A constitution is a set of principles on which the government of a state is organised and which determines the relationship between the government and its people. The English Constitution has made a great circuit of the globe and has become a common possession of civilised man. (G. B Adams)
The British Constitution is unique in nature and has inspired a number of other constitutions around the world. British constitutional system is the oldest democratic system in the modern age. The British were the first to understand how to administer a vast state on democratic principles. British Constitution has so many distinguishing features which can be discussed as follows:
“England has no constitution,” remarked Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), a French political philosopher who came to study the English constitution; when he asked for its copy and could not find one. He then, having the idea of a written constitution like most of the European countries, remarked that England has no constitution. Similarly, Thomas Paine, an English born American philosopher (1737-1809), observed that “where a constitution cannot be produced in visible form, there is none.” Unlike most of the modern states, Britain does not have a constitution at all in the sense that is commonly taken around the world i.e. a document adopted by some sovereign body which sets the pattern of government and its relations with the citizen.
The Britain has a constitution but, unlike rest of the world, it is not contained in one single document rather it exists in abstract sense, comprising conventions, Acts of Parliament, historical documents and judicial decisions. The British Constitution is unwritten in nature but it does not imply that all of its components are unwritten. It means that it has not been reduced to writing in a single document. Some of the components are found in written from. Such as the Act of Settlement of 1701, Reform Act, 1832, the Parliament Act of 1911, Magna Carta (1215), Bill of Rights (1689) and judicial decisions, etc. Therefore, some prefer to describe it ‘uncodified’ rather than ‘unwritten’.
The British constitution is unwritten because of large number of conventions. Conventions are political customs or practices which are observed by those who exercise the sovereign powers in UK. In other words, conventions are those unwritten practices which regulate the business of the government. Conventions work as lubricant in the machinery of ancient state institutions. These are unwritten principles of constitutional practice that are crucial to British politics and government’s functions, but are not enshrined in law or a written form at all.A government is formed and removed on the basis of convention. As Prof. Smith says that the conventions are the principal living source behind the Constitution. For example, the Crown asks the majority leader in the House of Commons to form the government. Similarly, when a government sponsored bill is defeated in the parliament, the government must go home. It is taken as no-confidence in the government. In theory, the Queen has unchallengeable legal authority to refuse her assent to a Bill enacted by both Houses of Parliament. Convention, on the other hand, demands the exact opposite, and she routinely provides her consent to every government bill.
British Constitution is a flexible; parliament can amend it like an ordinary statute i.e. it can be amended by simple majority of parliament. Unlike other constitution, e.g. US, there is no rigid or special procedure to be followed to amend the Constitution in Britain. It is because British Parliament does not recognize differences between Constitutional law and ordinary law. It can amend the laws of constitutional nature, e.g. Succession to the Crown Act like an ordinary law.
British Constitution is evolved; it is not made. British Constitution is a result of an evolutionary growth. Constitution efforts as well as needs of the time shaped its spontaneous growth. It is an example of how things have evolved over time. Unlike the US, Pakistani or any other constitution there was never a constituent assembly that framed British Constitution. Because it is the result of slow growth and evolution, no particular date of its creation can be provided, and no group of people can claim to be its authors. It has had a continuous evolution for over a thousand years. It has a variety of sources, and its evolution has been influenced by both accidents and designs. Many of its rules are accidental, made by conventions, like the office of Prime Minster which came into existence when King George-I, being ignorant of English language, ceased to attend the meetings of his minister in 18th century. He left it to one of the ministers to preside over the meetings. Thus the office of Primus inter parse or first among equals in the cabinet, or Prime Minster came into being.
Some parts of the British Constitution are result of conscious efforts and designs, e.g. Magna Carta, Petition of Rights, Acts of Parliament, etc.
British constitution has contentiously evolved over the period of more than one thousand years. There has never been a complete break up between the present and past. Englishmen never sat to devise a constitutional mechanism to some dazzling concepts. Every constitutional development is the result of and connected to some previous political events. This continuity is seldom to be seen in other constitutions.
In a unitary system, all the governmental powers rests in one government; there is no distribution of powers between a central government and other governments. The legislative and executive authority of the central government extends to the width and length of the country. Although, a local or municipal government may exist but this is not the creation of constitution but of central government.. Although local governments have significant autonomy but unlike the federal system, their powers are not constitutionally protected; the central government decides which matters to devolve to the local level and has the right to disband the local governments if it so desires.
Britain has unitary constitution; all the governmental powers have been vested in the hands of central government i.e. Westminster government. There are no units, provinces or states in Britain, thus no distribution of powers between a central government and any other government.
Although UK has is divided into different regions i.e. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and they have their governments also but they are not autonomous; they are under control of the Westminster. The regional governments have been established by the central government and have been suspended many times. These governments are regulated by and can be abolished through Act of Parliament by Westminster Government. Similarly UK has a number of local governments but they are created, for administrative convenience, by central government and can be abolished by it anytime.
British constitution provides for a standard parliamentary form of government. Parliament is the reservoir of all governmental powers. All the state organs revolve around the British Parliament. Prime Minister and his cabinet are taken from the parliament. They are, individually and collectively, responsible before the parliament. The y can remain in their office till they enjoy the confidence of the lower house of parliament, the House of Commons. In a parliamentary form of government, unlike the presidential, there is a coordination of powers between the executive and legislature. Thus majority of bill in the parliament are introduced by the government. If the government sponsored bill fails to pass in the parliament, the government must go home.
