Nature of the British Constitution



  • The British Constitution can not be found in a single document, but rather in a variety of sources.
  • Few other countreies have an uncodified constitution - Saudi Arabia and New Zealand. 
  • It can make it more difficult for British subjects to understand their rights and how their political system works.
  • It can make it easier to adapt  E.G. by Acts of Parliament, as no complicated procedures are required to amend it  links to conservative idea of 'change to conserve'.
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  • The constitution is defined as unitary, meaning most power lies within the centre, namely Westminster Parliament.
  • This contrasts with states such as the USA or Germany  have federal systems of govt  considerable power lies within individual regions or states.
  • Arguably, the development of devolved assemblies in the UK has weakened this aspect of the British Constitution in the recent years ➪ led to some political commentators to define the current Constitution as 'quasi-federal'. 
  • However, Westminster is still sovereign ➪ E.G. making laws on abortion and gay marriage when NI Assembly was suspended.
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  • It is characterised by parliamentary sovereignty  parliament has final say on what the Constitution contains  sometimes phrased as 'No parliament can bind its successor'  what one elected parliament enacts as legislation a later parliament can change or revoke.
  • Twin pillar of the Constitution - A. V. Dicey.
  • Being in the EU put a constraint on parliamentary sovereignty.
  • Flexible and easy to change  E.G. UK membership in the EU  Parliament voted to join what was then the EEC through the European Communities Act 1972  this Act was later repealed by the laws that enabled Brexit -  European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.
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  • Identifies Britain as a modern liberal democracy ➪ the law applies to everyone equally.
  • Ensures the powers of government are limited ➪ E.G. when PMs act beyond their power their actions are declared ultra vires by the court ➪ when Johnson prorogued parliament in 2019.
  • A.V. Dicey referred to parliamentary sovereignty and ROL as the 'twin pillars' of the British Constitution
  • However, it can also undermine parliamentary sovereinty  it can lead to govt having to reverse an action ➪ E.G. in 2016 the govt was found by the courts to have acted illegaly by trying to restrict legal aid to people born outside the UK.
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