The British Political System

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					The British Political
  The UK Constitution

       The UK Constitution 1
• Definitions
• A constitution refers to the way in which a
  country is governed. It covers the main
  framework of government and the
  relationship between the state and the
  people including individual rights.

       The UK Constitution 2
• A constitution can be defined in two ways:-
• 1. "A document having legal sanctity
  setting out the framework of the organs of
  government.“ E.G. S. Wade,
  Constitutional Law, London, 1931,
• This covers those countries which have a
  written document called the constitution.
  Almost all countries have such a
  constitution but such a document needs to
  be supplemented by other legislation and
       The UK Constitution 3
• The UK does not have such a document
  and therefore tends to prefer a wider
• 2. "The system or body of fundamental
  principles according to which a nation,
  state or body politic is constituted and
  governed." (The Shorter Oxford English
  Dictionary - a paraphrase of A.V.Dicey
  "The Law of the Constitution" 1885).
• This is a wider definition that fits the UK.
         The UK Constitution 4
• Unwritten Character
• The UK has no one written
  document called the
  constitution and it is often
  described as unwritten. This
  is something of a misnomer.
  It is mainly written down but
  not in one document. It would
  be better to describe the UK
  constitution as uncodified.
  The UK constitution is
  located in various places:-     5
         The UK Constitution 5
Sources of the Constitution
1. Laws
a) Statute Law
Laws passed by Parliament
about the organs of government
e.g. the Parliament Act 1949, the
Peerage Act 1963, or individual
rights e.g. the Human Rights Act
          The UK Constitution 6
b) Case Law or Common Law
Cases decided by judges many of
which determine individual rights
e.g. the common law wife, and rape
in marriage.
c) Community Law
EC legislation has become part of
our constitution insofar as it affects   The Lord
                                         Chief Justice
the system of government or              Lord Phillips
individual rights. E.g. the Social
              The UK Constitution 7
d) Parliamentary Privilege (the
law and custom of Parliament)
This refers to certain rights which
Parliament has which protects
their freedoms and procedures.
The chief privileges today are:-
 i) The Commons regulates its own
     procedures and can punish
     members and the public for breach
     of privileges or contempt of
 ii) MPs are exempt from action for
     defamation for words spoken in
     Parliament. This preserves their
     freedom of speech.

       The UK Constitution 8
• e) Delegated legislation
• Parliament passes some statutes in
  skeleton form and allows ministers to fill in
  the details. Where these affect individual
  rights or government institutions they
  could be said to be part of our constitution.

       The UK Constitution 9
2 a) Historic Documents
Certain documents have become accepted as
part of our constitution because they contain
important principles e.g.
Magna Carta 1215 (the right to a fair trial – it also
limited the power of the monarch) and
the Bill of Rights 1689 ( the rights of Parliament
against the Monarch).

                The UK
             Constitution 10
            b) Advisory Opinions
            Certain writers are
            considered to have
            written authoritative
            works on the
            constitution e.g.
A.V. Dicey "The Law of the Constitution"
(1885) and
Walter Bagehot "The English Constitution"
(1868)                                      11
    The UK Constitution 11
3. Conventions
These are rules of political practice that
cannot be enforced in courts of law.
Dicey defines them as:- "An obligation
which compels obedience in the absence
of the ordinary means of enforcing a legal
rule through the orders of a court."

      The UK Constitution 12
Conventions derive from custom,
expediency, and agreement.
It is this aspect of the constitution which has
led to Britain's constitution being called
"unwritten" though in fact they are written
down and consistently followed, though they
are not always precise.

      The UK Constitution 13
• The importance of conventions
• In the UK and other countries conventions
  fill in the gaps which are not filled by law.
• "Conventions provide the flesh that clothes
  the bones of law" Sir Ivor Jennings “The
  Law and the Constitution” (1933).

      The UK Constitution 14
Britain is unique in the extent of its
• They cover much of the central relationship
between our institutions of government e.g.
    – the position of the monarchy
    – the relationship between government and
    – the relationship between the two houses and
    – the machinery of government
• are all mainly governed by convention.
       The UK Constitution 15
• Other countries have conventions e.g.
• The US President is regarded as the
  legislative leader. Each Congressional
  session he presents a program of
  legislation that becomes its main source of
• The US constitution was written using the
  doctrine of separation of powers,
  Congress's job is to make the laws and the
  President's is to make sure they are
  carried out. The Constitution does not say
  who should suggest draft legislation.
      The UK Constitution 16
• The President has no power to pass a law,
  but is free to suggest one and ask that the
  legislators pass it. Early presidents were
  not very active in the legislative process.
  During the nation's first century, the
  Congress drafted, as well as passed,
  nearly all legislation.
• Around the turn of the twentieth century
  the US president became accepted as
  legislative leader.

      The UK Constitution 17
• In other words the US Constitution gives
  the President no role whatsoever in making
  the law but by convention he is very much
• However he cannot ensure that legislation
  is passed. In a good year he may get
  2/3rds of his legislation passed in a bad
  year only 1/3rd.
• A British PM would normally get 99%
  passed.                                   18
      The UK Constitution 18
The reasons why conventions are followed:-
1 A belief that it is right to obey them
  because they are reasonable rules or are
  part of a reasonable structure of rules
  which ought to be preserved and upheld.

