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Government. Who governs Britain? When the media talk about 'the government' they usually mean one of two things


Who governs Britain? When the media talk about 'the government' they usually mean one of two things. The term 'the government' can be used to refer to all of the politicians who have been appointed by the monarch (on the advice of the Prime Minister) to help run govern­ment departments (there are several politicians in each department) or to take on various other special responsibilities, such as managing the activities of Parliament. There are normally about a hundred members of 'the government' in this sense. Although there are various ranks, each with their own titles, members of the government are usually known as 'ministers'. All ministers come from the ranks of Parliament, most of them from the House of Commons. Unlike in the USA and in some other countries in Europe, it is rare for a person from outside Parliament to become a minister. (And when this does happen, the person concerned is quickly found a seat in one of the two Houses.)

The other meaning of the term 'the government' is more limited. It refers only to the most powerful of these politicians, namely the Prime Minister and the other members of the cabinet. There are usually about twenty people in the cabinet (though there are no rules about this). Most of them are the heads of the government departments.

Partly as a result of the electoral system, Britain, unlike much of western Europe, normally has 'single-party govern­ment'. In other words, all members of the government belong to the same political party. Traditionally, British politicians have regarded coalition government (with several parties involved) as a bad idea. Since the formation of modern political parties in the nineteenth century, Britain has had a total of only twenty-one years of coalition governments (1915-1922and 1931-1945). Even when, for brief periods in the 1970s, no single party had a majority of seats in the House of Commons, no coalition was formed. There was a 'minority government' instead.

The habit of single-party government has helped to establish the tradition known as collective responsibility. That, is, every member of the government, however junior, shares the responsibility for every policy made by the government. This is true even if, as is often the case, he or she did not play any part in making it. Of course, individual government members may hold different opinions, but they are expected to keep these private. By convention, no member of the government can criticize government policy in public. Any member who does so must resign.



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