May 12, 2011

by Don C. Graeter

A basic understanding of the terminology and workings of the British Parliamentary System of Government is essential to an understanding of the long public life of Sir Winston Churchill. While the British system is democratic, it differs in significant respects from the American system.

The Branches of Government-Overview

Besides the judiciary, the British structure consists of the monarch, legislative and executive branches. The term “Parliament” technically refers to both chambers of the legislative branch which is divided into the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Colloquially, “Parliament” is sometimes used to refer only to Commons.

In medieval times, the monarch was supreme, but the position has evolved almost entirely into that of a figurehead. Many formalities are observed to honor the tradition of the monarch as head of state, but virtually no legal authority remains with the Crown.

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The primary governing authority today resides in the House of Commons. Besides holding virtually all the power in the legislative branch, the Commons controls the primary executive positions as well. The role of the House of Lords is quite limited.

The House of Lords

 The Lords” consists of members of “The Peerage,” who are appointed by the monarch, in most cases upon recommendation by the Prime Minister. In order of rank, peerage titles are Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron.

Peerages” are both “hereditary” and “life” in nature. A hereditary peerage is passed down to the holder’s heir upon his death. A life peerage expires upon the holder’s death. New hereditary peerages are no longer created except for members of the Royal family. Those which survive no longer confer the automatic right to sit in “The Lords.”

Hereditary peerages are inherited pursuant to the United Kingdom’s version of “male preference” primogeniture. Most often, this means that the title is inherited by the first born son of the peer upon the peer’s death, though there are a variety of exceptions which govern in such cases as when the peer has no sons, has a first born son who predeceases the peer, etc.

A confusing factor in the study of British history is that receipt of a peerage occasions a change of name. This is compounded by the fact that a single individual may hold different titles received by different means at different times.

A notable example of the foregoing is that of a man who figured most prominently in a critical chapter in the life of Winston Churchill. Edward F.L. Wood, born 1881, was elected to Parliament in 1910 and served in the Commons until 1925 when he was named The Baron Irwin upon becoming the choice of George V as Viceroy of India. Wood became the 3rd Viscount Halifax by inheritance in 1934, when his father, the 2nd Viscount Halifax, passed away. Wood was then named the Earl of Halifax in 1944. Thus, the same man served in the Commons as Edward Wood, as Viceroy as Lord Irwin, and as Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United States as Lord Halifax!

Thankfully, except for the Dukes, the other members of the peerage are usually conversationally referred to as “Lord.” Thus, Edward Wood was addressed as “Lord Halifax,” both as a Viscount and as an Earl.

To keep it all from being too straightforward, however, “Lord” is also, at times, a “courtesy” title applied to descendants of titled families who will not, or have not yet, inherited the title. Hence, Winston Churchill’s father was referred to as “Lord Randolph Churchill,” despite the fact that his older brother inherited their father’s title as Duke of Marlborough and Randolph served in the Commons.

See “Legislation” below regarding the surviving authority of the House of Lords.

The House of Commons

 The House of Commons is comprised of 650 or so members (“MP’s”) who are elected from districts. Members need not live in their districts and individuals have often been elected from districts with which they have had no previous association. It has also been common for members to change districts from time to time, especially as they acquire more seniority and influence and are rewarded by the party with “safe” seats.

The ability to change districts was critical to the early career of young Winston Churchill. Churchill was first elected to Parliament on his second attempt in 1900, serving until his retirement in 1964, with the exception of a two-year gap from 1922-1924. Along the way, Churchill represented four different “constituencies” (districts) and unsuccessfully sought the seat from two others.

A political party’s nomination for Parliament is determined by the local party organization for each district. There are no “primary elections,” as we know them in the United States. There is a local party executive committee and nominations are formally bestowed at local caucuses of party members. The caucuses are influenced in varying degrees by the local party executive and by the national or “central” party office. The latter is usually controlled, as one would expect, by the national party leaders.

One wishing to “stand for Parliament” must seek nomination by one of the parties through the local party apparatus. If one fails in the effort to be selected as the nominee of one of the major parties, the only alternatives for achieving a spot on the ballot in the general election are to seek the nomination of a minor party or file as an independent.

