Sources of the UK constitution

A an outline and description of the main sources of the UK constitution with relevant examples.

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Royal Perogatives

These were the powers that Medieval Monarchs had, before the days of Paliament. They included the powers:

  • to declare war or make peace
  • to command armies and appoint generals to fight for the monarch
  • to appoint ministers
  • to raise money to pay for soldiers and ministers
  • to appoint judges and maintain law and order

Some examples:

  • Tony Balir's decision to invade Iraq
  • John Major's negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty
  • Gordan Brown's decision to have a general election in 2010 and not in 2008
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The best definition of a convention is that it is an unwritten rule or custom, which is known to all, accepted by all, and followed by all. 'Ministerial Responsibility' is a good example. There is no law which lays down that a minister is responsible for everything his or her department does, but all ministers accept it. A further part of this convention is that if a minister makes a major error of judegement, he or she will resign. A good example of this is that when Peter Mandleson, secretary of state for trade and industry, was discovered to have 'forgotten' to declare the loan of a large sum of money from another minister to buy a house, he resigned.

Other examples:

  • Thw whole cabinet takes collective responsibility for, and supports in public, a decision made by any member of the cabinet.
  • The monarch always signs bills that are agreed by both Houses of Parliament.
  • Major changes to the constitution, such as devolution, will be put to a referendum before Parliament acts on them.
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Common Law

This is law based on rulings made by judges where there is no clear statue law. For example, it was a judge who ruled that defendants had a right to silence in criminal cases. It was another judge who ruled that Slavery could not exist in Britain in the 1770s.

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Statue Law

This is law passed by both Houses of Parliament and signed by the Monarch.The courts, the police and the government must enforce this type of law, which is known as an 'Act of Parliament' when agreed by all three parts of Parliament: the Commons, the Lords and the Monarch.

Examples include:

  • The Parliament Act, which rules that there has to be a general election at least every 5 years.
  • The Human Rights Act which guarantees many basic freedoms.
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Written works by constitutional experts

These are books by accepted experts on the constitution, or parts of it. Very often they simply contain what everyone knows is supposed to happen, but they do it in a clear form so that newcomers to politics and government can actually read 'the constitution'.

  • A good example of this is Bagehot's The English Constitution, written in the second half of the nineteenth century. He describes clearly what the role of the cabinet, Parliament and the monarch was.
  • Other important texts are Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice, which explains how parliament works, and Dicey's Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, which analyses in depth such areas as the exact relationship between judges and the government.
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Membership of international organisations such as

Membership of the EU has alos altered the UK constitution. When we joined it, we accepted that some of the rules by which we are governed would now bw made in Brussels. We agreed to give up our sovereignty in specified areas in order to gain the benefits of the membership of this 'club'.

In the past we accpeted that the UK parliament was sovereign in all matters. Then, by passing a statue law, Parliament changed the UK constitution to give the EU some powers to make rules that bind all UK citizens. The EU now decides the size of lorries allowed on our roads, for example. Other EU contries, such as Ireland, can only change their constitution by a referendum in which all the people of that country are consulted, while in the UK the constitution can be changed just by passing an Act of Parliament. 

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EU continued

  • The growing power of the executive and Brussels means parliamentary sovereignty has gone.
  • National sovereignty has gone.
  • The impact of subsidiary is considerable, possibly preventing UK governments from taking centralisation action.
  • Possibly it has made the UK more democratic, with, for example, membership of the European Parliament and the Human Rights Act.
  • There is less acountability  - can the minister responsible for agriculture be made responsible for policy made by others in Brussels which he or she may oppose?
  • There is the impact of QMV on the decision making process.
  • There is the impact of the European Court of justice and the European Court of Human Righrs on key areas of the constitution.
  • The regionalism stressed by the EU runs counter to the centralisation policy of recent UK governments.
  • A EU foreign and defence policy is being developed which may run counter to UK traditions and wishes.
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