How the United Kingdom works

The United Kingdom is run through a complex system of different organisations, rules,  and systems, but the basic principles are relatively clear.

How the UK Government works

  • The UK is a democracy. Government is chosen by the people and is not imposed.
  • It is a Parliamentary democracy. The people elect representatives – Members of Parliament or MPs – to take decisions on their behalf. This is done at General Elections which are now normally held every five years (though they can be held at different times with Parliamentary agreement).
  • MPs are elected for a particular constituency – a specified area of the United Kingdom.  In each constituency there will be a number of candidates, representing different political parties; voters are asked to vote for one of these. The candidate with the most votes becomes the MP for that constituency.
  • MPs represent the interests of everyone in their constituency, whatever their party.
  • The political party which wins most seats at a General Election takes charge of the Government until the next General Election.
  • The leader of this party is normally appointed as Prime Minister. They choose other party members to work as ministers in the Government with them.
  • Ministers decide on policy – what they want to happen in areas such as health, social security, transport, education.
  • Civil servants in Government departments
    • advise Ministers on policy
    • put that policy into practice
  • Civil servants must be politically neutral. They serve whichever Government is currently in power.
  • Government policies and actions can be challenged in:
    • Parliament (see below)
    • The Courts (see below)
    • The media, including social media
  • Under a process known as devolution, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments or assemblies and Governments; these bodies have been given specific powers (which vary from country to country), and are elected by the citizens of those countries in a similar way
  • There are also different tiers of local government throughout the United Kingdom. These have been given specific powers and responsibilities in their different areas.

The official Government page on “How Government Works” gives  more detail about the different elements of Government and includes links to the Scottish Government pages, the Welsh Government pages and the pages of the  Northern Ireland Executive. It also contains a link to a useful page on local councils.

How the UK Parliament works


Many people get confused about the difference between Government and Parliament. This is explained very clearly here.

Parliament’s main role is to represent the people and make sure that Government is “held to account”. Ministers have to explain their actions to Parliament, and cannot pass laws without Parliament’s agreement.

So the UK Parliament is a vital part of our democracy; the Parliamentary authorities want to make sure that everyone understands that and feels involved. There is an excellent and informative Parliamentary website which tells you everything you need to know – from how to find your MP, to how laws are made. You can watch most Parliamentary business on its dedicated Parliament TV or visit the Westminster buildings in person – whether to see a debate or on a guided tour. The guided tours take place when there is no Parliamentary business, so mostly during school holidays; they’re highly recommended if you’re visiting London.

The parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland work in a similar way; you can find out more about the Scottish Parliament on its website here, the National Assembly for Wales on its website here, and the Northern Ireland Assembly here.

How UK courts work


Courts also play a vital role in protecting citizens’ interests. You can find out more about your legal rights and responsibilities on our pages here, but if you’re interested in finding out more about the (many) different types of court or tribunal, check the HM Courts and Tribunal Service pages for England and Wales, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals pages , or the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service pages. There are different courts for different areas and different types of cases and because they have evolved over hundred of years the system can be confusing; this guide explains the system clearly (if at some length) for England and Wales; this page gives an overview of the system in Scotland; and this page explains the system in Northern Ireland.

Almost all court sessions are freely open to the public; it is important that justice is seen to be done. You’re unlikely to follow all the details of any particular case, but it’s always good to see law in action, whether at your local magistrates court or at the Supreme Court in London.  If you’re even vaguely thinking of a career in law, it’s  a really worthwhile way to spend some time.

You might also be interested in our pages on:

How the international world works
Don't leave politics to others
Getting involved in politics