How the Constitution has changed

A very odd constitution.

Think of an old manor house- dating back over a 1000 years, with parts of the original building remaining intact and much of the building long gone. Each generation of owners have added, removed modernized and redecorated. This is the UK constitution.

The main reason the UK constitution is different from those of most others is because for most it its history the country has not undergone a fundamental, transforming change, such as a revolution or a military defeat followed by occupation by a foreign power. Instead, the political system of the UK has evolved gradually and, at least since the civil wars of the 17th century, without dramatic breaks in continuity. This contrasts, for example, with many counties who have achieved independence from empires only recently.

UK Constitution has gradually developed over time. This process can be slow and with small steps, however, on some occasions change is more dramatic. These events form the main landmarks in the development of the UK Constitution.

The broad historical picture is that even today, elements of the UK constitution can be traced back more than a thousand years. In the Middle Ages power was concentrated in the hands of the monarch. However, in order to govern the country, the Crown required the co-operation of a class of landowning nobility, who gradually gained more rights over time. From the 13th century the nobles and other interest groups gained representation in an assembly — Parliament — that met to advise the monarch, pass laws and give consent to taxation. Parliament consisted of an upper house, made up of the hereditary aristocracy and senior members of the Church (the House of Lords), and an elected House of Commons, which initially consisted of representatives of the landed gentry and prosperous merchants. The Commons increasingly took on a representative function and expected to be heard when it presented grievances to the monarch

Britain's flexible constitution: How Parliament has evolved

The balance of power between the Crown and Parliament slowly changed in favour of the latter as a result of the civil wars of the mid-17th century. By the 19th century, the idea of a constitutional monarchy had been established, one who acted on the advice of ministers. The concept of the sovereignty of Parliament where the government was accountable to Parliament as the country's supreme law-making body. Voting rights were progressively extended to the middle- and working-classes, creating a more democratic society by the early 20th century, and ending the monopoly of power traditionally enjoyed by the aristocratic elite. Within Parliament this was reflected in the emergence of the elected House of Commons as the more powerful of the two chambers.

Another signifcant development was the rule of law which slowly evolved along with an independent judiciary and from the 17th century saw that the judiciary should be independent of political influence and control. The role of Judges became increasingly important as guardians of the rule of law: the idea that no body, including the government, should be above the law.

  • Magna Carta, 1215 Little in Magna Carta has survived, save for a few common law traditions and some principles which have been turned into statute law. However, it was a key moment in history. It established that the rule of law should apply and the monarch should operate within the framework of law. It was to be centuries before this principle became normal practice, but Magna Carta was an important staging post in the development of constitutional rule.

  • Bill of Rights, 1689 This Act of Parliament resulted from the replacement of King James II by the joint monarchy of William III and Mary. Parliament was anxious that the new monarchs would not exceed their powers, so the Bill of Rights effectively stated that Parliament was sovereign and would have the final word on legislation and the government’s finances.

  • The Act of Settlement 1701 The Act finally established the rules governing the succession to the throne. It also stated that the monarch should be a member of the Church of England. However, its main significance was that it established the monarch’s position as the ruler of the whole of the United Kingdom of Scotland, Wales and Ireland (Northern Ireland after 1921).

  • The Acts of Union 1707 Abolished the separate Scottish Parliament and so established the modern United Kingdom. Of course the devolution of power to Scotland in 1998 brought back the Scottish Parliament, although it was still not the sovereign body in that country.

  • The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 These two Acts settled the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Before 1911 the two houses were, in theory at least, of equal status. In 1911, however, the House of Lords lost its powers to regulate the public finances and could only delay legislation for 2 years. It could no longer veto proposed legislation for good. The 1949 Act reduced the delaying period to 1 year. As a result, the House of Commons is very much the senior house.

  • The European Communities Act 1972 This was the Act that brought the UK into the European Community, which later became the European Union. The UK joined in 1973. This Act is now consigned to history, as the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016. It was, however, for nearly 50 years, a key feature of the UK Constitution.

  • The European (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 This gave parliamentary consent to the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Over time this resulted in:

  • Establish the principle of incremental reform.

  • Change the balance of power by reducing the powers of the monarchy, and to extend those of Parliament

  • Create a culture if rights by increasing the rights and freedoms of the ordinary citizen

  • increase the power of the elected House of Commons at the expense of the unelected House of Lords

  • define the UK's relationship with the institutions that later evolved into the European Union.