Works of Authority

One of the peculiarities of the UK constitution is the need to consult works by authors who are considered to be authorities on constitutional issues. These works help to define what is constitutionally ‘proper’ or ‘correct’; although they are certainly written, they are not legally enforceable. Such works are needed for two reasons:

• There are many gaps and confusions in the UK’s uncodified constitution with, particularly in the case of conventions, uncertainty about how general rules and principles should be applied in practice.

• These authoritative works carry out the job of interpretation – saying what the constitution actually means – that, in a codified constitutional system, would be carried out by senior judges. Nevertheless, as they lack legal authority, these constitutional works are only consulted, and followed, if they are considered to be relevant and their authors respected. Their status is therefore often subject to debate. Key works of constitutional authority include:

  • • Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1963 [1867]). This provides the classic definition of the role of the prime minister (as ‘first amongst equals’) and of the principle of cabinet government.

  • • A. V. Dicey’s An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1959 [1885]). This defines the ‘twin pillars’ of the constitution: parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.

  • Thomas Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law,Privileges,Proceedings and Usage of Parliament (usually known as ‘Erskine May’) (1997 [1844]). This provides the most authoritative account of the practices, procedures and rules of Parliament (Erskine May was the Clerk of the House of Commons 1871–86).