The Constitution of the United Kingdom has never been formally made. It remains uncodified, undefined, and unsystematized. It lacks precision. Many books may be found which describe the Constitution of the United Kingdom. But none of them can be said to contain it. But the most important part of the British constitution is just what is kept out of the written law and given over to the sole guardianship of custom. In other words, the Constitution of the United Kingdom has been a result of gradual evolution. Besides, the British have the political tradition of having an unwritten and well-functioning constitution.
- Sources of Constitution of the United Kingdom
- Salient Features of the Constitution of the United Kingdom
Sources of Constitution of the United Kingdom
The sources of the Constitution of the United Kingdom are as follows:
The Great Charters-1215 – Begining of the British Constitution
The charters – 1215 define and regulate the power of the crown and the rights of the citizens, (Monarch, Parliament, PM-Crown as of today). They constitute the most important milestone on the way of struggle for personal liberty and responsible government. They are historic documents because these have exerted a very important influence on all the fundamental aspects of the British Constitution. The Magna Carta of 1215 laid down that there were several important laws of the land which bind all the people, including the Monarch. The petition of rights of 1628 provided against arbitrary taxation without the consent of the parliament, prohibited arbitrary imprisonment. The Bill of Rights of 1689 firmly laid down the foundation of constitutional monarchy in Britain. These charters are the product of political crisis and they contain the terms of the settlement between the Monarch and the people which occurred at various stages of constitutional development.
The British Parliament has the distinction of being continuously working on the constituent assembly from time to time. Several statutes which have regulated the organization and working of the British political institution. Such as the method of election, the power, and duties of public officials. The statutes are not the outcome of the constitutional struggle. However, all these statutes are important for the development of political democracy and any attempt to repeat them (of glory) would now be regarded against the constitutional sense of the nations. In fact, the system of government would become unworkable if ever an attempt is made to repeat any one of such statutes. But the parliament is a sovereign body and it has the right to make or unmake any law whatever (A.K Dicey).
The law is originated from custom and religious. Along with the laws passed by the British Parliament, another source of the British Constitution has been the common law based upon the customs and tradition of English societies and later on recognized by the courts of the country. They are fully accepted and enforced as laws. Common laws are legal rules which grew up in England and not by any action of the Parliament. They have their origin in customs. The civil liberties of the British such as the freedom of speech of press and of assembly mostly rest upon them. It is from common laws, for example, that the monarch derives his/her prerogative and parliament supremacy. However, the principles of common law will be effective only if it has been passed by parliament.
Conventions are political customs and traditions. A convention plays a key role in the evolution and working of an unwritten and evolutionary constitution, like the British constitution. These usages are the unwritten rules of political practices and they have been defined by J.S. Mill as unwritten maxims of the constitution. In fact, the workability of the English constitution is based upon convention without which it would become unworkable. These conventions are regarded as sacred as laws of the constitution. Their importance lies in the fact that the fundamental principles of the English constitution like the sovereignty of parliament and ministerial responsibility to the parliament upon which the successful working of democracy depends are regulated by the convention.
Convention flow out of practice, their existence is determined out of usages. They are not formulated. Furthermore, since they have no legal sanctions, the court cannot force the people to obey them. But it is very difficult to draw a line between convention and legislation as these are recognized by an act of parliament. There are three kinds of Convention:
- A convention that ensures proper working between the parliament and the executive. For example, the leadership of the Prime Minister who belongs to the majority party.
- A convention that relates to the legislative procedure and relations between the two houses of parliament – meets every year, consists of two houses. Houses of commons deal with finances.
- A convention that secure harmony between government and legislative action on the one hand and the verdict of the electorate on the other. If a law of controversial nature is made it should get the approval of the electorate.
