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This is obviously an extremely broad (but answerable!) question, and I honestly don't know where to start and have no knowledge whatsoever about the topic. Basically I would like to know how the political system is structured and how the government operates at the highest levels.

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Are you asking for good readings on British Politics? If so look at "Good Morning Prime Minister" :) –  Russell Jun 2 '12 at 10:52
    
Ahem. How about politics of Great Britain? –  Monster Truck Jun 2 '12 at 11:21
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Wikipedia has a good amount of detail. But is this really a history question? Perhaps it could be rephrased to make it more like one? –  Steve Melnikoff Jun 6 '12 at 13:22
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In addition, the site FAQ says that, "If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much." I suspect this may be true of this question. –  Steve Melnikoff Jun 6 '12 at 13:25
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Are you asking for how things are now? (as your question implies?) or how things were back in the past? You've tagged this "british-empire", a term which isn't in use in the UK now, which implies you're interested in the past. So which is it? –  Rory Jun 6 '12 at 16:52
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2 Answers 2

My answer is confined to the current structure of the United Kingdom.

I recommend you watch this short five minute explanation of all the countries/territories that are governed by the United Kingdom, and the Crown.

Since you are referring to "British" politics I am assuming that you are talking about the United Kingdom which comprises four separate yet equal countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Technically, the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state in the United Kingdom (and in 16 of the Commonwealth nations), but in reality the monarch exercises very little power and instead the power rests in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. However, for local matters concerning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland they have Devolved Parliaments or Assemblies that control what goes on in their respective countries. For example, issues related to health care and education may reside within the purview of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, or the Northern Ireland Assembly, not with the United Kingdom Parliament (although the latter could in theory overrule the others if it so desired).

The United Kingdom Parliament is composed of three parts: the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Sovereign.

The House of Commons consists of MPs (Members of Parliament) that are elected from across the whole of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is drawn from the House of Commons and is historically supposed to be able to lead the majority of MPs which is why it is often the leader of one of the two major political parties (see e.g. the Hollywood take on this phenomenon The Iron Lady). The Prime Minister also appoints and dismisses all members of the Cabinet which holds most of the power within the government.

The House of Lords consists of Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal. The Lords Spiritual consist of the most senior Church of England clergy: the two Archbishops (York and Canterbury), and about forty other Bishops. The Lords Temporal are mostly life peers (meaning they are a Lord for their lifetime), with a small number of hereditary peers (meaning their office is passed down by blood).

The Sovereign is the Crown in this case, Queen Elizabeth II, and only is relevant for symbolic political events, etc. Technically, the Sovereign has to agree to the passing of laws, but that consent is assumed unless the Queen explicitly states otherwise.

The House of Commmons, House of Lords, Prime Minister, and the Cabinet (with the Cabinet being "most powerful") make up the governing structure of "British" politics. These parts of the government work together to pass bills which follow the following process:

Basically, a Bill pass must through several stages in both Houses of Parliament to become a law. These stages take place in both Houses:

First reading (introduction of the Bill without debate)

Second reading (general debate)

Committee stage (detailed examination, debate and amendments - in the House of Commons this stage takes place in a Public Bill Committee)

Report stage (opportunity for further amendments)

Third reading (final chance for debate; amendments are possible in the Lords)

source: How laws are made in Parliament

So that is the basic gist of how the United Kingdom government is structured, and how they pass legislation. Most of the matters covered by the United Kingdom Parliament are related to taxation, defense, and other matters of significance that affect all of the United Kingdom countries.

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Excellent answer. Furthermore, there are three main political parties. Labour ("Left wing" or Socialist), Conservatives ("Right Wing" or Tory) and Liberal Democrat (who knows these days). Usually control flips between Labour and the Conservatives. MPS are elected by the first past the post systems and the party able to secure a majority (50%+) of the MPS can govern. So it is possible to be in power with a minority of the votes. –  James Woolfenden Jun 2 '12 at 20:16
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"The Lords Spiritual are Archbishops from around the countries." Not quite. Lords Spiritual are only from England. Wales and Northern Ireland have both "disestablished" their respective churches and the Church of Scotland, whilst established, does not participate in the Lords. –  Andrew Turvey Jun 7 '12 at 19:29
    
@AndrewTurvey thank you. I got the information from the Parliament website, but it appears I misread the information. I edited my answer. Thanks. –  ihtkwot Jun 8 '12 at 20:03
    
The Liberal Democrat would be the traditional 'liberal' party, i.e. pro-capitalism/free trade but also pro-personal liberty (i.e. not likely to be banning pornography or setting up religious schools). –  Rory Aug 1 '12 at 9:47
    
@Rory - although many of their policies are now to the left of NewLabour, but they are in a coalition with the conservatives So James' "Who Knows" is a reasonable political definition –  none Jan 5 '13 at 22:05
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@ihtknot's answer is pretty good ( What is the basic structure of British Politics? ), however I'd just add that although the UK Parliament is made up of House of Commons, House of Lords and Monarch, in reality the Lords and Monarch are subservient to the House of Commons. The Monarch must sign all laws that have been passed by Parliament (i.e. there's no veto like in the US system), and the House of Lords by convention does not block laws that are part of the winning parties political manifesto, and the Lords can only block a law twice in a row. (i.e. if the Commons passes a bill to the Lords three times in 3 consequentive years, then the on the third time the Lords cannot block it, but it must be passed. This is how controversional matters like a ban on fox hunting got through).

Since the UK has no written constitution, all of this has sorta evolved over ~ 400 years, and it's sorta not fallen over yet.

Another difference with the UK (and say US or (I think) German system) is the 'party whip'. Basically political parties have a lot of control over what their members can vote on. By default, when MPs go to vote, they must vote along party lines. This means voting is mostly a rubber stamp of what the central party / cabinet wants. If there is a controversial matter, then a free vote is allowed, where MPs can vote either way.

If you are interested in British politics, I'd caution you that 'The Iron Lady', while a good film, does not give a full picture of 1980s UK politics/history. The UK miners strike was barely mentioned and that had a massive impact on UK politics and industry, and the troubles in Northern Ireland is low key aswell. I'd recommend augmenting 'The Iron Lady' with 'Billie Elliot' (a young boy who wants to do ballet during the miners' strike) and something like 'Hunger' (for a raw look at northern ireland prisoners).

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To be pedantic, the monarch can decline to sign a Bill into law. But doing so would almost certainly bring us quite quickly to a republic; it was last done by Queen Anne, if I recall correctly –  Owen Blacker Aug 5 '12 at 16:24
    
The US House of Representatives have whips too ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ). Also, there's been a lot of grousing lately that the House and Senate (particularly the Republicans) have been starting to look more and more like the British parliment where pretty much the entire party votes in lockstep. See washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/… –  T.E.D. Aug 7 '12 at 17:46
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Don't forget that if a policy is too unpopular, or the whips ride too roughshod over MPs they can rebel - this has occurred in the past, and can bring down a government. –  Guy F-W Oct 2 '12 at 13:59
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