The British system is more controlled by the party organizations than the U.S. system. The U.S. primary system allows a candidate to compete for the party nomination by going directly to the voters, making it much easier to bypass the party structure. Accordingly, British voters are more inclined than U.S. voters to think in terms of voting for the party rather than the individual candidate.


Generally, bills must originate in the Commons. Prior to The Parliament Act of 1911, passage in the Lords was also required before a measure could become law. This created a governmental crisis which was resolved when the Lords agreed (under duress from the Crown) to the passage of the 1911 act. This act provided that, when the Prime Minister “invoked the Parliament Act,” a bill which passed the Commons in three sessions two years apart became law despite failing to pass in the Lords. This was reduced to two sessions and one year by the Parliament Act of 1949.

The constitutional crisis leading to the Parliament Act of 1911 arose over the repeated refusal of the Conservative, or “Tory,” Party dominated Lords to pass the budget approved on multiple occasions by the Liberal Party dominated House of Commons. The Lords objected to tax increases on landowners included in the Liberal budget and vocally championed by, among others, the Liberal Party Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.

Churchill was also prominent in multiple general elections called during this period in which he campaigned enthusiastically for restrictions on the power of the House of Lords. This and the fact that Churchill had first been elected to Parliament in 1900 as a Tory and then switched to the Liberals in 1904 helped earn him the sobriquet “Traitor to his Class” and the enmity of many Conservatives.

See “Crossing the Floor” below.

The Executive or “Cabinet” Offices/”The Government”/”The Opposition”

 In the U.S., of course, the President stands for election separately from both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Once elected, the President appoints the other senior executives, or members of the cabinet, subject to confirmation by the Senate.

In the UK, the chief executive is the Prime Minister. Both the “PM” and other cabinet ministers are Members of Parliament. For many years, the great majority have been members of the House of Commons, though members of the House of Lords are also eligible and have held cabinet office on a number of occasions. A notable example during the Churchill era is that of Lord Halifax (see above) who served as Foreign Secretary from 1938 to 1940 while sitting in the Lords.

Practically, the Prime Minister is chosen by majority vote in the Commons. Normally, this means the party with a majority of seats in the Commons, all of whose members vote as a bloc, similar to the “organizing” votes in the U.S. Senate and House at the commencement of each session of Congress. It is possible, however, that the Commons may be split so that no party commands a majority. In this case, it is possible that the party with the third or fourth most seats may be willing to form a coalition with the party with the largest or second largest number of seats in order to achieve a majority. In such a case, the resulting “coalition government” will divide cabinet offices between the coalition parties.

The Prime Minister and other members of the cabinet are often collectively referred to as “The Government.” Generally, the term “holding office” is synonymous with holding a cabinet or executive position.

The party with the largest number of seats without being part of The Government is referred to as “The Opposition.”

Changing Prime Ministers–With and Without an Election

 General Election. The most common method of changing the PM is upon a change of the majority in the Commons as a result of a general election. For example, the 1951 general election saw the Commons majority shift from Labour to Conservative. Hence, Labour’s Clement Attlee was forced from office as PM and Churchill, as head of the Tory party, became Prime Minister for the second time.

The Government can call a general election whenever it wishes but must do so within five years of assuming office after the last general election. This “Quinquennial Act” was set by the Parliament Act of 1911, prior to which the period was seven years.

Removal/Resignation/Death of the Prime Minister. The PM may be changed without an election by the party or coalition holding a majority. This can occur voluntarily, as when an 80-year-old Churchill retired from the job in 1955 in favor of his long-time deputy Anthony Eden. More recently, this occurred in 2007 when Labour PM Tony Blair retired and was replaced by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.

A change in the Prime Minister without an election can also occur involuntarily. This can be brought about if the PM is forced to resign by the party or coalition backing his government.

