The United Kingdom Constitution

A Written or Unwritten Constitution?

The United Kingdom is often said to be a country without a written constitution.  This is not strictly true.  Although there is no single codifying document, such as the United States or France have, more than half of the British constitution is written down, mainly in statutes and case law.  Other aspects of the constitution are found in non-binding conventions, parliamentary rules, and the royal prerogative.  These various sources make it difficult to pinpoint specifics of the constitution, but on the other hand allow for the constitution to be easily amended, giving it a flexible nature.  Traditionally, the UK constitution is said to be founded on two principles:  the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy and the rule of law.

Parliamentary Supremacy

Parliament is the supreme law-making body.  This means that it has complete sovereignty to make or unmake any law that it wishes to.  This contrasts with other jurisdictions, such as the United States, whose laws may often be challenged as being unconstitutional.  Consequently, Parliament is not bound or subject to any other government or state authority, including the courts.  This position has now changed, however, following the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Union in 1972, and EU law now takes precedence over that of the UK where there is a conflict between the two. 

The Rule of Law

Although the concept of the rule of law differs from one jurisdiction to the next, it basically means that the law is above every citizen and is applied to every citizen equally.  Although no precise definition of ‘the rule of law’ exists, certain elements are seen as essential, such as that laws should be published, or that the judiciary should be independent.  Of particular importance in the concept of the rule of law is that the government itself should be restrained in its governance and government officials held accountable for their actions.  Of course, dictatorships or military juntas may look upon the rule of law in a different light.    

Constitutional Monarchy and the Royal Prerogative

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, meaning that it has a monarch as head of state.  Nowadays, the monarch’s role is largely ceremonial and reserved to duties such as the State Opening of Parliament.  The day-today running of the country is left to the prime minister and the heads of the various ministries of state.  Nevertheless, the monarch does retain some powers, known as the royal prerogative, which are generally exercised upon the advice of the prime minister or other ministers.  One of the most important of these is the power to appoint or dismiss prime ministers.  The last time this particular power was used was in 1974 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II appointed Harold Wilson as prime minister even though he did not command a majority in the House of Commons.  The appointment was made upon advice from the Privy Council.  Other powers under the royal prerogative include the power to make war and peace, the power to issue passports, and the power to appoint bishops and archbishops of the Church of England.

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For more information on:

  • Sources of Constitutional Law
  • Devolution