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University 18 Yrs + | Constitutional Change

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More on Statute Law

Although England had become a Constitutional Monarchy the level of democracy was limited.

Only a small number of men could vote, elections were corrupt and politics was largely controlled by aristocratic landowners.

However, Britain’s aristocracy, especially those of the Whig Party, was more open to new people and ideas than Continental aristocracies and British democracy slowly evolved without the revolutions that other European countries saw and which led them to adopt written constitutions.

Parliament passed legislation of constitutional significance as the framework of a modern state:-

  • The Habeas Corpus Act, 1679 guaranteed that a person would not be held indefinitely without trial
  • Gradual extension of voting to all men and women over 30 with the Acts of 1832, 1867, 1885 and 1918 and the reform of constituency boundaries. Secret voting was introduced in 1872
  • Local Government in the towns was reformed by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 and democratic County Councils in rural areas created in 1888.
  • Restrictions against non-Anglican Nonconformists and Catholics were gradually removed in the late 18th and 19th centuries
  • The Judicature Act 1873 reformed the chaotic legal system and the panel of judges that would be the final deciders of cases became members of the House of Lords
  • The Parliament Act 1911 removed the House of Lords absolute veto over legislation
  • The constitution developed within the context of a unitary state with Act of Unions of 1707 and 1801 abolishing the separate Scottish and Irish Parliaments that had previously existed.
  • From 1918 there was limited constitutional change as the two party system developed and the two ruling parties showed limited interest in reform.

Changes 1918-97

  • Women were given the vote from the same age as men in 1928
    The Leader of the Opposition was paid a Government salary similar to ministers from 1937
  • The Labour Government passed the Parliament Act 1949 to limit the Lords veto to one session of Parliament and in the Salisbury Convention the Lords agreed not to defeat legislation proposed in the Government’s manifesto
  • Life Peers were introduced in 1958 and this brought new expertise and ability to the Lords
  • Tony Benn ran a successful campaign to allow Lords to renounce their peerage so that they could stand for the Commons and legislation was passed in 1963
  • 18-20 year olds gained the vote in 1970
  • Local Government was reorganised in London in 1965 and the rest of the country in 1974 to create larger local authorities. The metropolitan authorities were abolished in 1986 and many of the counties in the early 1990s.

Entry into the European Union

The really major change was the entry of Britain into the European Union in 1972.

The European Communities Act, 1972 introduces the supremacy of European law over British Law and this was confirmed by the Factortame cases of 1990 and 1991.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1988 made it illegal for Spanish ships to register as British ships to try to evade fishing quota restrictions and an affected firm challenged the legislation as contrary to Community law.

After consulting the European Court, the House of Lords ruled against British law. Although, Parliament could repeal the 1972 Act or pass a law in direct breach of Community law which British Courts would then uphold, from a practical point of view Parliamentary Supremacy has been limited.

Parliament was able to give a view on draft European legislation but there is so much of it that only a small amount is actually scrutinised. All of this will of course change when the UK exits the European Union.