A summary of the UK government through time

Today, people in the United Kingdom live in a democracy, with laws made by a Parliament that they have elected.

The UK's road to democracy

This has not always been the case:

  • At the start of the Middle Ages, England was ruled by a king. The institution which came to be called Parliament was just beginning.
  • In the 17th century, war broke out between King James II of England and Parliament, ending in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This established a constitutional monarchy, which is a 'king-controlled-by-parliament' but the reality was that middle and labouring classes still had very little say in politics and still did not have the vote. The King and the upper classes remained in control.
  • The 19th century saw the political world begin to change. Some working people resented new machines replacing their labour and in 1811-12 there was a widespread outbreak of machine breaking by hundreds of workers known as Luddites.
  • In 1819 a mass meeting in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, turned violent when militia drew their swords to clear a gathering of middle and working class workers and their families calling for voting reform and a free press. Magistrates had deemed the reform illegal.
  • By 1832 a reform of Parliament began and a number of acts of Parliament were passed giving the vote to a further 400,000 people. However, this was mostly just the middle classes.
  • Britain did not become a democracy until the Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928 that gave the vote to all men and women over the age of 21.

Some historians in the 19th and early 20th centuries saw British history as an inevitable progression – from tyranny and monarchy, to constitutional monarchy and democracy. Modern historians do not see this as inevitable any more. They think the people of the time were not building democracy – they were just seeking solutions to the problems of the time. It is nevertheless true that, through time, Britain changed from a feudal monarchy to a free democracy.