British Studies Web Pages



Constitution and System of Government

The following extracts have been taken from The United Kingdom: 100 questions answered, pp 68-74, published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, Jan 2003

Why doesn’t Britain have a written constitution?

What was the Magna Carta?

How does Britain elect its Parliament?

How are Britain's regions governed?

What are the origins of the names of the main political parties?

Why is the Speaker so called?

What is a 'whip' in Parliament?


Why doesn’t Britain have a written constitution?


The British constitution has evolved over many centuries. Unlike the constitutions of the United States, France and many Commonwealth countries, the British constitution has not been assembled at any time into a single, consolidated document. Instead it is made up of common law, statute law and convention.


Of all the democratic countries in the world, only Israel is comparable to Britain in having no single document codifying the way its political institutions function and setting out the basic rights and duties of its citizens. Britain does, however, have certain important constitutional documents, including the Magna Carta (1215) which protects the rights of the community against the Crown; the Bill of Rights (1689) which extended the powers of Parliament, making it impracticable for the Sovereign to ignore the wishes of the Government; and the Reform Act (1832), which reformed the system of parliamentary representation.


Common law has never been precisely defined. It is deduced from custom, or legal precedents, and interpreted in court cases by judges. Conventions are rules and practices which are not legally enforceable, but which are regarded as indispensable to the working of government. Many conventions are derived from the historical events through which the British system of government has evolved. One convention is that Ministers are responsible and can be held to account for what happens in their Departments. The constitution can be altered by Act of Parliament, or by general agreement to alter a convention.


The flexibility of the British constitution helps to explain why it has developed so fully over the years. However, since Britain joined the European Community in 1973, the rulings of the European Court of Justice have increasingly determined and codified sections of British law in those areas covered by the various treaties to which Britain is a party. In the process British constitutional and legal arrangements are beginning to resemble those of Europe.


What was the Magna Carta?


The Magna Carta (Latin for 'Great Charter') is Britain's best-known constitutional document. In 1215 feudal barons forced the 'tyrannical' King John (1199-1216) to agree to a series of concessions embodied in a charter which became known as the Magna Carta. 61 clauses set out a clear expression of the rights of the community against the Crown. The contents deal with the 'free' Church; feudal law; towns, trade and merchants; the reform of the law and justice; the behaviour of royal officials; and royal forests.


The King was forced to fix his seal to the Magna Carta in a meadow next to the River Thames at Runnymede between Windsor and Staines. It is said that he behaved pleasantly to the nobles at the time, but as soon as he returned to his own chamber he threw himself on the floor in a mad rage. Since that day the Magna Carta has become part of English Law and established the important principle that the King is not above the law. Original copies of the charter exist in Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Castle and the British Museum in London.


Since that day the Magna Carta has become part of English Law and established the important principle that the King is not above the law. Original copies of the charter exist in Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Castle and the British Museum in London.


How does Britain elect its Parliament?


Parliament, the law-making body of the British people, consists of three elements: the Monarchy, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They meet together only on occasions of ceremonial significance, such as the state opening of Parliament, although the agreement of all three is normally required for legislation.


The House of Commons consists of 659 elected members called Members of Parliament or MPs. Election to the House of Commons is an important part of Britain's democratic system. The main purpose of the House of Commons is to make laws by passing Acts of Parliament, as well as to discuss current political issues. Some of the liveliest sessions in the Commons debating chamber take place at Prime Minister's Question time when MPs have the opportunity to quiz the Prime Minister on burning issues of the day.


The House of Lords currently consists of 688 non-elected members (hereditary peers and peeresses, life peers and peeresses and two archbishops and 24 senior bishops of the Church of England). Its main legislative function is to examine and revise bills from the Commons, but the Lords cannot normally prevent proposed legislation from become law if the Commons insists on it. It also acts in a legal capacity as the final court of appeal. In recent years the House of Lords has undergone a process of reform to make it more democratic and representative. As a first step, the rights of some 750 hereditary peers to sit and vote in Parliament solely on the basis that they inherited their seats were removed. The remaining 92 Hereditary peers are allowed to sit temporarily in the transitional chamber until the full reform programme is in place. The next phase of the House of Lords reform would remove the remaining hereditary peers and create a partly-elected upper house.


General elections are held after Parliament has been 'dissolved', either by a royal proclamation or because the maximum term between elections - five years - has expired. The decision on when to hold a general election is made by the Prime Minister.


For electoral purposes Britain is divided into constituencies, each of which returns one MP to the House of Commons. MPs are elected by the relative majority method - sometimes called the 'first past the post' principle - which means the candidate with more votes than any other is elected.


In elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the European Parliament in 1999, forms of proportional representation (PR) were used for the first time in Great Britain. PR was also used in the 1998 elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Northern Ireland has used a version of PR in European Parliament elections since 1979.


All British citizens together with citizens of other Commonwealth countries and citizens of the Irish Republic resident in Britain may vote, provided they are aged 18 years or over and not legally barred from voting. People not entitled to vote include those serving prison sentences, peers and peeresses who are members of the House of Lords, and those kept in hospital under mental health legislation.


Voting is by secret ballot. At a general election the elector selects Just one candidate on the ballot paper and marks an 'X' by the candidate's name. Voting in elections is voluntary. In the June 2001 general election 59.4 per cent of the electorate voted, compared with 72 per cent in 1997.


Any person aged 21 or over who is a British citizen or citizen of another Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic may stand for election to Parliament, provided they are not disqualified. People disqualified include those who are bankrupt, those sentenced to more than one year's imprisonment, members of the clergy, members of the House of Lords, and a range of public servants and officials. Approved candidates are usually selected by their political party organisations in the constituency which they represent, although candidates do not have to have party backing.


