Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Everyone has a rough idea of what the government is and what they do. They’re the people who run the country and make all the important and complicated decisions on our behalf.
But who makes up the government? And what exactly do these people do?
Things can get pretty complicated when it gets down to the details of how the government actually works.
So, the aim of this guide is to explain the basics of the UK government and ensure that weird jargon doesn’t stop you from understanding what’s really going on.
Who/What is the Government?
The big question: exactly who or what is the government?
Most definitions of the word ‘government’ are something along the lines of ‘the group of people who rule a country or state’, which is frankly very vague. This is partly because the people and organisations that make up the government vary between countries.
In the case of the UK, the government is essentially made up of three main components: The Prime Minister, government ministers and the Cabinet, and the Civil Service. The Queen and Members of Parliament (MPs) also play important roles in running the country, but in different ways to the government.
The Prime Minister
The Prime Minister (currently Boris Johnson) is the head of the government. They are essentially the CEO of the government – they oversee everything and set the general direction of government policy.
They also represent the UK at international conventions such as the G7.
Because of how the UK voting system works (see Guide: The Voting System) we don’t actually vote for the Prime Minister. The leader of whichever party wins the most seats in a general election becomes the head of the government as well as the head of the party.
Government Ministers and the Cabinet
Government ministers are the MPs of the party (or parties if there is a coalition) who won the election. They are assigned roles within government departments (don’t worry, we’ll come back to these). They act as a link between Parliament, where laws are made, and the Civil Service, where laws are implemented.
The most senior of these ministers are appointed as the heads of the government departments. These ministers form the cabinet which meets weekly with the Prime Minister to discuss the most important issues and make decisions.
The cabinet also serves to share the workload of the Prime Minister and provide a united front to the public, a function which is often referred to as collective responsibility.
Every now and then the Prime Minister will change or rotate which people are in the cabinet and what roles they have. This is done for many reasons, but it is often to fight falling popularity or remove ineffective ministers. This is called a cabinet shuffle or reshuffle.
The Civil Service
The Civil Service is the UK’s bureaucracy. They are non-elected officials who do all the administration of the government. In other words, they do all the complicated logistical work needed to implement new laws.
Their work mainly happens behind the scenes, as such civil servants are rarely in the media spotlight. Nonetheless, without them the country would fall apart.
As it is an unelected body, the civil service is politically neutral and works to impartially implement the laws of the elected government, regardless of which party formed the government.
The Civil Service is divided into departments, with each one responsible for a different area of policy, such as education or transport. Ministerial departments are led by a government minister (who is usually called secretary of/for the relevant department) as they need direct political oversight.
There are 24 such departments, including the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and HM Treasury. The heads of these 24 departments form the cabinet we mentioned earlier. Outside these main departments are 20 non-ministerial departments. They are led by senior civil servants as political oversight is either not necessary or would be inappropriate.
The Queen is our head of state because the UK is still a monarchy. This basically means she is the highest authority in the country. She calls general elections and invites the leader of the winning party to form the government, and signs bills into laws.
Some argue that the continued presence of the monarchy makes the UK undemocratic. However, while the Queen still holds significant power, it is almost completely ceremonial.
Her refusal to sign bills into laws would end in an enormous political crisis as well as public protest. The popularity of the royal family both at home and abroad (and the money this generates through tourism) means that, for now at least, the monarchy will remain part of UK politics.
Members of Parliament
Not to be confused with government ministers, MPs are the people elected to Parliament regardless of which party they are part of. Every MP represents a constituency (an area of the country) and they are who we vote for in elections, not the Prime Minister.
MPs play important roles in the creation of laws but aren’t necessarily involved in implementing them (unless they are government ministers) which is what the government does.
While this may sound like a group of villains in a terrible action film the reality is actually much more boring.
The shadow government is the counterpart to the government that is created by the opposition (i.e. the party with the second greatest number of seats in Parliament). MPs assigned to these positions in the shadow cabinet scrutinise the actions of the senior government ministers.
The point of this very sinister sounding group is to show that the opposition would make a better government than the existing one. They also ensure that the government is challenged on their policy decisions in all departments.
So, there you have the basics of what the UK government is and how it works.
Of course, this is just a brief outline of the main parts of the government and their roles. Nevertheless, hopefully this information helps clear things up a bit so that next time the news talks about a cabinet reshuffle you know that they’re talking about government ministers, not a government trip to Ikea.
How do we interact with the UK government? Head over to our article on The UK Voting System to find out!