Judicial Decisions of the Courts
The interpretation of the charters and statutes is done by the courts. When judges decide cases they interpret, define, develop, and limit the provision of the great charters and statutes. While doing so, their judgments act as guidelines that succeeding judges respect. Since many of these judgments relate directly to constitutional matters, the legal principles and judicial precedents of these judgments are important elements in the British Constitution.
Commentaries on the British constitutional law written by eminent persons have also helped in the evolution and clarification of the British Constitution. They have systematized the diverse rules established and the understandable relationship between them and then linked them to some degree of unity by reference to central principles of the constitution. The following are some of the important works of A.V Dicey “Law and the constitution”, Jennings “Cabinet Government”, and Laski “Parliamentary government in England and constitutional law”.
Finally, the exercise of Royal prerogative formed another aspect of constitution practice. The power to declare war, make treaties, pardon criminals, and to dissolve parliament is an important function of royal prerogative. Today, on behalf of the monarch, the ministers perform these functions. From the above discussion, we can find that several sources have contributed to the evolution of the Britain constitution. It has been a constitution drawn from several sources.
Salient Features of the Constitution of the United Kingdom
The Constitution of the United Kingdom is a unique constitution that provides for the continuance of constitutional monarchy within a fully developed liberal democratic system. The salient features of the Constitution of the United Kingdom are:
It is partially unwritten
To a large extent, the constitution is of an unwritten nature. There is no single document that can be said to certain the general principles of political governors. In fact, no attempt has been made to embody these principles in a document from some of the rules and principles that have been reduced to writing and are embodied in the Acts of parliament but a greater part remains unwritten.
A specimen of Development and Continuity
The British COnstitution has grown and developed from age to age. It is the product of evolution and the results of slow and steady development. Britain has all throughout moved along a continuous constitutional path readjusting her institution slowly and cautiously to the changing conditions and needs of the country and its people.
Difference between theory and practices
In the British constitution, there is a great difference in theory and practice. Theoretically, there is a monarchy in Britain. But in actual practices, a liberal democracy with the parliamentary form of government is at work. In theory, all officers of the state, civil and military are appointed and dismissed in her Majesty’s name. They are to remain in the office during the royal pleasure. The Monarch is the source of law and justice. She can summon, dissolve, and prorogue the parliament. Laws are made by parliament are not valid without the Royal assent and if the Monarch so wishes may veto any law passed by parliament.
The Monarch is also the commander-in-Chief of all the British forces. However, in practice, there has been a steady transfer of powers and prerogatives from the Monarch as a person to the Crown as an institution. The Queen has long ceased to be a directing factor in government and she virtually performs no official act on her own initiative. The real power rests with the Queen duly constituted ministers and Her Majesty remains only a symbol of authority. The Ministers of the Monarch are members of parliament and they remain in office as long as parliament wishes.
Sovereignty of Parliament
The British constitution establishes that the British Parliament is a sovereign parliament. It has the power to make law on any subject. Laws passed by parliament cannot be rejected by the Monarch and the courts cannot question their validity. There is no judicial review and no authority can declare that the laws made by parliament are unconstitutional.
A flexible constitution
The power to make and amend the constitutional law is vested in the parliament and no special procedure is required than that for the enactment of an ordinary bill. Furthermore, the ratification of the constitutional amendment is not practiced in Britain. Flexibility has helped the British constitution to keep pace with the changing socio-economic and political environment as well as to acknowledge public opinion.
The British Constitution is in the hands of the central government. The laws made by the British Parliament apply to all the people and places. The local areas, as they exist in Britain derive their powers from the Acts of Parliament which may be enlarged or restricted at its will. Parliament is constitutionally supreme and the local government is merely an agent of the central government. The existence of a unitary form of government is one of the reasons why Britain is able to manage without a written constitution.
The parliamentary form of government has its origin and development first in Britain. It is also popular as West Minister Model. The Queen who is a legal sovereign has been deprived of all her powers and authority. The real functionaries are the ministers who belong to the majority party in parliament. They remain in office as long as they can retain their confidence.
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