Two cases in which the Prime Minister was involuntarily forced to resign were critical to Churchill’s career. The first occurred in 1916 during World War I. Liberal PM Herbert Asquith, then head of a multi-party coalition government was forced out by the coalition parties in favor of David Lloyd George, another Liberal who was then Secretary of State for War. Lloyd George brought Churchill, who was then without office, back into a position of executive responsibility and ultimately back into the Cabinet.

More famously, in May 1940 a tumultuous debate in the House followed by a complex series of events forced Neville Chamberlain to resign. This opened the way for Churchill’s elevation to the premiership at one of history’s most famous turning points.

Motion of No Confidence. A Motion of No Confidence can be forced by either The Government or The Opposition. If the PM does not command a majority of the vote, he must either resign or call for an immediate general election. The Government may call for such a vote or may announce that a vote on another matter will be regarded as a “Confidence Motion” for the purpose of enforcing party discipline.

As PM, Churchill faced a vote of no confidence in July 1942 following a long series of military defeats. He prevailed handily, 475-25, but faced the prospect of another vote if the war news did not improve. This came in the form of a decisive victory for British forces in the Battle of El Alamein later that year.

Breaking a Coalition. If a coalition government has been formed, one party can force a general election by withdrawing from the coalition. In this case, a caretaker government will be formed to administer state affairs and call for the general election.

Churchill suffered four major setbacks in his long political career. Two were the result of general elections forced by the breaking of coalition governments in which Churchill held high office.

A general election forced by a broken coalition resulted in Churchill’s only significant gap in service as an MP from his first election in 1900 until his retirement in 1964. When Lloyd George replaced Asquith as PM in 1916, the Liberal Party split between backers of the two. Hence, Lloyd George was forced to forge a coalition between “his” Liberals and the Tories in order to win the general election of 1918.

Churchill, then a “Lloyd George Liberal,” was serving as Colonial Secretary in Lloyd George’s government when the Tories withdrew from the coalition in 1922, forcing a general election. Churchill then represented a Scottish district in Dundee and was defeated in his bid for reelection. After two more unsuccessful attempts in two other districts, he was returned to Parliament as a “Constitutionalist” in the 1924 general election on behalf of a third district south of London.

Upon regaining a seat, Churchill promptly rejoined the Conservatives and was named Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Tory government of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Churchill held that seat until retiring from the House more than 40 years later.

See “Crossing the Floor” below.

Still a Tory since rejoining the party in 1924, Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 at the head of an all-party wartime coalition government. When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, Churchill wanted the coalition to continue until after the defeat of Japan. The Labour Party, however, thought otherwise and withdrew from the coalition just two weeks later on May 23, forcing a July general election.

With Churchill’s personal popularity at an incredible high due to his wartime leadership, it was expected that the 1945 election would see his party triumph. Instead, although Churchill was handily reelected to his own seat in the House, Labour swept a strong majority of the seats, installing its leader, Clement Attlee, as Prime Minister.

Later analysis presented multiple reasons for this result. Perhaps most important was the fact that the Parliamentary system did not permit voters to elect Churchill as Prime Minister separately from the membership of the House. British voters were thus unable to duplicate the later American result in which U.S. voters elected their war hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as President while electing a Democratic Congressional majority.

The Role of the Monarch

Generally, the role of the monarch is non-partisan and ceremonial. The formality of recognizing the monarch as the sovereign, however, is still observed in a multitude of ways. One is that of the monarch “sending for” the next Prime Minister. This observes the tradition of the PM being the minister of the Crown.

Sending for” the next PM is normally a simple procedure of the person chosen by the electoral process being invited to come to Buckingham Palace and being formally asked to “form a government.” In the case of a resignation by the PM, no election is due because there has been no change in the majority in Commons. In this case, the monarch will send for the person chosen by the ruling majority.

Suppose, however, that the position of Prime Minister becomes vacant but the ruling majority cannot agree on a successor. In this case, the choice of the next PM may actually fall to the monarch. This happened twice during Churchill’s career when two Tory PM’s resigned for health reasons-Andrew Bonar Law in 1924 and Harold MacMillan in 1963. In 1924, George V sent for Stanley Baldwin. In 1963, Queen Elizabeth II sent for Sir Alec Douglas-Home as a compromise candidate.

