A thematic guide to the UK
short overview of the constitutional framework of the
Kingdom does not have a constitution
The UK has no written constitution.
Nor does England have a constitution, neither written nor formulated.
The United Kingdom is one of the few countries of the world that does
not have a written constitution: it just has what is known as an
Thus the only "British Constitution" that exists
is a set of rules and regulations constituted by jurisprudence and laws
(English and Scottish law), and by various treaties and international
agreements to which the United Kingdom has signed up. This uncodified
constitution has largely developed out of historic English law, since
many of its founding principles and essential laws go back to charters
and bills that were drawn up by the English parliament long before the
creation of the United Kingdom.
Although England's parliament, often called "the
has existed for over seven centuries, the
founding document of England's "constitution" is generally considered
to be the Magna Carta,
or Great Charter of the
Liberties of England, which the barons drew up and forced
King John to sign in the year 1215. The spirit of this document has
guided the evolution of English law over the centuries, as well as
inspiring numerous constitutional documents drawn up by other
countries, including notably the Constitution of the United States of
America, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Among other landmark bills that have established
major new principles in the British Constitution are the English Bill of Rights,
passed after the Glorious
Revolution of 1689, and the Acts of Union, of
1707, establishing the linking of England and Scotland within a United
Parliament and the constitution
Parliament and Brexit.
absence of a written constitution is causing a major constitutional
argument about what a government can do without the consent of
experts tend to agree that
Parliament must be consulted, and vote, before the Prime Minister
activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, to take the UK out of the
However Theresa May and her government think differently. The
Prime Minister does not want a debate, or a vote, in Parliament before
Article 50 is triggered.
In July 2016, a group of
citizens appealed to the High Court to stop the government activating
Article 50 without Parliament's consent. On 3rd November, the
High Court delivered its verdict. The Government cannot start
proceedings to take Britain out of the EU unless Parliament has
authorised it to do so.
The Government is now appealing
against this verdict, to the Supreme Court. But unless the
Supreme Court overrules the verdict handed down by the High Court,
Parliament will now have to be consulted.
Parliament is not bound by the result of the Brexit
referedum, which was consultative, not legislative. Three quarters of
Members of the British parliament were against Brexit ; this is one of
the reasons why it remains quite possible that Brexit will not
actually take place. Parliament has the power to veto it.
See A Solution to the Brexit crisis
Parliament is supreme. It is
Parliament, as the
representative of the "estates" of the nation - monarchy, aristocracy,
church and people - which makes laws. Parliament cannot act illegally,
nor anti-constitutionally, as Parliament determines what is the law of
the land, and a bill that is passed by Parliament, and signed by the
monarch, is by definition constitutional. In the past, the Monarch
could refuse to sign bills; but today he or she has to sign any bill
passed by the two chambers of Parliament.
state opening of Parliament
In past centuries, the Parliament was inspired,
and laws were dictated, by the Monarch and the Upper Chamber, known as
the House of Lords.
Since the 19th century, parliamentary power has
been held by the elected members of the Lower House, known as the House
of Commons. It is here that the Government of
introduces and debates most new legislation, and for any new bill to
become law, it must be "passed" (accepted) by the House of Commons, as
well as by the House of Lords, and finally signed into law by
Legislative programmes are determined by the Government in
power, known as "Her (his) Majesty's Government". In theory, the
government is appointed by the Monarch; in practice, the monarch no
longer has any choice in the matter. He or She appoints as Prime
Minister the leader of the political party with a majority in the House
of Commons; or, if no party has a majority, the leader of a coalition
that has been agreed between party leaders. The Prime Minister then
appoints the Ministers of "Her
Majesty's government ".
As well as piloting its legislative programme through Parliament, the
government can also manage the day-to-day affairs of the nation by
instruments" to make administrative changes or minor
modifications to existing legislation; these are not submitted to
Parliament for approval .
The body of legislation passed by the British
Parliament accounts for the major part of the nation's uncodified
Since the British Parliament is
supreme, the United Kingdom is a unitary state. It is neither federal
nor confederal. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their
own parliaments or assemblies, with delegated powers, these regional
governments are subsidiary to the British Government in London. The
British Parliament can, if it chooses to do so, take back any powers
delegated to regional assemblies. This does not usually happen, but it
can, and it did in 1972, when the London Parliament provisionally
suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont), on account of its
inability to properly manage the affairs of Northern Ireland during the
time of the "troubles".
and the constitution
After Parliament, the other great base of the United Kingdom's
uncodified constitution is "Common Law". Great Britain does not have a
"penal code" nor a "civil code"; its "Common Law" is the fruit of
centuries of jurisprudence, that is based on historic principles of
"natural law" (moral law, founded on historically accepted basic
principles of right and wrong) . Common Law, though based on the
principle of "precedent", can change at any moment, as it is determined
by judges; for this reason, it evolves slowly to reflect changes in
society and social norms. It cannot evolve in a manner that is in
contradiction with social norms or parliamentary law, as any
controversial verdict based on common law would be challenged in the
courts of appeal.
of the British Constitution
Finally, there are other elements that serve to define the rights and
obligations of the British people. Britain has signed up to numerous
international conventions and treaties, which can determine the
legality or otherwise of actions or processes, such as marine
pollution or human rights. European law also applies in the UK, and
according to the principle of Primacy included in
the charter of the European Union, EU law takes precedence over UK law
in any event of incompatibility.
The United Kingdom is not a secular state - at least, not in principle.
Ever since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the British
Monarch has also been the official supreme governor of the Church of
England, the "Defender of the Faith" - fidei defensor.
Each coronation takes place at a ceremony at Westminster Abbey, where
the new monarch is crowned and blessed by the Primate of the
Church of England (the Anglican church), the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In addition, twenty six Anglican bishops sit in
the House of Lords.
These aspects are part of the ritual or ceremonial
heritage of England. In reality, the Monarch takes no more part in the
running of the Church of England, than he or she does in the nation's
government. And the Bishops who sit in the House of Lords can only have
a marginal influence on debates in the House which, as previously
noted, does not have the power to oppose government legislation passed
by the House of Commons. Their main function, in the 21st century, is
to act as guardians of moral or socially equitable values in the
British parliament; this does not mean "conservative" values, as was
shown when the UK Parliament was one of the first national parliaments
in the world to approve gay marriage.
Being uncodified, the Constitution of the United Kingdom is in a state
of constant flux. Each new law, each new major decision by judges,
becomes a new stone in the edifice of the British Constitution.
Thus, the British constitution changes all the time, very
slowly, often imperceptibly. Britain moves forward by evolution, not by
Currently, one of the changes being discussed is
the modernisation of the House of Lords, to make it at least in part a
chamber to which members can be elected. At present, this is not
the case. The Cameron government pledged to introduce chages
in the life of the present Parliament, but British voters are not very
concerned by this issue. It does not arouse much passion on either side
of the argument. As of 2014, it seems unlikely that this
"constitutional reform" will be enacted before the next General
Election; few people in the UK think that constitutional reform is is
necessary, let alone essential; the UK functions fairly well without a
written constitution, and without big changes to the uncodified
constitution that it does have. When it comes to change, the
Government and the British people have other more important and urgent
things to think about.
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