There's been lots of news in the past couple of days about votes in the UK Parliament regarding Brexit. These reports seem to use the word "government" in a way that I don't understand. For instance, bbc.com writes:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has now tabled a vote of no confidence in the government, which could trigger a general election.

Other reports I heard referred to the vote against Theresa May's Brexit deal as a failure for her government. Institute for Government writes:

The Government cannot now ratify the deal until Parliament has approved it

These uses seem to refer to the government as something separate from Parliament. But isn't Parliament a part of the government? I know the parliamentary system is not identical to our system in the US, but I was under the impression that Parliament was roughly equivalent to our Legislative branch, which is just one component of the government. And the Prime Minister is most closely analogous to our President.

This use of the word seems to correspond to the way we use "administration" in the US, to refer to the Executive branch, particularly that headed by a particular President (as in "the Trump administration"). But I've looked in a few dictionaries, and didn't find any with this specific definition. They give more general definitions that encompass all the people that control a country.

If "government" refers just to the executive branch, is there another, more encompassing term for the entire system that includes the Government, Parliament, and Courts in the UK (what we call the federal government)?

A number of comments have suggest that this really belongs in Politics Stack Exchange. I'm not asking about the differences between our political systems, I'm just wondering why the word "government" refers to the entire governing body in the US, while it just refers to one branch in the UK. This difference doesn't seem to be reflected in the dictionary definitions.

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jan 17 at 0:16

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

  • 2
    Government of the United Kingdom en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_of_the_United_Kingdom - Government is a separate official entity from Parliament. “The government ministers all sit in Parliament, and are accountable to it. The government is dependent on Parliament to make primary legislation. – user070221 Jan 16 at 20:28
  • 8
    Yes. In Britain "government" usually refers to the executive government. Whilst the US constitution lays down three distinct and separate arms of "government" - in Britain the separation of the branches came about by evolution, rather than through a written document. An important milestone in this process were the parliamentary wars of the 1640s. Notice that today's House of Commons motion referred to the House having "no confidence in HM Government" - the Queen being the titular head of state. If you want to learn more about this, may I suggest you ask a question on the Politics site. – WS2 Jan 16 at 20:30
  • 4
    Actually, the difference in usage is this: The United States has a permanent government, while the UK has "temporary" governments which are formed by the PM, who is appointed by the monarch. This really is not a question of English, but custom. ...... – J. Taylor Jan 16 at 20:51
  • 4
    @J.Taylor I disagree. The UK uses the word "government" to mean what the US calls "administration". Would you send me to an automotive site if I asked about "bonnet" versus "hood"? – Barmar Jan 16 at 20:54
  • 2
    Anyone seeking a serious treatment of the British political system could do far worse than The British Polity by Philip Norton. It is written for Americans and draws a lot of comparisons with the US system. I found it useful when taking a course in American politics, because it highlights the background to differences from Britain. It may currently be out of print. (My own copy is dated 2000, and is described as the "Fourth Edition".) But if you can find one in a library, or a second-hand one it is very useful. There is also a more recently published book by Norton currently available. – WS2 Jan 17 at 12:12

In the UK, the government is part of Parliament. The government is composed of the Prime Minister and other ministers. All ministers are either members of Parliament or Members of the House of Lords. In the normal run of things, all members of the Government represent the same party as the Prime Minister, as she can choose her political allies for Government jobs.

So there is a great contrast with the US:

                     US                            UK
Executive            Administration                Government

Head of state        President                     Queen
                     Elected, and wields power     Hereditary, No actual power

Head of Government   President                     Prime Minister
                     Post combined with HoS        Leader of largest party in Parliament

Legistature          Congress                      Parliament
                     Two elected chambers          One elected, one nominated chamber

Ministers            Chosen by President           Chosen by PM from Parliament
                     not members of Congress
                     confirmed by Senate

Speaker              Political position            MP, but remains non-partisan
                     Leader of largest party in

