constitutions and british democracy unit 2

constitutions and british democracy

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1. Constitutions
A. Definition
o A constitution sets out the system of government. 'The whole system of government
of a country, the collection of rules which establish and regulate or govern the
government' (Where).
o A constitution `sets out the formal structure of government, specifying the
powers and institutions of central government, and the balance between central
and other levels of government. In addition, constitutions specify the rights of
citizens and in so doing create limits on and duties for the government.' (Harrop
et al)
o For the Austrian liberal Friedrich Hayek (1960), a constitution was nothing but a
device for limiting the power of government. In similar vein, Carl Friedrich (1937)
defined a constitution as 'a system of effective, regularized restraints upon
o A constitution performs three functions:
o First, the constitution allocates governmental activities, defining what
actions are within the political sphere, that is, what the scope of
government power is and what political structures will perform these
various actions. For example, the US constitution gives Congress the
power to levy taxes but forbids it to establish an official state Church in the
UK there is an established state Church. In other, nondemocratic states,
the power of the state may extend to banning certain activities (like drinking
alcohol) or prohibiting the holding of specific religious or political views or
discriminating against specific people (as the German constitution directed
under Hitler).
o Second, it establishes the formal power relationships among the
political structures, indicating the conditions under which each is
independent or dependent upon the actions of the others. For example, a
British Prime Minister can appoint or dismiss other Cabinet ministers.
o Third, the constitution limits the power of the rulers and guarantees
the rights of the ruled, by defining the maximum extent of the state's
authority over its citizens and by enumerating citizens' freedoms and
benefits from the state. For example, British subjects have a longstanding
right under the common law to a jury trial.
o Among the features of a constitution are the following:
o Details of election procedures ­ for example, in the UK the
Quinquennial Act requires a general election to be held at least every 5

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The Monarch must dissolve parliament to call an election but ­ by
convention ­ (s) he does so on the advice of the Prime Minister.
o The composition of, and powers of, elected Assemblies. In the
UK, The House of Lords has the power to delay laws passed by the
Commons for only one year.
o The powers of the executive (or government) ­ ministers of the
Crown exercise prerogative powers once enjoyed by the monarch e.g.…read more

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­ or ratify ­
the proposals. Only 27 have been approved.
o The advantages of entrenchment are:
o They limit the damage political opponents can do to each other when they obtain
power, for they too must abide by the values embedded in the constitutional
settlement.…read more

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Dozens of countries have abandoned their existing constitutions and ratified new ones
in an attempt to rejuvenate their political systems. For example, Mongolia adopted a
democratic, post-communist constitution in 1994. And Hong Kong implemented its new
Basic Law in 1997 as part of the transition from British colony to Special
Administrative Region of China. Iraq after the fall Saddam Hussein.…read more

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Courts cannot overrule the laws made by parliament
o The UK does not have a codified constitution, because:
o historically, Britain has not had a sufficiently traumatic event to
provoke a new start (like a revolution or defeat in a major war)
o geographical isolation and security from invasion has been important
o those in power have been adaptable and have made reforms when
faced with pressure
Review Questions
1. In what sense does Britain have a constitution?
2.…read more


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