      The UK Constitution 19
2. A fear of disrepute in public opinion
  and its political implications. It would
  be politically inadvisable to break
  them e.g. the position of the Monarch
  and the Government and Opposition.

      The UK Constitution 20
3. Age enhances their authority.
4. In a very few cases if a convention was
  broken then as consequence a law would
  be broken e.g. if Parliament did not meet
  every year then two thirds of taxation and
  spending would become illegal.

      The UK Constitution 21
5 Expediency – collective responsibility is
  followed to maintain party unity and to
  present a united front to the Opposition
  and the nation.

• Occasionally conventions have been
  converted into law if broken e.g. 1911
  Parliament Act.
      The UK Constitution 22
Continuity of Development
• The constitution has developed over
  centuries - there has been unbroken
  development since 1689. This is the major
  reason why we have not had a written

      The UK Constitution 23
• Written constitutions are normally adopted
  because there has been some major
  – Revolution e.g. French Revolution 1789
  – War e.g. France 1940 & 4th Republic
  Germany 1949
  – Independence US 1787, India 1950
  – Major upheaval e.g. French 5th Republic 1958
• UK has had nothing like this since 17th
      The UK Constitution 24
Flexibility and Rigidity
• A flexible constitution is one where there
  are no special procedures necessary in
  order to change it and it is consequently
  easy to change.
• The UK is said to have a flexible
  constitution. Changes in the UK
  constitution can come about through
  changes in the law or through changes in
  conventions.                               25
      The UK Constitution 25
• A rigid constitution is one which is difficult
  to change.
• There are special procedures to change it
  e.g. in the US a constitutional amendment
  needs a two thirds majority in both Houses
  of Congress and then it has to be ratified
  by three quarters of all the States

      The UK Constitution 26
• A Written Constitution for the UK
• In recent years there has been a greater call
  for constitutional change in the UK.
• The Liberals and the Alliance supported
  wholesale constitutional changes.
• Subsequently the Liberal Democrats have
  called for a written constitution.
• The prominent Conservative Lord Hailsham
  called for a written constitution in 1975.

      The UK Constitution 27
• The Labour and Conservative parties
  have not advocated such change
  though the Labour party supported a
  large number of constitutional
  changes in the period 1997 – 2010.
• A pressure group Charter 88 (Now
  Unlock Democracy) was set up in
  1988 to campaign for constitutional
  change and a written constitution.

     The UK Constitution 28
• The Coalition Government has a large
  number of constitutional proposals
• Fixed-term, 5 year parliaments.
• The creation of fewer and more equal
  sized constituencies
• A referendum on voting reform.
• Give voters power of recall of MPs.
Arguments in favour of a Written
       Constitution 1
1. Proponents of a written constitution want
  a rigid constitution which would be difficult
  to change and would preserve our rights
  and system of government against
2. They argue that our constitution is too
  vague and that there is a need for clarity
  e.g. the position of the monarch over
  calling a general election.
Arguments in favour of a Written
       Constitution 2
3. There are insufficient checks upon the
  government. The Commons is an
  insufficient check since a government with
  an overall majority can push through the
  legislation that it wants. The Lords is not
  an effective check because it has limited
  powers and it is afraid to use them. In
  1975 Lord Hailsham described the
  government as an "elective dictatorship"
  by which he meant that once elected the
  government had almost no checks upon it
  and could do almost as it liked.            31
Arguments in favour of a Written
       Constitution 3
4. The courts are not an effective protector
  of individual rights because they are
  bound by statutes. The supporters of a
  written constitution would see a need to
  protect rights by a Bill of Rights as part of
  a more rigid constitution. The Human
  Rights Act only goes part of the way to
  protect rights.

    Arguments against a Written
      Constitution for the UK 1
1. A rigid constitution is essentially
  conservative in nature and would not
  change with the times. A flexible
  constitution can change with the moods
  and ideas of the time.
2. A rigid constitution would limit a
  democratically elected government.

    Arguments against a Written
      Constitution for the UK 2
3. A written constitution would be interpreted
  by judges. Judges are accused of being
  conservative in nature and are unelected.
  There is also the danger of politicisation of
  judges i.e. if the only way of changing the
  constitution is via a change in the
  interpretation then there will be a
  temptation to appoint judges on a party
  political basis.
    Arguments against a Written
      Constitution for the UK 3
4. There is no need for a written constitution
    because the present system of checks
    and balances are sufficient safeguards.
    The system of checks and balances
i) The Official Opposition in the Commons.
ii) The actions of backbench MPs and the
    limitations of the loyalty of party
     Arguments against a Written
       Constitution for the UK 4
iii) The Lords.
iv) The effect of public opinion. The government
    wishes to win the next general election and is
    therefore sensitive to the opinions of pressure
    groups, the Opposition and the media.
vi) The Supreme Court.
vii) The European Court of Human Rights.
viii) The European Court of Justice.
A variation on this argument is that there is no
    need for a written constitution whilst the
    constitution is being adhered to.

    Arguments against a Written
      Constitution for the UK 5
5. The best defence of personal and political
  liberties is the vigilance of the politicians
  and the public.


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