The Development of the British Constitution



  • The UK constitution is a unique one as it has developed gradually over a long time, this is unique as many other constiutions have been born out of revolution or military conflict, for example the US constitution was developed in 1778 and ratfied in 1788 after a bloody revolutionary war against the British Empire.
  • Many elements of the British constitution can be traced to the middle ages when we lived in a feudalist society where power was concentrated in the monarchy who got there power from God.
  • To govern efficently however much of the responsibility was given to nobles. knights and barons whos job it was to look after the land, collect taxes and enlist peasants to the kings army.
  • As time progressed the committe gained more representation and power, form the 13th C the nobles managed to gain much more representation in the committee known as parliament. They met to advise the king, pass laws and consent to taxation.
  • Parliament then consisted of two houses, the upper house known as the House of Lords featured heditary aristocrats and high members of the church like bishops and the lower house, the 'House of Commons' was filled with elected prosperous merachnts and gentry. As time went on the 
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Overview Cont.

  • As time progressed the Commons gained more power and representation expecting to be listened to by the monarch.
  • The balance of power slowely shifted until the mid-17th C when Britain went through a civil war resulting in the decapitiaion of Charles the 1st and the sole shift of power to parliament under Cromwell.
  • After Cromwell died the monarchy was restored with Charles the 2nd, at this point parliament had taken over much of the monarchs responsibility and so its role was greatly reduced put still had some power due to our mainly Christian society.
  • By the 19th C Britain was governed by a Constitutional monarchy who acted off the advice of ministers, the ministers were accountable to parliamnet as the supreme-law making body.
  • By the early 20th C voting rights had been extended to the middle and working classes creating a more deomcratic society, this was reflected by the emergance of the commons as the most important house.
  • It is important to remember at a similar time in the 17th C the judicary should also be an important part of society and should be independant from the government as not even the government should be above the law.
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Important Elements of the British Constitution

  • Although there are no specific documents outlining our constitution there are several other important documents that have influenced the development of he UK politcal system these have been:
  • Reduce the power of the monarchy
  • Extend the power of parliament
  • Increase the rights and freedoms of citizens
  • Draw together the component parts of the UK
  • Increase the power of the Commons over the Lords
  • Define the UK's relationship with the instituions that later became the EU
  • These important documents:
  • Magna Carta, 1215 - agreement between King John and the barons after they rebelled against the king this document sated the principle that no one should be deprived of liberties or property without due process of law. Although many clauses have been repealed by later legeslation it still remains a powerful symbol of English liberites here and in places like America
  • The Bill of Rights 1689 - Passed by parliament after the arbitary rule of King James the second after the 'Glourious Revolution'. His succesors affirmed the rights of parliament when they took the throne, the bill assured regular parliaments, free elections and freedom of speech in parliament.
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Important Elements of the British Constitution Con

  • The Act of Settlement 1701 - motivated by a want to exclude James the second and his heirs from the throne as their adherence to the catholic religon was associated with tyrannical and unjust rule. This act established the right of parliament to determine the line of succesion to the throne.
  • The Acts of Union 1707 - United England and Scotland under one parliment based in Westminster, this was the basis of the UK until Tony Blair passed laws to establish a Scottish parliament in 1997.
  • The Parliamnets Act 1911 -1949 - Reduced the power of the House of Lords to interfere with the Commons agenda. The act was provoked by the action of the Lords in rejecting the 'People's Budget' which would have raised tax and was introduced by David Llyod George. The 1911 bill affirmed that the Lords could delay money bills, non-financial bills could only be delayed by 2 years instead of veto powers. 1949 act reduced this to one year.
  • The European Communities Act 1972 - Passed by Edward Heaths government, the act took us into the EEC which would become the EU. The act established thet the EU law would take precedence over UK law where a conlict occured. This act will be repealed during the Brexit process.
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The Nature of the British Constitution

  • It is uncodified - there is no single document that outines the key principles of the UK political system but instead comes form a series of important documents
  • It is untrenched - it can be altered very easily through a simple vote in parliament and therefore is more flexible than a codified one like in the US where there is a due legal process to change the constitution and the laws featured in the constitution take precedence over others these are known as entrenched, in America 2/3 of support from congress is needed to make a change to the constitution.
  • It is unitary - Originally power was concentrated solely in the English monarchy this changed around many times through history after the Act of Union the whole country was united under one government in Westminister, this changed in 1997 when Tony Blair established the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, then later in Wales a less powerful Parliament, these changes have made our country a 'Union-State', thanks to an uncodfied constituion we have been able to devlove power to other countries through acts of parliament instead of having to become a fedral state like Germany or the US.
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The Twin Pillars of the UK Constitution

