.
Sometimes, a lower level of local government helps the county council with some of these services (these might be called a borough council, district council or city council). There are also lower types of council, for example town councils and parish councils.
In some regions, groups of local councils join together to make decisions about issues that matter locally, such as housing and transport. They also get joint funding from the government. This group is called a combined authority.
Examples are Greater Manchester region, the West of England region, and the North of Tyne region.
Town councils are in the lowest level of local government. They are responsible for things that only affect a local community. Examples are allotments, bus shelters, community events, community centres, parks, public toilets and cemeteries.
An ecclesiastical parish. This is an area and its people served by a church (the parish church).
A civil parish. Rural areas are split into civil parishes with one or more villages or small towns. Parish councils are a low level of local government. They are very similar to town councils, but they don’t have a mayor.
In Britain, a mayor is usually a councillor chosen as the ceremonial head of a town or city council. Usually the role is not paid and they have no power. Mayors are elected each year by other councillors. In Scotland, they are called provosts or lord provosts.
There are fewer than 20 mayors with any kind of power. These mayors are paid and are chosen by public election. Sometimes called ‘metro mayors’, they are only found in large cities or as the head of a type of local government called a combined authority.
London is a special example. The city has 33 local authorities, but there is one umbrella council, called the Greater London Authority. The head of is the Mayor of London, who is paid. There is a public election every 4 years. Some local authorities within London are big enough to have their own metro mayor as well.
Each council is split up into areas called ‘wards’ or ‘divisions’. Each area has a representative, called a councillor, who must get the highest number of votes in a public election. Most people stand as a member of a political party.
Council elections are held on the first Thursday in May and councillors have their role for 4 years.
Councillors are not paid for the work they do, but they can claim expenses.
You can contact the councillor for your area if you have questions or problems with local authority or town council services.
Go to your local council website to find out who your councillors are.
You must either be a British or Irish citizen, or a citizen of some Commonwealth countries to vote in a local council election. Some other foreign nationals are also eligible to vote. You must be over 18 (16 in Scotland).
Over 1,000 years ago, England was split into areas called shires (later known as ‘counties’). Each shire had a ‘shire reeve’ who helped maintain the law and collect taxes. This is the origin of the word ‘sheriff’. Today, sheriffs are still people connected with the law, but their role is different depending on whether you are in England, Wales or Scotland.
In England and Wales, a High Sheriff is a non-political role that is held for 1 year. High Sheriffs are chosen by the Queen and there is one for each county. They help support crime prevention, the emergency services and local charities that help vulnerable people. High Sheriffs are not paid.
In Scotland, a sheriff is a type of judge for many types of civil or criminal cases. Sheriffs sit in a type of court called a Sheriff Court. You can read more about the legal system in the POLICE & LEGAL SYSTEM section.