The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy consisting of five constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales, Protestant-majority Northern Ireland, and Catholic-majority Southern Ireland. Each of these constituent nations has a devolved legislature and executive with the authority over most domestic affairs - the Parliament of the United Kingdom deals mostly with affairs effecting the Kingdom as a whole and all foreign affairs.
Legislative bodies of the UK
The Parliament of the United Kingdom is the Parliament responsible for the entire United Kingdom. It was formed in 1801 from the Act of Union creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland. Before that, the Parliament of Great Britain was formed from the merger of the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland in 1707, when the two kingdoms merged to form the original United Kingdom of Great Britain.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom has parliamentary sovereignty. Sir William Blackstone described this by saying that Parliament "has sovereign and uncontrollable authority in making, confirming, enlarging, restraining, abrogating, repealing, reviving, and expounding of laws, concerning matters of all possible denominations, ecclesiastical, or temporal, civil, military, maritime, or criminal … it can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible." Whether this is entirely accurate or not has not been formally clarified. Parliament is the source of all authority for the devolved legislative bodies of the constituent nations. If Parliament so wished, it could revoke the Acts of Parliament creating the devolved bodies.
Parliament has two houses. The Upper House is called the House of Lords and serves as an advisory role. It can no longer veto bills from the House of Commons. The Lower House is called the House of Commons. Both Houses meet in the Palace of Westminster, the same building where the English Parliament currently meets.
Parliament can make laws concerning any aspect of the United Kingdom - the devolved bodies can annul legislation pertaining to their jurisdiction unless Parliament officially forbids it. Parliament is also the only body that can make legislation that involves international or Kingdom-wide affairs.
Devolved legislative bodies
The English Parliament is the devolved parliament covering England. The term Parliament of England is in common use but is incorrect, as it refers to the pre-1707 Parliament of the Kingdom of England. The English Parliament is said to meet in Westminster Hall (a large room in Westminster Palace). While this is where the English Parliament does officially meet and is where it meets for ceremonial occasions, it is unsuitable for daily use as it is simply a large open hall and is used for other ceremonial functions. Instead, the unicameral English parliament meets in a specially modified room adjacent to the Hall itself. There has been some discussion about moving the English Parliament to St. James's Palace or to another building in London. Members are called "Members of the English Parliament" or MEPs.
The chief of government for England is called the First Minister to distinguish between English government and the Prime Minister of the UK. The current First Minister is John Prescott MEP, Labour Party.
The Scottish Parliament is the devolved parliament covering Scotland. The term Parliament of Scotland is in common use but is incorrect, as it refers to the pre-1707 Parliament of the Kingdom of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament meets in Parliament House, Edinburgh. It is a unicameral parliament. Members are called "Members of the Scottish Parliament" or MSPs. The Scottish government is unique in that members of the Scottish Parliament sit in a hemicircular fashion, and not in the traditional fashion with two rows of benches facing each other. It is also unique in that it meets in the same hall as the pre-Union Parliament. While the English Parliament meets in the same building, it does not meet in the same hall. There have been attempts to create a new Parliament building for the Scottish Parliament, as it shares a building with the Supreme Courts of Scotland. So far, ideas have not passed the planning stages and many MSPs prefer Parliament House, saying it is a link with Scotland's past. The Scottish Parliament has not passed any legislation or resolutions on the matter, and it is not high on the priority list.
The chief of government for Scotland is called the First Minister to distinguish between Scottish government and the Prime Minister of the UK. The current First Minister is Alex Salmond MSP, Scottish National Party.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved assembly covering Northern Ireland. The term Parliament of Northern Ireland is in common use but is incorrect, as the assembly is not a parliament but a legislative assembly. The Assembly meets in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast (commonly referred to as Stormont and something of a misnomer, as it is an Assembly). It is a unicameral assembly. Members are called "Members of the Legislative Assembly" or MLAs.
The Assembly has been often prorogued by the Parliament of the United Kingdom many times. Observers in the American Union have said that the Assembly is "allowed to govern on the condition of good behavior" and that more often than not it is "prorogued for bad behavior." While this is not the technical or the official reason, tensions between those who wish to retain the status quo and those that desire unification with Southern Ireland (still part of the United Kingdom as per the Home Rule Act 1914 and Government of Ireland Act 1920) are always just below the boiling point, leading to very heated debates and votes.
The chief of government for Northern Ireland is called the First Minister to distinguish between Northern Irish government and the Prime Minister of the UK. The current First Minister is Ian Paisley MLA, Democratic Unionist Party.
The National Assembly of Wales (Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru) is the devolved assembly covering Wales. The term Parliament of Wales is in common use but is incorrect, as the assembly is not a parliament but a legislative assembly. The Assembly meets in the Senedd, Cardiff. It is a unicameral assembly. Members are called "Assembly Members" or AMs. The Assembly meets in a circular chamber called the Siambr.
The chief of government for Wales is called the First Minister to distinguish between Welsh government and the Prime Minister of the UK (Some ambiguity exists as both "First Minister" and "Prime Minister" are the same in Welsh). The current First Minister is Rhodri Morgan AM, Welsh Labour.
Southern Ireland is a bit of a strange mix of Irish separatism and loyalty to the Crown. The official name is the Irish Parliament, but is often referred to both in Irish and in English as the Oireachtas. The lower house is called the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, but like the Oireachtas is commonly called by the Irish name Dáil Éireann and a member is always called a Teachta Dála, or "TD". The Upper House is officially the Senate of Southern Ireland, but like the Oirachtas and the Dáil is often called the Seanad Éireann or simply the Senate. Members are called Senators.
The Oireachtas meets in the Parliament House, in Dublin. The Dáil in reality usually meets in Leinster House (originally, Leinster House was intended as a temporary measure while the Commons Chamber was restored, but it was decided to make Leinster House the official meeting place) and only assembles in the Parliament House when in a joint session with the Senate. The Senate meets in the old House of Lords chamber.
The entire Irish government is officially referred to as the Government of Southern Ireland, or as the Rialtas na hÉireann. The chief of government is the First Minister of Southern Ireland, or the Taoiseach. The current Taoiseach is Brian Cowen TD, Fianna Fáil.
Historians continually debate whether the Irish or the British had the last laugh in the creation of an Irish government.