Principles of the UK constitution

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Parliamentary sovereignty

Rooted in common law, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is based upon three interlocking principles:

  • Parliament can make and unmake any UK law.
  • Only Parliament can make UK law.
  • No Parliament can bind its successors.
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Parliamentary government under a constitutional mo

A parliamentary government is one in which the government operates on the basis of a mandate granted periodically through free and fair elections. In Britain, our bicameral Parliament operates alongside a constitutional monarch. The monarchy remains part of Parliament - technically at least. ('The Queen in Parliament'). 

Unlike its medieveal counterpart, the modern monarchy is strictly controlled in what it can do, both by statute and through convention. As a result, though the monarchy legally retains wide-ranging powers, it has long since become what Walter Bagehot referred to as a 'dignified' part of the constitution. It has become largely symbollic and ceremonial, with its formal powers exercised by others.

Bicameral - Reference to a body, most commonly a legislature comprising of two chambers.

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The rule of law

According to AV Dicey (1885), the rule of law has three main strands:

  • No one can be punished without trial.
  • No one is above the law and all are subject to the same justice.
  • The general principles of the constitution (personal freedoms) result from parliamentary statute or executive order.
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The unitary state

Britain is said to be a unitary state as opposed to a federal one. This means that all ultimate power in the UK is held by the central government at Westminster. Any power that local government or regional government appears to have merely delegated or 'devolved' can, in theory at least, be withdrawn at any time.

Unitary system - a system where ultimate sovereignty rests with a central government.

Federal system - under a federal system, soverignty is shared with the reigons or states that comprise the nation retaining ultimate power over certain areas of policy.

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