Discover The Facts

Discover the Facts


This page introduces the most important constitutional topics. There are links to topic-specific pages which provide comprehensive non-partisan factual information. Theses have been compiled by the site editor and are updated periodically. They cannot be re-edited by site users.  Last updated September 2010.

If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

 


  • Unlike many other countries, Britain does not have a single 'codifying' document, collecting together the fundamental laws of the nation.  This leads some people to think that Britain does not have a constitution at all. We may not have a single document which is called 'the constitution' but we do have a constitution - one which has been modified, refined and honed over 800 years.  Discover more about the many component parts which together can be said to form the British constitution.

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  • Parliament, which is also known as the Legislature, consists of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown in Parliament. Parliament is the main source of political authority in the United Kingdom, but it is the House of Commons which has the dominant political power, because, unlike the House of Lords, members of the House of Commons (known as Members of Parliament or MPs) are elected, and it is the political party which has a majority of MPs which forms the Government. How much do you know about the customs, procedures, rules and laws that dictate how the House of Commons works? Find out more here.

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  • The House of Lords is the upper house or the second chamber of Parliament. The Lords are not elected, but are either appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister or are bishops in the Church of England, or are hereditary peers, meaning that they have inherited the right to sit as Lords. All Lords are peers for their lifetime. There have been many recent reforms of the House of Lords and still more are proposed. Find out more about how the House of Lords works, and what further reforms of the House could mean for the British constitution.

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  • The Monarch - sometimes called the Sovereign - is the United Kingdom's non-executive head of state.  Unlike the President of the United States (who is an executive head of state), the Queen does not govern the country.  Most of the powers which the Monarch had in earlier centuries are now exercised by the Government.   Yet the Queen continues to provide an important focal point for Britain and for other nations.  She is also head of state for a number of other countries.  In this section you can find out more about the role of our Monarch in the British constitution today.

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  • The British Government, headed by the Prime Minister and supported by the Cabinet, has a large number of broad, undefined, mostly unregulated powers; in practice there is no easy mechanism to challenge powers or hold the Government to account for their exercise.  The Government is scrutinised by Parliament in the House of Commons and House of Lords, but the effectiveness of that scrutiny can vary according to the size of the Government's majority in the House of Commons.   The internal procedures of government have changed significantly in recent years.

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  • The civil service is the British state's bureaucracy. In constitutional theory civil servants are 'servants of the Crown'.  The civil service has no 'constitutional personality' or separate responsibility from the Government.  Civil servants are thought to be characterised by the principles of neutrality, anonymity and permanence.  However, at the beginning of the 21st century, the administration of the state is carried out through Government departments, executive agencies, and quangos.  Most civil servants now work in executive agencies; organisations charged with 'delivering services' to the public, and which fall under the management of a Chief Executive. These executive agencies are sponsored by Government departments, which in conjunction with the departmental Minister, set the objectives of the agency.  With the growth of the use of external agencies, questions have arisen about accountability and Ministerial responsibility.

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  • The judiciary is traditionally thought of as the 'third branch' of government, along with the executive and legislature.  The term 'judiciary' means the Courts and the Judges who preside over them. Judicial independence is a fundamental principle of our representative democracy.  Who appoints judges?  How far can the courts go in determining what is law? Find out more here.

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  • Elections are the key means by which the public holds government and parliament accountable.  An electoral system is a set of rules for translating the public's votes into seats in the legislature.  Political parties attempt to persuade voters of their ability to govern Britain with policies and principles set out in their respective election manifestos. Many areas of Britain have up to four tiers of government and we use a variety of different electoral systems.  Why do we use so many different systems?   How do they work? Get more information on electoral processes here.

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  • Political parties are the 'unspoken secret' of the British constitution.  They are the key means through which people engage in the political process; they are the key source of candidates for elections; they make up the Government and organise MPs' votes in the House of Commons; they make up the opposition, who criticise and scrutinise the work of the Government; they are the key source of policies about how to run government.  They are the key link between governments and the governed.  Yet they are subject to relatively little regulation.  Find out more here.

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  • Since 1998, many powers and functions formerly held by the UK Parliament, have been transferred to sub national bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Under the British constitution, the UK central government ultimately remains supreme: in theory, Westminster could take back the power it delegated.  But is devolution, as some fear, the first step to the break up of the Union?  The devolutionary settlements in the UK are not equal: the settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all differ from each other.  England is the only UK nation without a devolved legislature.  Find out more about what devolution means for the British constitution here.

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  • Although it is the tier of government closest to the people, local government is poorly supported, with turnout at local elections at only 30-40%.  This may be because, as one recent report found, local government in Britain lacks constitutional protection and financial autonomy, and suffers from too much central government intervention - it has become entirely subordinate to central government.  Nevertheless, local government remains the tier of government best placed to understand and respond to the needs of the people.

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  • It is generally accepted that adherence to the Rule of Law is fundamental to and is one of the defining features of a civilised society.  The “Rule of Law” is an ancient principle and has been subject to many interpretations over the centuries.  It is a concept found in many countries and is not unique to the United Kingdom.  However, although it is a phrase universally used, it is not comprehensively defined in any jurisdiction, although it is commonly understood to mean that every member of a society is bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws which are publicly made and publicly administered and which do not have retrospective effect.

    So, all are subject to and equal under the law, even rulers and governments.  In essence it can be said that the rationale of the Rule of Law is to provide a safeguard against arbitrary governance whether by totalitarian leaders, elected governments or mob rule.

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  • Citizens of the United Kingdom are politically involved in ‘Europe’ in a number of ways; for example, they vote for Members of the European Parliament to represent them, regulations emanating from the European Commission directly impact everyone's daily life, all UK citizens are entitled to recourse to the European Court of Human Rights and we have taken for granted the right to free movement throughout the European Union under the Schlengen regime.  Yet the views of many, both for and against 'Europe' tend to be founded on only a sketchy knowledge of the structures operating in Europe and are liberally tainted with national and transnational prejudices and preferences. 

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  • Unlike many other western democracies, Britain does not have a written constitution, but instead has a mixture of institutions, statutes, conventions, customs, judicial decisions and treaties which together make up our constitution.  Some feel that the UK ought to have a written constitution to bring us into line with other nations.  Others think that there is no need to change a system which has functioned more or less satisfactorily for hundreds of years.  In this section we examine what the creation of a written constitution would mean.

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