The Constitution

AS Government and Politics

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What is a constitution?

A constitution is a set of principles (which may be written or unwritten) that:

  • establishes the distribution on power within a political system,
  • relationships between political institutions.
  • the limits of a government's jurisdiction,
  • the rights of citizens
  • sets methods of amending the constitution itself
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Principles of the UK Constitution

Parliamentary sovereignty - A political system where the legislative is central to decision making. The executive is drawn from the legislative and therefore by being elected is accountable to the legislative and electorate.

Unitary state - All power comes from the top of the political system and works downwards, in this case because the legislative is politically sovereign they control the state.

Party dominated - Majority in the House of Commons needed to form a legitimate government. Due to the FPTP electoral system, our elections are party dominated.

Royal prerogative - Ancient traditional power that the monarch enjoys that does not require the agreement of Parliament. All actions taken in the Monarch's name.

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Sources of the UK Constitution

Constitutional conventions - Unwritten rules that are considered to be binding on all members of the political community. Such conventions cannot be challenged in law but they hold so much moral force they are, if ever disputed.

Tradition - Similar to common law, constitutional traditions govern many of the rituals of parliamentary government.

Common law - Refers to the development of law through historical usage and tradition. Judges treat it as any rule of conduct that is both well established and generally acknowledged by most people.

Parliamentary statues - Any act of Parliament that establishes consitutional principles

Historical principles - Established over a long period of time. The rule of law is a more recent develpment that has made justice equal for all.

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Examples of the Sources

Constitutional conventions:

  • House of Lords should not block manifesto pledge legislation (Salisbury)


  • Monarchy annoucing the legislative programme

Common law:

  • The powers of the PM

Parliamentary statutes:

  • Human Rights Act

Historical Principles:

  • Principles of Rights and Justices
  • All equal under the law (Habeas Corpus)
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Arguments for a Codified Constitution

  • It clearly establishes the rules by which a govt cn run - there can be no confusion which common law and convention may bring
  • No restraints on the power of the executive - could lead to a danger in freedom and democracy (Anti-Terrorism Acts)
  • Currently the only way that rights are protected are through supranational institutions such as the EU and ECHR
  • Citizens do not know their rights and so can become apathetic when restrictions are brought in - nothing to defend rights
  • PM taken too many powers from the royal prerogative and has become too powerful without checks and balances
  • Without a seperation of powers the legislative become the checkers of the legislation - no effective check
  • Most European democracies and the US has a codified consitution
  • The judiciary's interpretation becomes vaguer and has no legitimacy
  • UK traditions are outmoded - HoL undemocratic and FPTP is ruling under the tyranny of the majority
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Arguments for an Uncodified Constitution

  • The current system is flexible and so can be changed due to circumstances or events that have taken place
  • Codified constitutions cannot react quickly to circumstances without a dedicated amendment - US gun laws stayed not changed
  • Stood the test of time - the UK has not had a violent revolution and has evolved
  • UK conventions would be difficult to write down and sort out
  • Our party dominated system would make codifying the constitution very difficult due to not being able to decide on set guidelines
  • Codified constitutions do not stop abuses of power - USSR had a codified constitution
  • Government can react strongly to events unhindered by red tape
  • There are stil traditional elements with the political system which are largely popular and effective
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Strengths and Weaknesses of the UK constitution


  • Flexibility - it is easy and quick to change under specific circumstances such as crisis due to being a single tier legal system. UK constitution is not entrenched so there are no party ties (a party can completely change previous govt legislation)
  • Accountability - cannot use the constitution as an excuse for not fulfilling manifesto pledges
  • Strong and stable governments - due to FPTP majoritarian system


  • Rushed legislation - Snowdrop and Dnagerous Dogs Act (all from public outcry)
  • Unlimited power of govt - citizens are not protected from the power of the govt as well as not being able to understand indivisual rights due to uncodified nature (limited govt - feature of democracy)
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How successful were New Labour's const. reforms?

Devolution - Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament - Scots given primary legislation and tax raising powers - Welsh were not given primary legislation (til recently)

Parliament - HoL hereditary peers redcued to 92 and increase in appointed peers but no changes to the HoC and not made more democratic

Human Rights - Given powers to the UK Citizens to know their rights and take cases to ECRA - Still not a bill of rights and it is not codified in the constitution

Freedom of info - Gives citizens rights to acces info about public bodies and govt - but secret service exempt from act and govt decides what is in public interest

Judicial reform - Created Supreme Court, took away judicial power from Lord Chancellor and created JAC to appoint senior judges - Govt appoint who appoints in JAC

Electoral reform - Set up Jenkins Report to enquire on electoral reform (AV+) - not implemented by New Labour

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Changes to Sovereignty

Devolution - Given tax raising powers and primary legislation away from Parliament to both devolved institutions (Welsh and Scot)

Human Rights Act - Has priority over most cases due to it being taken from ECHR

EU - Has priority of minor laws such as environment, trade and agriculture  (Factortame - advantage over fisheries) UK courts must apply EU law and Parliament cannot pass legislation that defies EU law - ECRA highest court

Greater use of referendums - Given more power to the electorate to make decisions

Executive power - Unlimited power of executive giving them the power


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Good notes, focusing on the UK constitution

Rebecca Lake


These are brilliantly done, Mister! Very clear and easy to understand!



Helpful :)

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