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The Changing British Political System: The British Constitution

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1 The Changing British Political System: The British Constitution

2 Constitutions Constitution: set out relationship between
State and individuals Different institutions of the state Constitutions define distribution of power within state and between state & citizens Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy (1999) – 3 dimensions of constitutions: Written vs unwritten Flexible vs rigid Judicial review vs no judicial review

3 British Constitution – Features
Uncodified (‘unwritten’) Not written down in one place – scattered across statute book, conventions, etc. Flexible No special provisions for changing constitution Can change with times – but also susceptible to abuse? No judicial review Courts could not over-ride parliament (but EU law) Human Rights Act 1998 – judicial activism?

4 Dicey’s ‘Twin Pillars’ of the Constitution
Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty Equality before the law Instead of a ‘constitution’, Britain has the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty ‘The principle of parliamentary sovereignty means nothing more nor less than this, namely, that Parliament … has, under the English constitution, the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.’ A.V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885)

5 Parliamentary Sovereignty
Parliament has a monopoly of legitimate law-making power Historically no US-style judicial review by courts ‘If we [in Britain] have a constitution at all, it is a one-sentence constitution stating that Parliament can make or repeal any law whatsoever.’ (F. F. Ridley, 1988) Gladstone: ‘[The British Constitution] presumes more boldly than any other the good sense and the good faith of those who work it’

6 Sources of the Constitution (1)
Statute law Parliament Act 1911, European Communities Act 1972, Scotland Act 1998 Common law (judge-made law) Judicial decisions and Royal Prerogatives Freedom of speech Power to make treaties Doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty Works of authority Recognised guidance on constitution A.V. Dicey, An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885) Hansard, Erskine May

7 Sources of the Constitution (2)
Conventions Unwritten but accepted rules of behaviour Monarch assents to legislation Monarch appoints dominant party’s leader as PM All ministers drawn from Commons or Lords Collective cabinet responsibility Salisbury convention – ended with Lords reform Conventions common to all political systems, e.g. no mention of electoral college in US Constitution How are conventions enforced?

8 Sources of the Constitution (3)
EU law Major modification of parliamentary sovereignty EU law can over-ride UK law in order to make single market work Factortame court case (1990) ECJ ruled that national courts could dis-apply UK laws that violated European law ’Nuclear option’: UK can leave EU, thus reasserting primacy of UK law  parliamentary sovereignty intact?

9 Constitutional Doctrine (1)
The Unitary State Power enjoyed by sub-national govt can be revoked by Westminster Devolution has politically (but not legally) changed situation The Crown and Parliament Executive exercises powers once held by Monarch Prerogative powers Appointing ministers Dissolving parliament Appointing civil servants Declaring war Appointing officers in the armed forces Making treaties

10 Constitutional Doctrine (2)
Doctrine of Responsible Government Govt responsible to parliament – resign if it loses vote of confidence Individual ministers responsible to parliament Govt responsible to electorate – seeks mandate in a general election Collective Responsibility Ministers must defend Govt decisions or resign Related to: if Govt defeated in parliament in no-confidence vote, it must collectively resign Collective responsibility occasionally waived, e.g. EEC referendum in 1975

11 Constitutional Doctrine (3)
Individual Ministerial Responsibility Ministers responsible for actions of their Depts Expected to resign if serious problems Expected to resign if they lie to parliament Weakening of the Doctrine Rapid turnover of ministers Ministries too big for one person to be held responsible Blurred lines of accountability – esp. autonomous agencies Distinction between policy responsibilities (minister) and operational responsibilities (agency)

12 Constitutional Doctrine (4)
Mandate Theory of Government Govt claims right to implement policies supported in manifesto by voters in general election Assumption: voters choose Govts in general elections (2-party system) To what extent can Lords or courts legitimately frustrate decisions of elected Govt? Conclusion UK constitution/political system – ideal-type ‘Westminster model’ Parliamentary sovereignty No judicial review Flexible constitution Unitary state But numerous changes to constitution and political system since 1997 – explored throughout this course

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