The development of the UK's constitution

The development of the UKs constitution

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One of the reasons why the UK does not have a codified constitution is that British political history over
the past 3 centuries has followed an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary route. In other countries,
written constitutions have been introduced following sudden and total changes to their political systems.
The French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1937 both led to the introduction of
written constitutions. Similarly, new written constitutions were introduced in Germany after defeat in
1918 and 1945, and India drew up a written constitution when British rule ended in 1947.
Absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy
Until the 17th century, there was no real separation of powers. Instead, there was a system of absolute
monarchy. The monarch could overrule decisions made by Parliament. Ministers were merely personal
advisers and judges were appointed and removed by the monarch.
It was only after the English Civil War of 1642-52, and the short period of republican gov't before the
monarchy was restored in 1660, that the power of the monarch was curtailed. Attempts by Charles II
and James II to reassert royal power resulted in the latter exile in 1688 (the so-called 'Glorious
Revolution') and the introduction of a Bill of Rights which granted parliament protection against royal
From the beginning of the 18th century, therefore, Britain was no longer governed by an absolute
Constitutionally, although monarchs still exercised considerable power, they required the support of
The monarch's business was carried out by the Cabinet (the monarch's minister's) which brought
matters before Parliament for its approval. This system became known as a constitutional monarchy.
Britain remains a constitutional monarchy today, although considerable changes in how it operates in
practice have taken place along the way.
Checks, balances and corruption
With the abolition of absolute monarchy, the principal institutions of gov't provided a set of mutual
checks and balances - at least in theory. The idea was that the HoC could reject what the nobility (the
Lords) had proposed and vice versa. The monarch could act as a check on both Houses while they, in
turn, had sanctions which could be used to check the power of the monarch's ministers.
The theory of checks and balances was only partly borne out in practice. A very small electorate (even
by the end of the 18th century, less than 5% of adult men and no women were entitled to vote) allowed
patronage and corruption to flourish. The constitution operated essentially in the interests of the
aristocracy since power was held primarily by a small group of substantial landowners in the Lords who
were 'in loose alliance' with the merchants and the representatives of small towns who sat in the
With the break up of the old fuedal system and the rapid economic and social changes that
accompanied the industrial revolution, this constitutional set-up became unworkable. Industrialisation
produced a few new class of wealthy factory owners. The economic power of this capitalist class was
not matched, however, by political power since this new 'middle class' was not represented in
This produced the principal political division of the 19th century. The large landowners wanted to
preserve the status quo. The new industrial capitalists were eager for political representation and
power for themselves. Both groups wished to avoid granting any representation or power to the
working class (the vast majority of the population). But the middle classes needed the support of
working-class reformers to achieve any extension of the franchise and reform of the HoCs.
The Great Reform Act, 1832
Political conflict culminated in the Great Reform Act of 1832 which extended the vote to the new middle

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It was now no longer
possible for the Lords, through patronage, to control the composition of the HoCs. In addition, the
powers of the monarch were limited further as the choice of the senior Cabinet members (the centre of
executive power) now passed to the commons (the centre of legislative power). For a while, these
changes produced a 'golden period' of dominance for the Commons, as the power of the Lords waned.
The constitution after 1832
The British constitution after 1832 was not democratic.…read more


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