In the two foregoing cases, the Tory Party rules did not provide a procedure for replacing the PM. Party rules today provide that, in similar circumstances, a ballot of the party’s sitting MP’s would determine the new PM.

Party Customs, Structure and Terminology

Party Conference. The parties hold annual “conferences.” These are similar to the Republican and Democratic party quadrennial conventions in the U.S. but deal with much more detailed party business. This is necessary since the parties function as a group to a much greater degree than in the U.S.

Shadow Cabinet. The Opposition structures along the lines of the governing majority by formally naming “shadow ministers,” who are counterparts to the Government ministers. The Leader of the Opposition will become Prime Minister if the Opposition achieves a majority at the next general election; the “shadow” Chancellor will become Chancellor of the Exchequer, etc. Thus organized, the Opposition is more ready to govern if voted into office and also more competent at opposing the Government.

Party Whips/Whips Office. The Chief Whip and his deputies, generally 15 or so members, are MP’s whose jobs are to keep the PM or Leader informed of the attitudes and dynamics of the party’s MP’s and also to enforce party discipline on key votes. The latter is often a ruthless process involving little less than bribery, blackmail and extortion.

Three Line Whip. The most forceful direction issued to MP’s by the party’s Chief Whip. It generally means (1) be present (for a specific vote); (2) vote; and (3) vote a certain way, or face expulsion from the party (“withdrawing the whip“).

De-selection. Denial to an MP of the party’s nomination for re-election. This is usually imposed for voting against the party position on an important matter.

Churchill faced the prospect of “de-selection,” both early and well on in his career. In 1904 he faced the prospect of de-selection as the Tory nominee for his Oldham district after opposing the party over tariffs. He switched to the Liberal Party which gave him its nomination for the Manchester district at the next general election in 1906, which he won. In late 1938/early 1939, he barely survived an effort to de-select him as the Conservative nominee for his long-held Epping district after he vigorously opposed Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Pact which appeased Hitler.

Other Terms

Hung Parliament. A “Hung Parliament” is one in which no party or coalition can command a majority of the House and “form a government.” This is another case in which a caretaker government will likely be formed until another general election can be called. By custom, the monarch will “send for” the head of the party with the largest number of seats in Commons to fulfill this role.

By-election. An interim election to fill a seat which has become vacant between general elections. A “special election” in the U.S.

Backbencher. The Government’s cabinet ministers and the Opposition’s Shadow Cabinet sit on the front row of their respective sides when the House of Commons is in session. Since MPs who do not hold (cabinet or shadow) “office” sit on the benches behind the party leaders, these MPs without office are referred to as “backbenchers.”

Crossing the Floor. An MP’s change of parties. This refers to the fact that, in the House of Commons, the Government and its supporting members sit to the speaker’s right and the Opposition to the speaker’s left with a gap between the two sides. Hence, one who changes parties “crosses the floor” to sit on the other side of the House.

Churchill crossed the floor twice in his career. First elected to the House as a Tory in 1900, he switched to the Liberals in 1904 and then back to the Tories in 1924.

Division. This simply refers to a vote in the Commons. MP’s file out the door at the end of the house opposite the speaker and turn left or right into either the “No” or “Yes” lobby (in reality, two long halls) and walk to the speaker’s end and back into the chamber. As they re-enter, their votes are recorded. Abstentions are not recorded.

For a better understanding of the terms “backbencher” and “crossing the floor,” see the photographs of the current and former House of Commons below. (The House was rebuilt after taking a direct hit from German bombing during WWII.)


 Mr. Graeter is Director of Investments for Central Bank of Louisville, Kentucky. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School and served as a U.S. Navy officer during the Vietnam War. A member of the Churchill Centre, Mr. Graeter also teaches a continuing education class on Churchill at Louisville’s Bellarmine University. His article, “A Time for Old Men,” was selected as the title article for the May 2011 edition of the Churchill’s Centre’s publication Finest Hour.

“The British Parliamentary System in the Age of Churchill” was prepared in its entirety by Mr. Graeter. It may be reproduced, but only with attribution to Don C. Graeter.

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