The UK:

 'A distinctive Constitution'

Philip Norton Describes the UK's Constitution

The United Kingdom is distinctive for having an uncodified constitution. 

The laws, rules and customs determining how it is to be governed are not drawn up in a single document. This is a distinction it shares with only two other nations: Israel and New Zealand. Other states have drawn up codified documents as a consequence of being newly formed or having to start afresh, having broken away from a colonising power or having been defeated in battle. Britain has not suffered a distinctive constitutional break since the seventeenth century. An attempt to impose a codified, or ‘written’, constitution during the period of the Protectorate was abandoned with the resto ration of the monarchy in 1660. When James II fled the country in 1688, he was deemed to have abdicated, and those responsible for inviting his daughter and son-in law, Mary and William of Orange, to assume the throne were keen to stress continuity in the nation’s constitutional arrangements. The nation’s constitutional foundations thus pre-date the creation, starting with the USA in the eighteenth century, of formal codified constitutions.

There are other distinctive features of the nation’s constitutional arrangements. Many countries have entrenched constitutions: that is, they are amendable only through some extraordinary process, such as a two-thirds majority in the legislature and/or approval by the people in a referendum. In the UK laws that change the nature of the constitution – such as the Human Rights Act 1998 – go through the same process as those that determine that it is an offence to leave the scene of an accident.

In terms of the basic structure of government, the UK is also distinctive, but not unique, in having a particular form of parliamentary government. Some systems are presidential, where the head of government and the legislature are elected separately and where neither depends on the other for continuation in office. In a parliamentary system the head of government and other ministers derive their positions through election to the legislature – they are not elected separately – and they depend for their continuation in office on the confidence of the legislature. There are two basic types of parliamentary government: the Westminster parliamentary system and the continental. The Westminster model stresses single-party government, elected normally through a first-past-the-post electoral system, with two major parties competing for the all-or-nothing spoils of electoral victory. The continental parliamentary system places stress on consensus politics, with Coalition Government derived from elections under electoral systems of proportional representation. The Westminster model has been exported to many Commonwealth countries, though a number have departed from it; New Zealand, for example, has adopted a system of proportional representation. There are also various hybrid presidential–parliamentary systems, where the president is directly elected but a government, under a Prime Minister, is formed through elections to the legislature. France has a hybrid system; hybrid systems have been adopted by a number of democracies in central and eastern Europe.

Politics UK (9th Ed)