State power is organised, distributed, and governed by constitutions. They set out the state structure, the major institutions of the state, and the principles regulating their relations with each other and with the people of the state. In that it has an ‘unwritten constitution, Britain is unusual: unlike the vast majority of nations, there is no single legislative text that lays out the basic rules detailing how the state operates in one place. The lack of a ‘written’ constitution in Britain can be explained by its history.
In other nations, many of which have undergone revolution or regime change, the creation of new state institutions and the comprehensive description of their ties with each other and their people have had to start from scratch or begin from first principles. By comparison, over a long period of time, the British Constitution has developed, reflecting the relative stability of the British political structure. In Britain, it was never thought appropriate to unite the fundamental building blocks of this order. Instead what Britain has is an accumulation of separate laws, conventions, legal rulings, and treaties that can be referred to collectively as the British Constitution. Therefore, it is more fitting to refer to the constitution of Britain as an ‘uncodified constitution, rather than a ‘unwritten’ one.
It has been proposed that it is possible to summarise the British Constitution in eight words: what the Queen in Parliament enacts is law. It ensures that Parliament, using the authority of the Crown, enacts legislation that no other body can question. Parliamentary supremacy is generally known as the British Constitution’s guiding concept. It is the sole law-making power to establish or abolish any law in a constitutionally elected Parliament. The rule of law, the division of government into executive, legislative and judicial branches, and the nature of a unitary state are also considered to include other fundamental values of the British Constitution, meaning that supreme authority is exercised by the middle’ – the sovereign Westminster Parliament. Some of these concepts, however, are mythical (it might be best known that the British constitution requires the merger of executive and legislature) or in question (Parliamentary sovereignty may now be called in question given the combined impact of Europe, devolution, the Courts, and human rights).
From a variety of sources, the British Constitution is extracted. Statutes are legislation enacted by Parliament and are the highest form of law in general. Conventions are unwritten traditions that have grown over time and influence the governing company. Common law is laws established by cases by the courts and judges. The accession of the UK to the European Communities Act 1972 has meant that the British Constitution is increasingly influenced by European law. The UK is subject to international law as well. Finally, since no one text can comprise the British Constitution, legislators and lawyers have relied on constitutional authority to define and interpret the constitution.
Two issues are created by an uncodified constitution. First, understanding what the state of the constitution really is makes it complicated. Second, it suggests that changes to the UK Constitution are easier to make than in countries with written constitutions, since the latter have documents with a ‘higher law’ status that can be tested against ordinary statutory law and government action, and are only amendable through elaborate procedures. The UK constitution’s flexibility is evident from the large number of constitutional reforms since 1997, including the abolition in the House of Lords of the majority of hereditary peers, the introduction of codified individual rights for the first time in the 1998 Human Rights Act, and the transfer to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, these recent constitutional amendments may have potentially made the constitution less versatile in certain respects: it is debatable, for example, if the settlements for devolution will ever be abolished.
A2. Parliament is an important part of politics in the UK. Its key functions are to investigate and challenge the government’s work, to discuss and pass all legislation, and to allow the government to increase taxes. The structure of Parliament comprises 2 Houses. In the House of Commons, there are currently 650 elected members of Parliament, called Members of Parliament (MPs). Each seat is contested in a general election or by-election in a constituency under the present system. They share their time in London between their local constituencies and the Commons.
MPs consider and approve new laws in the Commons. While most are part of a faction, only a few are independent. They will vote most of the time according to the desires and strategy of the government, which is instructed by the party whip. If an MP refuses to comply, this may mean that their party’s publicity, sponsorship, credibility, and financial resources will be refused. MPs also sit on committees to study the policies and plans of the state.
The House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, otherwise known as the House of Peers. Membership is provided by election or by inheritance or official service. Like the House of Commons, it meets at the Westminister’s Palace.
Unlike the elected House of Commons, members of the House of Lords are appointed (excluding 90 elected hereditary peers and two ex officio peers). The House of Lords membership is drawn from the peerage and consists of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. In the existing Church of England, 26 bishops are the Lords Spiritual. Of the Temporary Lords, the majority are life peers who on the advice of the Prime Minister or on the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Board, are appointed by the king, but they may include some hereditary peers, including four dukes.
Although the composition of the House of Commons has a fixed number of seats, the number of members of the House of Lords is not defined. The House of Lords is the only upper house to be larger than its lower house in every bicameral parliament in the world.
Bills passed by the House of Commons are scrutinised by the House of Lords. It reviews and amends Bills from the Commons annually. Although it is unable, even under such restricted cases, to prohibit Bills from passing into law, it may postpone Bills and force the Commons to rethink their decisions. The House of Lords serves in this capacity as a check on the House of Commons, which is separate from the electoral process. In either the House of Lords or the House of Commons, bills will be presented. Although members of the Lords will also take on positions as ministers of government, high-ranking officials are generally drawn from the Commons, such as cabinet ministers. Separate from the Commons, like the House of Lords Library, the House of Lords has its own support facilities.
Many duties also carried out by the Commons are carried out by the House of Lords. It can ask ministerial questions, debate in its house, and inquire in its committees, but it cannot veto the Commons’ desired legislation. It can only be delayed. If it disagrees with a bill coming from the Commons, it will delay its entry into law for one session, around 13 months, because the Lords will not avoid it if the Commons proposes the same Bill in the same terms in the next session. A cash bill dealing with taxes and spending should not even be postponed. They accept what the Commons wants, as long as it is a money bill that the Commons Speaker declares.