The leader of the political party which wins most seats (although not necessarily most votes) at a general election, or who has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons, is by convention invited by the Sovereign to form the new government.


How are Britain's regions governed?


The people of Scotland and Wales now have greater control over their own affairs thanks to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and a Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. Elections to both these new institutions were held in May 1999.


The Scottish Parliament has 129 members - 73 directly elected on a constituency basis and 56 elected by proportional representation, the parliament will run for a four-year fixed term and is responsible for functions which were the responsibility of Scottish Office Ministers. It is able to make laws on a whole range of matters, including health and education, and to raise or lower the rate of income tax by three pence in the pound. Scotland continues to elect MPs to Westminster.


The Welsh Assembly has 60 members, directly elected every four years. It is responsible for functions previously carried out by the Welsh Office. It is able to amend laws passed at Westminster which affect devolved areas.


One of the new institutions created following the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 was an Assembly of 108 members with a similar range of legislative and executive powers to the Scottish Parliament, The Northern Ireland Executive comprises of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and 10 Ministers, allocated in proportion to party strengths represented in the Assembly.


There are Committees for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Executive. The membership and chair of each Committee is again allocated in proportion to party strengths. These Committees have scrutiny, policy development and consultative functions. Elections were held in June 1998, a First Minister and Deputy First Minister were elected and agreement reached on most of the detail of institutions dealing with relationships between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.


The Executive and the institutions were first set up on 2 December 1999 but were suspended when direct rule was reintroduced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 11 February 2000. The Executive and institutions were re-established following negotiations between all the parties on 29 May 2000. Devolution was suspended on two further occasions, on 10 August and 21 September 2001 for 2-4 hours on each occasion. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14 October 2002 and Northern Ireland has been returned to direct rule.


The Government has established a new London-wide authority for the capital, This consists of a directly elected Mayor who is able to influence policy on transport, economic development, strategic planning, the environment and culture, and a separately elected Assembly of 25 members with powers to question the Mayor on his or her activities and to investigate issues on behalf of Londoners. The first elections for the new Greater London Authority took place on 4 May 2000.


What are the origins of the names of the main political parties?


The Conservative arid Unionist Party dates back to the Tory Party of the late eighteenth century. This broadly represented the interests of the country gentry, merchant classes and official administerial groups. After Britain's 1832 electoral) Reform Act, members of the old Tory Party began forming conservative associations'. The name Conservative was first used as a description of the Party in the Quarterly Review of January 1830, because the Party aimed to conserve traditional values and practices. The Conservative Party today is the leading right-wing party. The term 'Tory' is still used today to refer to some­body with conservative political views.


The original title of the Labour Party, the Labour Representation Committee, makes the origins of the party clear - to promote the interests of the industrial working class. In 1900 the Trades Union Congress co-operated with the Independent Labour Party (founded 1893) to establish The Labour Representation Committee with Ramsay MacDonald as First Secretary This took the name Labour Party in 1906.


The Liberal Party emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a successor to the historic Whig party. 'Whig' was originally a Scottish Gaelic term applied to horse thieves'. In the late eighteenth century the Whig Party represented those who sought electoral, parliamentary and philanthropic reforms. However, the term 'Whig' does not survive today. After 1832 the mainly aristocratic Whigs were joined by increasing numbers of middle-class members. By 1839 the term Liberal Party was being used, and the first unequivocally Liberal government was formed in 1868 by William Gladstone.


In 1988 the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) merged into a single party called the Liberal Democrats.


Why is the Speaker so called?


Contrary to what the title would imply, the Speaker of the House of Commons does not speak - that is, he or she does not make speeches or take part in debates. The office has been held continuously since 1377 and originally the Speaker spoke on behalf of the Commons to the Monarch, hence the name. The role is now largely ceremonial and today the Speaker's central function is to act as chairperson of the House, maintaining order in a debate. He or she may not vote other than in an official capacity - that is when the result of a vote is a tie. Even then, he or she is not allowed to express an opinion on the merits of the question under debate and must vote in such a way as to give the House another chance to decide.


The Speaker has three deputies - the Chairman of Ways and Means and two other Deputy Chairmen. Like the Speaker, they can neither speak nor vote other than in their official capacity. The Speaker is not a Minister nor a member of any political party, but he or she is still a Member of Parliament, representing a constituency.


The choice of Speaker is by election, with Members of Parliament each having one vote.


“May it please Your Majesty, l have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here, and I humbly beg Your Majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me"


Speaker Lenthall’s reply to King Charles I when on 4 January 1642 he entered the Commons chamber to arrest five MPs for treason. Speaker Lenthall thus established the principle that he was the servant of the Commons and not the king.


What is a 'whip' in Parliament?


The term 'whip' is said to owe its origin to the 'whippers in' - people who keep the hounds in order at foxhunting meets. Parliamentary whips are supposed to be similar disciplinarians, controlling the pack of MPs in their party!


Government whips are all Ministers of the Crown. The principal task of the Chief Whip is the management of government business in the House. He or she must try to ensure that, in spite of the activities of the opposition, Parliament has passed all the legislation and done all the tasks which it had planned during that session.


Whips in the two main parties are organised by subject and by region. They monitor opinions inside their party and report back to the leadership, maintaining valuable day-to-day contact between ministers and their backbench supporters.


'The Whip also refers to a document sent out weekly to MPs detailing the forthcoming business of the House. Items are underlined once, twice or three times to indicate their importance to the party leadership. When a 'three-line' whip is issued, the leadership is letting MPs know that it expects them to turn up and vote on the matter under discussion!


Your attendance is requested - one-line whip - your attendance is necessary - two-line whip - your attendance is essential - three-line whip.

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