  • In 1885 A.V. Dicey identfied two key principles of the UK constitution:
  • Parliamentry Sovereignty - Legeslation passed by parliament cannot be struck down by a higher body like a constitutional court as there reponsibility is to interpret law not change it
  • No current parliamnet can bind its succesor as they have the right to amend or repeal any acts passed by previous government -  for example the repeal of Section 28 introduced by Thatcher.
  • Parliament can make a law on any subject
  • Rule of Law - argued that this is the main way in which rights and liberties of citizens are protected which is important as respect for the rule of law is important as it acts as a check on parliamenetry sovereignty. Under the rule of law:
  • Everybody is entilited to a fair trial and no imprisonment without due process
  • All citizens must obey the law and are equal under it
  • Public officals are not above the law
  • The judicary must be independant from government
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The 5 Main Sources of the UK Constitution

  • Statue Law - The body of law passed by parliament, not all laws are constitutional only those that affect the UK political system and citizens, it is the most important source as it is underpinned by the concept of parliamentry soverginty for example certain powers were devolved to legeslative bodies in Scotland, Wales and NI.
  • Common Law - Legal principles laid down by judges in their rulings in court case, which provide precedant for later cases. Important in cases where it is not clear where statue law should be applied in practise, for example the presumption a person is innocent until proven guilty is common- law protection against unlawful imprsionment which was covered into a statue in 1679
  • Conventions - Customs and practise that are not legally enforced but have been accepted by most over time, these can be challenged and changed by an act of parliament. An example of this is that the government will not order military action without prior parliamentry approval established after the 2003 Iraq war.
  • Authoritative Works - Textbooks that explain the working of the political system, a useful guide that lacks legal standing, for example Parliamentry Practise first published in 1844 by Erskine May
  • Treaties - Agreements with other EU states which the government has signed since 1973. This now irrelevant as we are leaving. The most important treaty was the Maastricht (1992) which made the EEC into the EU
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How the Constitution has Changed since 1997

  • Pressure for Reform in the 90's
  • Demands for Modernisation - Old Labour had previously made some constitutional changes  when they extended the vote to 18 year olds in 1969 and had attempted to pass devolution for Scotland and Wales in 1979, but was mostly concerned with economic and social issues. New Labour was more open to constitutional changes and had listened to deemands from pressure groups like Charter 88 before winning a large majorty in 1997 as Blair had expected to need the support of the Liberal democrats who had been commited to electoral change.
  • 1978-97 - the conservative government lead by Thatcher then Major had refused to refrom constitutionally building up pressure for change especilaly in Scotland which had been hit hard by Thatchers policies. It felt ignored by a distant governemnt it had little power over, for example things like the unpopular Poll Tax and accusations of sleaze in parliamnet in the 90's helped to create a atmosphere of distrust in Scotland that lead to a series of changes.
  • Chanages under Labour 1997-2010
  • House of Lords Reform: In 1997 the Lords was full of heditary peers, after the reform all but 92 of these peers lost their right. This ended reduced the amount of influence the Lords had over the politcal system as most peers were Conservative supporters. This also gave the Lords a more modern look.From 2000 an Appointments Comittee nominated a proportion of peers who were not linked with a party, it still contiues to lack democracy.
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How the Constitution has Changed since 1997 Cont.

  • Electoral Reform - Originally Labour was quite keen to encourage electoral refrom as they believed they would need the support of Liberal Democarts to win a majorty but after a large majorty they did not revist the idea.
  • Devolution -  Develoved bodies were created for each country after a referendum in 1997-98, the scottish one was meant to dampen down support for the SNP and bring together the unionist and nationalist factions in NI. Demand for devolution was lower in Wales and so the Welsh assembly recieved less power than the Sottish or NI Assemblys. This created the West Lotian question and issues with the Barnett formula 
  • The ECHR - Introduced by the EU the ECHR it enshriened peoples rights and guaranteed every law passed by the government had to be in accordance with the ECHR.
  • The Supreme Court - In 2005 the Supreme Court was created as the highest court of appeal for criminal cases, this is a further example of seperation of powers and previous senior judges known as law lords performed this function. 
  • 2010-2015 - House of Lords reform, this was blocked by the Lib Dems after the Con tried to reduce the amount of consticuencys from 650 to 600, they blocked it as they believed it would benifit the Con
  • Electoral Reform - in 2011 a referendum was held to see wether the voting sydtem should be changed to the AV system, each meber of the government took up opposite sides with the Lib Dems supporting the change and the Cons against. It ended up being a vote more aginst the Lib Dems.
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How the Constitution has Changed since 1997 Cont.

  • The Con wanted to drop the EHCR for a British bill of rights, this was blocked by the Lib Dems
  • Devolution
  • Wales gained more legeslative powers in all of the 20 policy areas
  • Scotland gained more powers in 2012 like borrowing powers and securing a independace vote that they lost
  • England gained a commitee that would determine if a vote should only be voted on by English MP's
  • Fixed Term Parliaments - gaurenteed a 5 year gap between elections unlessa 2/3 parliament vote.
  • Recall of MP's Act - if a MP is handed a custodial sentece or is suspended for more than 21 days then an automatic byelection is triggered if 10% of the constituents sign a petition
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