- Definition: The constitution is a set of rules that seeks to establish the duties, powers and functions of the various institutions of government, to regulate the relationships between and among the institutions and to define the relationships between the state and the individual (i.e. define the extent of civil liberty).
· Allocates governmental actions, what power the government has and what political structures will perform these actions e.g. the US constitution gives Congress the power to levy taxes but forbids it to establish an official state Church; in the UK there is an established state Church.
· Establishes the formal power relationships among the political structures e.g. the PM can appoint or dismiss other Cabinet ministers.
· It limits the power of the rulers and guarantees the rights of the ruled e.g. British subjects have a longstanding right under the common law to a jury trial.
- Features: details of election procedures e.g. Quinquennial Act requires a general election to be held every 5 years. The composition of, and powers of, elected assemblies’ e.g. HoL has the power to delay laws passed by the Commons for only one year under the 1949 parliamentary act. The powers of the executive or government e.g. the Prime Minister is given the role of head of the cabinet. Rights of citizens e.g. 1999 Human Rights Act.
Sources of the UK constitution
- The royal prerogatives: power to appoint, reshuffle and sack ministers, to declare war, to dissolve parliament and to ratify international treaties.
- Conventions: These are key unwritten elements within the constitution e.g. a government will resign after a defeat over a major bill in the Commons. Conventions are not legally enforceable but are upheld because they make politics “workable”, and once assumed can become a part of custom and assume historical authority e.g. Gordon Brown 2007 announcement that in future, the government would never declare war without the consent of parliament. The main examples of conventions are:
· The royal prerogative
· The appointment of the prime minister
· Individual ministerial responsibility
· Collective ministerial responsibility
- Common law: These are laws based on tradition, custom and precedent e.g. law against murder always considered wrong and courts never gone against it. Constitutionally significant laws are the royal prerogative and traditional rights and freedoms (until the human rights act courts recognised “residual rights” which assumed that everything is permitted unless it is prohibited)
- Statute law: these are the acts of parliament and are the most important source of the constitution. E.g. 1911/1949 parliament act, the European community act 1972, the Scotland and government of wales 1998, the human rights act 1998, the house of lords act 1999, the freedom of information act 2000 and the constitutional reform act 2005.
- Works of authority: These are works that define what is constitutionally “proper” or “correct”. They are not legally enforceable but they are needed…