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What is the British Constitution?

Unlike almost every country in the world there is no written document that can be pointed to as the British Constitution. If it is unwritten then it is open to challenges such as; does it really exist? How do you know it has changed? And how is it protected? However it is also argued that not having a document called the British Constitution means flexibility as Great Britain changes.

The unwritten, also know as ‘uncodified, Constitution has three main parts to it:

1. Common Law

This is law created by judges.  From the 13th century English Kings and Queens sent out their own judges to decide cases and, in doing so, they gradually developed laws across the country, replacing the local variations that existed before.  Within this they created some rights for individuals such as protecting their property and also laws connected with how the country should behave towards its people. Common law also contains something called The Royal Prerogative. From the time of the Tudors this included the right to call Parliament and to declare war but as the monarchy declined and Parliament became more powerful these powers in practice transferred to the elected Prime Minister (the executive).

Examples of this today are:

• Parliament does not have to agree to the declaration of war or the signing of treaties.

• The Monarch always had the power to open the mail in the interests of national security.

2. Statute Law

The Constitution is mainly found in Acts passed by Parliament since Britain became a Constitutional Monarchy in 1688 and these have replaced most areas of common law. These Acts, although not directly known as ‘Constitution Acts’, have been passed by the House of Commons, which is made up of elected people.

Important changes have been

• The Bill of Rights, 1689
• Extension of who could vote and opportunities for voting including local elections
• Protections for individuals including secret voting
• Lifting restrictions placed against primarily the Catholic religion
• Transferring power from the unelected House of Lords into the elected House of Commons
• Closer economic, political and legal links with the European Union including European Law being above British law

3. Constitutional Conventions

These are rules that are widely accepted, including by politicians, as the way things should work. This means that a definition is difficult, they can not be enforced in the courts and are in some ways down to the feelings and personality of the people involved.

Although not always clear cut common examples of this are:

• The Queen always signs an Act of Parliament that has been passed to her after being passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
• Government Ministers have to support the Government in any votes in the House of Commons and, if they do not, they must resign.
• If a Prime Minister loses a general election he or she resigns.

Recent Constitutional changes

There has been a surge in constitutional change since 1997. These have included the devolving of powers in Great Britain – Scotland, London, Wales, Northern Ireland and locally such as elected Mayors  - The Human Rights Act 1998, subject to much controversy, which lays out a set of rights that are applied by the courts, the removal of almost all hereditary peers from the House of Lords (those people who are there by birth right rather than appointed), independence of the Bank of England (1997) which means the Government does not set interest rates and the Freedom of Information Act (2000) which in the majority of cases gives people the right to access information held by public bodies.

Interested in more? You can find out lots more and explore these areas further in our University section….