The UK Constitution

The United Kingdom, famously and almost uniquely, does not have a constitution that is contained in a written constitutional instrument. Its constitution is to be found in the statutes passed by Parliament and in the common law, the law developed over the centuries in the decisions of the courts. Only two other countries, Israel and New Zealand, are like the United Kingdom in not having a written constitutional instrument.

The UK Constitution is unusual in two main ways:

1 There are a number of different sources of the constitution, not just one source as in most countries.

2 The UK constitution is flexible and has been able to develop and evolve naturally. Thus it is often described as an organic constitution, developing just as living organisms grow and change

· It is uncodified — there is no single legal code or document in which its key principles are gathered together. Instead, it is derived from a number of sources, some written down, while others are unwritten.

· It is not entrenched — it can be altered , by a simple majority vote in Parliament, in the same way as any other law. It, therefore, has a higher degree of flexibility than a codified constitution. There is no higher law or special legal procedure for amending the UK constitution. In the UK all laws have equal status. By contrast, a codified constitution has a higher status than ordinary laws and some or all of its provisions are said to be entrenched. For example, an amendment to the United States Constitution requires the support of two-thirds of Congress and of three-quarters of the states to become law.

· It is unitary — sovereignty (or ultimate authority) has traditionally been located at the centre, with the component parts of the country — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland —all essentially run from London and treated in a similar way. This has been modified since the introduction of devolution in the late 1990s.

Since devolution the term 'union state' e or a ‘nation of nations’, as Professor Vernon Bogdanor has put it. A unitary state exhibits a high degree of both centralisation and standardisation: all parts of the state are governed in the same way and share a common political culture. Important political and cultural differences remain, although the centre remains strong, the individual sub-national units are governed in different ways. However, the distribution of power between the central and regional governments of the UK can still be altered by an act of Parliament and parliament remains legally sovereign, which is why the UK is not a federal state.

parliamentary sovereignty is the most important concept

The working of the uncodified constitution is dependent on the existence of parliamentary sovereignty. There are a number of reasons why parliamentary sovereignty is critical to how the political system works.

1 The nature of the constitution is in the hands of Parliament. Parliament can amend the constitution by simple passage of a statute.

2 Government owes all its power to the authority of Parliament. A government (or any other public body) can exercise power only if it receives the approval of Parliament.

3 The constitution is unitary or union (see above).

4 The constitution is not entrenched. Entrenchment is the device that protects a constitution from short-term amendment. It is important because constitutional change makes a fundamental and important difference to the political system of a country. The constitution is too important to be placed in the hands of a temporary government. Each new parliament (after each election) is able to pass whatever laws it wishes. The constitution is not bound by past parliaments and it cannot bind any future parliaments.

There is no separation of powers

This means that government is not separately elected but is drawn from the parliamentary majority. We say the government is part of Parliament. The lack of separation of power also means that Parliament does not control government, but rather supports it.

Constitutional monarchy and prerogative powers

A constitutional monarchy has two main meanings:

  1. The monarch has no political power or role.

  2. The monarch's arbitrary (uncontrolled) powers are not exercised by the queen (or king) but by the prime minister. These powers include appointing and dismissing ministers, conducting relations with foreign powers and commanding the armed forces.

A strong executive

The UK Constitution gives rise to a relatively strong executive branch (government) and a relatively weak legislature (Parliament). This is a result of:

  • the lack of a separation of powers between the two branches

  • The electoral system of first-past-the-post, which usually ensures that the government has a majority in the House of Commons (though this was not the case in 2010 — an unusual event when no party won an overall majority)

    • the extensive arbitrary powers enjoyed by the prime minister (i.e. prerogative powers)

  • -Although the legislature is sovereign, it is the executive that initiates most legislation.

The rule of law

The rule of law means:

· all are equal under the law

· all are entitled to fair trial if accused of a crime

· the government itself is subject to laws and cannot exceed them

The twin pillars of the Constitution.

In 1885 AV Dicey identified two key principles of the UK constitution. These were Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Rule of Law

Parliamentary Sovereignty.

No Parliament can bind its successor. Parliament has the right to amend or repeal any act of past Parliaments. For example, in 2003 parliament repealed Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 which had made it illegal for schools to promote homosexuality.

There is no higher legal authority than parliament- The UK Supreme Court can not overturn an act of parliament - ( the US Supreme Court can) While Parliament has transferred some sovereignty to devolved institutions and the EU- parliament remains sovereign since these could be taken back.

There is no restriction on the kind of law parliament could make. For example, it can change individual rights, the constitution and the time of elections. The US Congress is limited in these areas.

The other major principle identified by Dicey was the rule of law, the idea that the actions of the state are limited by law. Dicey argued that this was the main way in which the rights and liberties of citizens are protected. Respect for the rule of law is important because it acts as a check on parliamentary sovereignty, which in theory might take away people's liberties. Under the rule

of law:

· everyone is entitled to a fair trial and no one should be imprisoned without due legal process

· all citizens must obey the law and are equal under it

· public officials are not above the law and they can be held to account by the courts

· the judiciary must be independent of political interference.