The British system of government is highly anachronistic, and nearly unique. This post will cover a brief summary of the system, what’s unusual, and the surprising benefit that it gives.
How does the British Parliament work to produce legislation?
There are two houses, the House of Commons (HOC) and the House of Lords (HL).
The UK has no “constitution” per se. It has a body of laws and on top of that various parliamentary conventions (for example HL doesn’t usually get involved in budgetary legislation).
HOC creates all legislation. If the legislation is passed (majority vote) within HOC, it is then submitted to HL. HL reviews the legislation and either passes it or kicks it back to HOC – typically with details of what they don’t like and why and suggestions for ways to make it better next time.
Two other side-notes on the process.
- HOC isn’t required to make all (or any) of the changes that are suggested, and HL can keep rejecting legislation with markups, so in theory HOC/HL can end up at loggerheads. However by convention HL pass any legislation third time round and in practice the loggerheads never happens.
- Once passed by HL, the legislation is then submitted to the reigning monarch who can also veto anything. Again to my knowledge this has never actually happened.
So, who makes up HOC and HL?
HOC consists of 650 MPs, who are voted for in general elections every 5 years. It’s your normal, standard “vote for someone to represent your area” style democracy.
HL consists of around 825 people, who are a slightly odd crew, but mainly composed of people thought (or thought in the past) to be good at working out what’s good for the country. The vast majority of them are “Life Peers” (700 or so out of 825) – they’re people from all over who’ve been added to HL for life as people with something useful to contribute.
So, we’ve got HOC trying to build stuff to their best interpretation of what the customers (the population) say they want, and HL, a separate organisation trying to pick apart the new stuff, spot the holes, find the unintended consequences, and where the interpretation of what the customer wants probably isn’t what the customer actually wants or needs. And then passing back a bunch of bug reports and suggestions for making things better. And steps have been taken to make sure that (a) the HL team can’t be directly pressured by HOC (separate chambers) or the customer (no re-election) and (b) they provide information as a service to the HOC team, rather than owning the release schedule or having control over what exact product is shipped and when. That sounds like an organisation with a strong independent test team. Huh.
So a final random political thought here at the end. There’s some debate in the UK about how to reform or abolish HL. I’ll not weigh in on that debate, but as I see it, the key benefit we get from the HL is their role as an independent test organisation – which is enabled by having a bunch of people who by their decisions cannot affect their re-election – thus freeing them to make decisions for the long term benefit of the country as they see it. The interesting thing to my mind is how you go about carefully choosing people to join that group and how exactly the interactions work between the expert testers and the dev team to ensure that the customer ends up with a good product that they’re hapy with short and long term!
 I’ve used the horrible Americanism “British” to label the process of lawmaking in Westminster. In doing so, I’ve glossed over the various national assemblies, the excitement and confusion involved with Britain, The United Kingdom, Wales, etc. For a fun diversion into the start of just how complicated this gets, check here for an explanation of the various countries that make up the UK.
 There are a couple of other conventions about what HL does and does not comment on and when they step out of the way. I’m not going to cover details here as it’s complicated and I’m sure I don’t know all of them – and it doesn’t really affect the point I’m trying to make in this post.
 An example of what happens if you don’t have that independence: The US houses of Senate and Congress (modelled on the original British system but made more democratic – more voting is good, right?) manages to add all the complication of an additional house while wrecking the main benefit from the British system by requiring re-election of their testers every few years).