Coordination of powers
A parliamentary form government, like that of Britain, is characterized by coordination of powers unlike the separation of powers in presidential form of government. Legislature and executive coordinate their powers with each other. All the governmental powers belong to the parliament; cabinet exercises the executive powers just as committee of the parliament. However, safeguards have been provided especially under Act of Settlement of 1701 to secure the independence of judiciary from the influence on the part of other two branches on the Government.
The British Parliament consists of two chambers; the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The House of commons is a popular chamber whose member are directly elected by the people while the House of Lords is the second or upper chamber of Parliament. Majority of its members are life peers, some are hereditary while others are representatives of the Church of England.
Normally, bicameral legislature is the requirement of a federation and a unitary form of government does not need it. However, the bicameral legislature is Britain is due to the traditions.
Blended or Mixed political system
British Constitution provides for a blended or mixed system of governance. It is monarchic, aristocratic and democratic at the same time. It is monarchic because Britain is still under monarchy and Crown is head of the state. It is aristocratic in a sense that members of the House of Lords are mainly from feudal, landlords and aristocratic class. But it is democratic also as the House of Common, which wields the real powers, is democratically elected by the people. British Prime Minister and most of the cabinet members are members of this democratically elected house and are also responsible to it. The Crown exercises most of the powers on the advice of Prime Minister and cabinet.
Sovereignty of Parliament
British parliament is sovereign and supreme. It is one of the most powerful legislatures in the world. It has unchecked and unlimited legislative powers. The law made by British parliament cannot be challenged in any court or at any forum in UK on the ground that it is ultra vires or unconstitutional. British parliament does not recognize any limit on its legislative powers. It can pass any kind of law. “British parliament can do everything”, says the De Loeme, “but to make a man a women and a woman a man.” British parliament cannot make biologically a man a woman or vice versa but legally there is no restriction on it to declare a man a woman and a woman a man. If it passes such a law it will be valid because there is no court or forum which can declare it to be invalid.
Difference between Theory and Practice
There is a big difference between the theory and practice of British Constitution. It is not what it seems and what seems in it is not what it is. In the theory Britain is complete monarchy e.g. no bill passed by parliament can become law unless assented to by the Crown. But in practice, the Crown cannot refuse the assent when a bill is passed by the parliament. In fact, it was 1707 when the Crown last time refused the assent. Now a days Royal assent is just a formality. It is said that if Parliament passes the death warrant of the Crown, the Crown cannot refuse the assent; it must must given. Similarly, this is the Crown which chooses a Prime Minister but in practice the Crown has to offer the majority leader in the House of Commons to make the government. The Crown cannot make a choice of its own.
British cabinet is collectively responsible before the parliament, or, to be more precise, before the House of Commons. It means that if a bill introduced in the House of Commons by a cabinet member is defeated, the whole cabinet must leave their offices. It must resign. Therefore, the ministers must stand together to defend a government policy in the House of Commons. Since a government bill introduced in the parliament is discussed and agreed upon by the all cabinet members, therefore, if it is defeated all the cabinet must take the responsibility. It is said that cabinet members are sitting in the same boat; they can swim together or sink together.
Independence Of Judiciary
Necessary safeguards have been provided against all sorts of interference in judicial process. Judges are paid liberal salaries and ensured security of service.
Rule of Law
UK Constitution provides rule of law. The principle of rule of law means that the mechanism or process in which all citizens are equal before law and which prevents the arbitrary use of powers by government. In United Kingdom, rule of law means that all the individuals are subject one legal and judicial system and there are no separate courts for different classes of persons i.e. government officials. It also means that an individual in UK cannot be punished except for a breach of law proven against him in an open trail in ordinary courts.
As discussed above the major portion of the British Constitution is unwritten; there is no single document that can be called as British Constitution. Therefore, there has been no list in written form that could provide for the fundamental rights of British people. The fundamental rights Englishmen enjoy today is the result of judicial decisions based on common law and some historical documents such Magna Carta (1215) which guaranteed no tax without the consent of Parliament, freedom of movement, etc and Petition of Rights (1628), and the Bill of Rights (1689), which enshrined representative democracy, freedom of speech in parliament and no cruel or unusual punishment, etc.
The English Constitution, according to Dicey, was drafted by judges. The majority of the rights that the British people have today are the result of legal battles. In England, judicial decisions have established the right to personal liberty, the right to public assembly, the right to freedom of speech, and so on.
However, British Parliament passed Human Rights Act in 1998 which incorporated ECHR provisions into the domestic law of Britain. Thus an individual in UK can bring application in the national courts against government action which violates his or her human rights.
It can be stated, to conclude, that British Constitution has features which can be rarely seen in other constitutions. Due to its evolving nature it has been workable for UK for hundreds of years. It is like an old beautiful mansion which has been modified by every generation according to their needs but is not abolished or completely changed or replaced because it very dear to them.
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World Constitution: A Comparative Study b Vishnoo Bhagwaan and Vidya Bhushan
Is There a United Kingdom Constitution by Eric Barendt