The British Constitution

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Definition

The Constitution is a set of rules that seek to establish the duties, powers and funtions of the various institutions of the government.

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Why are Constitutions so important?

A constitution is the solution to the problem of power. (Power tends to be corrupt so we need to be protected from those in power). 

Without a constitution the government could do whatever they want, such as oppressing minorities, violating freedom, tyrannising the mass of the people. 

"We cannot trust the government or, for that matter, anyone who has power over us"

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Limited Government

A form of government in which government power is subject to limitations and checks, providing protection for the individual; the opposite of arbitrary government. 

"Man is not free unless government is limited"- Ronald Reagan

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Features of the UK Constitution

  • Parliamentary Sovereignity- Sovereignity means supreme, unrestricted power. In this case, the absolute and unlimited power of parliament which can in theory make, repeal or amend any law.
  • Uncodified- This type of constitution is not confined to one single document, but in a variety of documents. Known as an uncodified constitution or unwritten constitution. Codified is in one document.
  • Unitary- Where ultimate power lies with a central body which is sovereign. Opposite is federal, e.g USA, where legal sovereignity is shared between government at the centre and the constitution 'states'. 
  • Fusion of Powers- Wher the executive branch, legislative branch of government intermingle. E.g David Cameron is a member of the legislative branch (MP for Whitney) and a member of the executive branch (Prime Minister).
  • Flexible- Where changes to the constitution can take place without a lengthy procedure. E.g Parliament can simply pass an Act. Opposite to this is rigid; where changes can only take place as part of a special constitutional amendment procedure. 
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Sources of the UK Constitution

  • Statute Law
  • EU Law
  • Conventions
  • Constitutional documents
  • Royal Perogative
  • Common Law
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Statute Law

A statute is a written law passed by an Act of Parliament. It is a law that is enforcable in courts. Many statutes do not embody principles affecting the constitution, however some do as they affect the way in which we are governed. E.g the Acts of Parliament 1998

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EU Law and Treaties

They are a significant source of the UK constitution. Where EU Law and UK Law conflict, EU Law takes precedence. Specifically important for social and economic legislation. 

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Conventions

A convention is a regulary observed practice considered appropriate for a given set of circumstances. Constitutional conventions are, therefore, sets of rules established over time by custom and practice, which relate to the excercise of government powers. Conventions are legally binding. For example; a general election being held every 5 years. 

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Constitutional Documents/Major works of authority

Major Constitutional Documents- A number of documents formed the basis of the constitution because they established important principles. E.g Magna Carta 1215, Act of Settlement 1601

Major Works of Authority- These have become sources of guidance which are widely recognised and therefore viewed as authoritative. Often contain the nearest to a written account that we have of the way the constitution operates. E.g A.V Dicey, An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885)

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Royal Perogative

The Royal Perogative consists of a number of powers or privileges in the past performed by the monarch but now performed by ministers on his or her behalf. Their authority is derived from the crown, not parliament. Examples of these powers include the rights to; declare war, make treaties, give orders, dissolve parliament and appoint ministers.

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Common Law

This is also known as 'case law'. Common Law is made by judges and is common to every person in every region of Britain. 

It is law formed on the basis of precedents set in previous cases- i.e judgements made by one court of law must be continued by another if they face a similar case. 

Such a law is not the product of a legislation process but a reflection of the accumulated wisdom of the past which binds judges into the acceptance of these legal precedents. Most of the original laws concerning civil rights began this way, such as freedom of speech and freedom of movement. 

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