F852 Government and Politics - What does the British constitution comprise of?

A brief overview, in note form, concerning the UK's constitution.


What are the sources of the constitution?

  • Set of laws/rules by which a country is governed
  • Uncodified, as well as e.g. Israel and New Zealand
  • Statutes; Magna Carta,1215 and the Bill of Rights, 1689
  • Political conventions
  • Common or case law
  • Constitutional experts, e.g. Walter Bagehot, Erskine Mary and A. V Dicey.
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What is parliamentary sovereignty?

  • Westminster Parliament is a supreme law-making body
  • Legislation cannot be overturned by higher authority
  • Westminster can legislate on any issue
  • No parliament can bind its successors.
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What is a 'unitary state'?

  • Centralised state, national institutions at centre
  • Characterised by weak local and 'subnational' government, with little or no autonomy
  • No power-sharing, e.g. federal systems of Germany and the US
  • "A unitary state is a centralised state in which political power is located at the centre in national institutions" - M. Garnett & P. Lynch, UK Government and Politics.
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Unitary state or union state?

  • J.Mitchell said "a classic unitary state exhibits a high dgree of standardisation", i.e. similar systems of government and political culture
  • In a union state, differences remain
  • Wales, invaded by England in 1282, Act of Union (1536,1542)
  • Scotland, crowns joined under James I (1603), states joined by Act of Union (1707)
  • Ireland, Act of Union (1801) united Irish and British parliaments, Ireland Act (1949) established acknowledged Irish Free State and protected Northern Ireland
  • By mid-20th century, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Offices were all established
  • Support for devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Scotland: legislative and tax-varying powers; responsibility for education, health and local government
  • Wales; secondary legislative authority
  • Northern Ireland; similar powers to Scotland.
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  • Rules or accepted practises, neither codified nor enforced by law
  • Examples of this include: royal assent to acts of parliament, appointment of leader of largest party to form government, Prime Minister is a member of the House of Commons (last instance of a Lord, Alec Douglas-Hume, 1963).
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  • Acts of Parliament - some acts have greater constitutional significance than others
  • Examples of this include: Great Reform Act (1832) extending franchise, Parliament Act (1911) establishing the House of Commons as dominant chamber, and the Human Rights Act (1988), enshrining key rights in the UK's law.
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Common Law

  • Legal principles that have been established by law courts having interpreted the law
  • Also customs and precedents, e.g. royal prerogative to declare war, negotiate treaties, dissolve parliament, and appoint ministers and judges
  • Powers are only nominal, and real power lies with the Prime Minister.
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  • This is legal supremacy
  • This means that parliament has the ultimate law-making authority.
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