Civil Service        Political positions           Permanent positions, remain
                     new appointments made         in role when PM changes
                     by incoming President
  • 1
    Whilst it's normally true that the PM is the leader of the largest party, it's by no means fixed. A coalition of two or more smaller parties could out-number a single larger party and so produce a PM. (And the PM is ultimately appointed by the Monarch, who may appoint anybody they believe will be able to do the job). Speaking of the parenthetical, the HoS line ought to say Monarch rather than Queen to keep it neutral. – Damien_The_Unbeliever Jan 17 at 12:28
  • @Damien_The_Unbeliever The last time the Government was headed by someone not a member of the largest party was 1931-36 by Ramsay MacDonald. As the former Labour Prime Minister he campaigned with the Conservatives in 1931 as a National coalition. Labour were reduced to about 50 seats, and the Conservatives held over 400. Though MacDonald continued as PM, as his health declined, leadership was increasingly assumed by Stanley Baldwin (Cons) and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain. – WS2 Jan 17 at 15:07
  • @WS2 - yes, but all of the descriptions in this answer seemed to be trying to describe how the positions in US/UK are filled in general. I didn't think it was correct for it to indicate that the PM was "Leader of the largest party in parliament". – Damien_The_Unbeliever Jan 17 at 15:08
  • 1
    @Damien_The_Unbeliever It is whoever can command a majority in a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. One thing that makes it difficult to understand, for people whose first familiarity is with the American system, is that the role of political parties is slightly different. Their party whips are not as powerful. – WS2 Jan 17 at 16:54
  • 1
    As per comments exchanged between SteveMelnikoff and myself above, there is no "head of the government" in the US. The 3 branches of the government (legislative, executive, judicial) are all independent of each other. It's set up as a trifecta government. There are "checks and balances" that each branch has on every other one, but no one of the 3 branches has an absolute final-word authority over any of the others. – grovkin Jan 31 at 18:46

I apparently didn't check enough dictionaries earlier. dictionary.com has the following definition that explains this usage:

  1. (in some parliamentary systems, as that of the United Kingdom)
    a. the particular group of persons forming the cabinet at any given time:
    The prime minister has formed a new government.
    b. the parliament along with the cabinet:
    The government has fallen.
  • Don't forget the Civil Service: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Service_(United_Kingdom) – michael.hor257k Jan 16 at 23:03
  • I know that lots of political entities have different names. Like the US Secretary of State is what most countries call the Foreign Secretary (there's a curious history behind this). I just didn't realize the simple word "government" was among them until this week. – Barmar Jan 16 at 23:27
  • 1
    This definition seems to imply that government = cabinet, but that's not true. There are more government ministers and aides outside the cabinet than in it. – Steve Melnikoff Jan 17 at 9:49
  • Actually, the second definition isn't true in the UK either. "The government has fallen" - as may happen if it loses a confidence vote - does not affect the composition of parliament unless it then leads to a general election. And as with the first definition, while the cabinet is the most senior committee of government, it's not all of it. – Steve Melnikoff Jan 18 at 14:37
  • 1
    @SteveMelnikoff I was hoping for a dictionary definition, like the one I posted. It seems like dictionaries haven't quite captured the specifics of the way the word is used to refer to HM's Government. – Barmar Jan 18 at 16:58

The government in the UK consists of two parts. First is the Prime Minister and the their cabinet, which consists mostly of Members of Parliament (MPs) who have been given specific jobs such as Home Secretary, or been put in charge of government departments. Those people make decisions on policy and are the political part of government, and are called Ministers. They don't have to be MPs, but usually are.

There is also the Civil Service, which is a clerical organization that actually runs the day-to-day business of government. The Ministers are basically the heads of the various departments in the Civil Service.

Beyond that there are many other elected and unelected people involved. The Prime Minister is almost always from the party with a majority of MPs in Parliament, and is to some extent beholden to both their party and Parliament. They rely on their party to support their legislation in Parliament, and Parliament itself (that is, all the MPs in it including those from opposition parties) are able to check their power and influence the government's actions.

The Institute for Government is unrelated to all that. They are a "think tank", a body that produces publications on topics concerning government. The idea is to either improve or influence government by offering ideas and exploring issues. Most are partisan.


These uses seem to refer to the government as something separate from Parliament. But isn't Parliament a part of the government?

No. In the UK, the word "government" refers specifically to what in the US might be termed the executive branch. In fact, the official name of the UK's executive branch is "Her Majesty's Government".

