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Constitutional Conventions

The third part of the Constitution is Constitutional Conventions which are held to be rules that are widely accepted, including by politicians themselves, as the way things should work.

Key examples show how important they 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. The last Monarch to refuse to sign was Queen Anne, although some in George V’s circle were urging him to vote against Irish Home Rule in 1914.
• Cabinet Collective Responsibility.  Government Ministers have to support the Government in any votes in the House of Commons and, if they do not, they must resign. This applies even to junior ministers who are not members of the Cabinet.  Ministers also must support Government policy in public. Gladstone had to several times explain the failure of junior ministers to vote with the Government but by the 20th century the convention was accepted.
• If a Prime Minister loses a general election he or she resigns.  Gladstone and Disraeli began to do this as a matter of course as the policy and ideological divisions between the Conservative and Liberal parties became sharper from the 1860s.
• The Cabinet is the main decision making body in Government. This developed in the reign of George I as he didn’t speak English and so relied on a group of ministers to run affairs
• If the Government loses a confidence motion in the House of Commons it resigns. This convention was in place even by the late 18th century.
• The Salisbury Convention.  The House of Lords will not reject or unduly delay Government legislation that was part of its manifesto. This was agreed between the Conservative and Labour leaders in the House after Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945.
•  Ministerial Responsibility to Parliament.  Ministers have to be members of the House of Commons or House of Lords and answer for any decision that has taken place within their area of responsibility. The convention had developed by the early 19th century.

Is it as clear as it seems?

When looked at in detail though the constitutional convention often looks less clear:-

–  The Queen does not reject legislation but both she and Prince Charles, are privately asked by the Government to give their consent to legislation, in relation to their private interests; for example, in 2008 the Queen was asked for views on the Apprenticeship Bill as an employer.
– A Prime Minister resigns if he loses a general election, but Gordon Brown lost the election and carried on until coalition discussions were included, even suggesting at one point that he would carry on as interim Prime Minister until the Labour Party had had time to elect a leader more acceptable to the Liberal Democrats.
– The Salisbury Convention is designed to prevent the House of Lords from frustrating the will of the people.  But after Labour had won the 2005 election with the support of only 22% of the public, given the low poll and vote of minor parties, Liberal Democrat peers questioned whether the Government represented the will of the people.
– Ministers answer to Parliament for decisions taken by their Ministries but are they also responsible to Parliament for decisions of the Agencies, such as the Highways and Prisons Agency that have separate Chief Executives but for which Ministers set the overall goals?

Producing a definition of constitutional conventions is difficult.  The interwar constitutional expert, Sir Ivor Jennings had argued that they arise from precedents and most of the examples above developed gradually, but the Salisbury Convention was a quite specific agreement.  He also said that politicians have to see them as relevant and binding so they have to be universally agreed.  Finally he said that there has to be a good reason and we can see, for example, that if the Queen started to take personal decisions on Bills passed by Parliament then democracy in Britain would break down.

Geoffrey Marshall (in the journal Parliamentary Affairs Volume 38 No 1 1985) provides the clearest definition:- “Rules of behaviour that ought to be regarded as binding by those concerned in working the Constitution when they have correctly interpreted the precedents and relevant constitutional principles”

The definition shows that a lot depends on politicians understanding and abiding by the conventions.  They are not law and so cannot be enforced by the courts. The two examples below show that circumstances occur when they are broken, though this may lead to political conflict:-

Example: The 1909 Budget

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, David  Lloyd George, wanted to raise money in the 1909 Budget to pay for old age pensions, which had just been introduced and were very popular, and for more battleships to keep up with Germany.

Backed by a large Liberal majority in the House of Commons he decided to tax land and pub licences as landowners and the drinks trade both gave strong support to the Conservatives.

The Prime Minister, Asquith, knew that the Lords, even with its huge Conservative majority, could not reject the Budget because there was had been a constitutional convention for 200 years that the Lords would not interfere with financial legislation passed by the Commons, but they did reject the 1909 Budget.

This created a constitutional crisis leading the Liberal Government to introduce a Parliament Bill which would turn the convention into statute law.  After two general elections, insisted on by the King, the Lords backed down and passed the Bill.

Example: The Westland Affair

In 1985 the helicopter firm Westland was in financial difficulty and the two possibilities of keeping helicopter manufacturing in Britain were a buyout by an American firm, favoured by Mrs Thatcher and her Trade and Industry Secretary, Leon Brittan, or a European consortium, favoured by her Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine.

At the Cabinet on 9th. December, although Westland favoured the American bid, it was agreed that Brittan and Heseltine should discuss the European option. No meeting had taken place and Westland announced publicly it wanted the American option.

Knowing that the constitutional convention was that Cabinet takes the final decision on controversial issues, Heseltine asked for a further Cabinet meeting.  Thatcher refused and also refused at the next Cabinet meeting of 12th December to discuss the issue further because they had no formal papers before them.

At the Cabinet of 9th January the issue was discussed again and Heseltine asked that he be able to publicly reaffirm the views he had on the topic. Mrs Thatcher said that because of cabinet collective responsibility any statements had to be cleared through her.  Heseltine said there had been no collective responsibility as his views had been ignored, stormed out of the meeting and resigned.

He was later to challenge Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party.