The members of the government are selected from Parliament; and by convention, heads of departments (who normally have the title "Secretary of State for [department name]") are typically selected from the House of Commons, though there are occasional exceptions. Below them are ministers of state, a few for each department selected from both houses of Parliament. There are also ministerial aides ("parliamentary private secretaries," or PPS), also drawn from Parliament, who are not part of the government, but are expected to vote with it and not publicly criticise it.

(Secretaries of State and ministers are often collectively referred to as "ministers".)

The Cabinet is made up of all of the Secretaries of State, along with any other ministers that the Prime Minister wishes to be there. At the time of writing, there are 23 people in the Cabinet (including the PM), and 96 ministers outside the Cabinet.

If "government" refers just to the executive branch, is there another, more encompassing term for the entire system that includes the Government, Parliament, and Courts in the UK (what we call the federal government)?

No. They are considered separate entities, despite members of the Government being drawn from Parliament.

When comparing the British and American systems, it's worth noting that the number of political appointees in the UK (at least, those paid by the state) is tiny compared to the US, and is limited by law to just 109.

The Queen appoints the Prime Minister, and the PM appoints all ministers, without having to seek approval from Parliament.

  • You might be able to get away with using "the Crown" as an approximate equivalent to "the federal government" in some limited contexts. – origimbo Jan 17 at 18:21
  • @origimbo I would argue that the Crown is definitely only executive. Parliament wouldn’t come under it, nor would the courts (while the prosecution in a court case would, but that’s a responsibility of HM Government, via the Crown Prosecution Service). – owjburnham Jan 18 at 14:10

This boils down to the chief difference in that the United Kingdom is a Monarchy and the United States is a Republic (In the sense that the Head of State is not a hereditary office. Americans also use the word "Republic" to mean "Representative Democracy" because they became a "Representative Democracy" before the term existed and the thing they wanted to model was the Roman Republic).

This meant they were also working with a system where the Parliamentary Equivalent was not running the Government of His/Her Majesty, but rather for the general population (Of the People, For the People, By the People). General Populations do not govern and since the duties of the Cabinet were removed from our Parliamentary Body (Congress) and given to the Head of State (Making the office of President Equivalent to both the full duties of the Monarch and the Full Duties of the PM). Thus, Congress is not governing, as they don't run stuff... they just make the rules, and the nation doesn't belong to a King, but an elected President (title derived because he Presides over the Cabinet in the stead of the Prime Minister/Speaker of the House), so he's got equal stake in the nation as any other citizen, the President is not governing but Administering the will of others (Congress through laws, the general population through elected mandate).

So where it might be the Churchill Government in the U.K. but in the U.S. it would be the Roosevelt Administration which are effectively the same thing... Either the current Head of Government or his Cabinet or Both.

When Americans refer to the Government, they generally are referring to the institutions of governance, not a particular elected officers' running of it. In it's most broadest sense, it encompasses the three branches as outlined in the Constitution (Legislative, Executive, Judicial) and their various components. Americans also have a general distrust of their own government and it's generally used more negatively than when referring to an Administration, which is mostly neutral though can be positive or negative in usage, depending on who's administration it is).

This is probably the longest bi-product from the Revolutionary War, in that, the catalysts were the unpopular restrictions put upon the Colonists in the days prior, initially to pay for a war that was partially fought defending them, but then as punishment for protesting those taxes in the form of the Tea Party. The amount of anger that would drive a British Citizen to destroy perfectly good Tea does not dissipate after just 200+ years of separation. Since they were at the time British and proud of it, they weren't by the British People, but the Government. Americans still see the Government as more of an all consuming three-headed monster that would gobble them up in an instant if not for the facts that each head will fight each other over who gets to eat the people.

This also could explain why terms developed away from the U.K. The Founding Fathers wanted to get rid of everything British from their government. Voting day in the U.S. is always Tuesday because when you eliminate all the days that were terrible days of the week for an election, you're left with Tuesdays and Thursdays... and it couldn't be Thursdays because that's when the British vote and we aren't like those tea sucking tyrants at all (There was also a serious movenment to write the Constitution in German and declare it the language of the land for no other reason than the Tyrant British speak English, and we aren't English. Thankfully, this was concluded to be too stupid, so we all agreed to call it Soccer and mispronounce Aluminum and called it a day.). Suffice to say the "Special Friendship" wasn't always a Friendship.

  • 1
    Can you provide some sources, especially for the final paragraph? – Steve Melnikoff Jan 20 at 0:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.