1a) Outline the main principles of the Constitution
There are several principles to the constitution, the first being Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s Constitution, and where before the monarch would have been sovereign, now a democratically elected body has this role. Parliament has absolute power in the country, and there is no higher authority. It is not bound by its predecessor, nor can one Parliament bind a successor. Although it has become weakened by the dominance of the executive, developments with the EU, devolution and referenda, it still remains a fundamental part of the UK Constitution.
Another important principle is Conventions. These are basic practices and traditions considered binding on those to whom they apply, even though this is not legally the case. There are several main constitutional conventions: the first is parliamentary supremacy and sovereignty, whereby Parliament is not subordinate to any institution. Collective Cabinet Responsibility and Individual Ministerial responsibility are also key Conventions, which means that ministers are held accountable for their actions, for example where Lord Carrington the Foreign Secretary apologised to the Foreign Office for invading the Falklands. As well as this, the Monarch’s Royal Assent to legislation passed by Parliament and the maintenance of conventions by the House of Lords are important examples of Constitutional Conventions.
The Royal Prerogative is the principle whereby the Prime Minister has the monarch’s assent to do take several key actions. This means he or she can declare war, make treaties, cede or take possession of territories, issue orders to the armed forces and control the civil service. In addition to this, he has the power to make appointments, such as QUANGOS (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations), House of Lords, Archbishop of Cantebury etc, as well as dissolving Parliament for an election. Since Parliamentary authority is not required for the exercise of these powers, they provide the executive with a means of by-passing the legislature.
Penultimately, the Rule of Law is another key principle within the UK’s constitution. AV Dicey a leading 19th Century Constitutional expert saw that the Rule of Law had several elements. For a start, nobody can be punished unless convicted by a court, and courts must be independent and open in its proceedings. For this reason, secret trials cause a problem. The law applies equally to everyone, as David Blunkett found out with the Asylum Seekers case, Princess Anne, whose dogs breached the dangerous dogs act, and the Solicitor General Harriet Harman who was prosecuted for speeding. The general principles of the constitution arise out of decisions made by the judiciary, and the rule of law therefore acts as an important “check and balance”, to parliamentary sovereignty. Indeed the growing frequency of judicial review is evidence that the courts will uphold the rule of law when they believe that the activities of the state have infringed the rights of individuals.
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Finally, the unitary state is the last main standard of the Constitution. This is where formal power resides exclusively in the national authority, with no entrenched and autonomous powers being vested in any other body. Although this may appear to be under threat due to the devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, as well as in Northern Ireland, it still stands as an intrinsic part of the UK’s
1b) Explain the weaknesses of having a written constitution
“A written constitution is unnecessary, undesirable and unachievable”. These are the words of Philip Norton a.k.a G-d and one of the country’s most influential political commentators on the Constitution. He argues that Britain has a good civil rights record, and as a model of democracy, the country is content with the government. One of the most vital points of our current uncodified constitution is that it is flexible – it allows constitutional arrangements to change in line with political and social changes. For example, the reform of the House of Lords, which has seen a large fall in the number of out-of-date hereditary peers, shows the ability of the government to change parts of the constitution with relative ease. With a written constitution, such as the American one, the powerful institutions have great difficulty in changing laws that have been made, such as the Prohibition and Gun Laws which are blocked due to the difficulty in changing these entrenched constitutional laws. Furthermore, the British system has in place “checks and balances” to limit the powers of Government. For example, Parliament can express its dissatisfaction as it has done in the past with certain Government ministers like Estelle Morris and Stephen Byers over the failures of their departments.
The current constitution outlines as one of its main principles, the concept of the unitary state, with a centralisation of power in Westminster, and although devolution has extended the mandate to other institutions such as the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, the elected national government can carry out its own mandate decisively once elected. In this way, Parliamentary sovereignty remains at the heart of the system, Philip Norton commenting that it is still the cornerstone principle of the UK constitution. Problems arise in federal states, such as the US in that the executive is not sovereign, and when every state has its own laws problems may arise. In cases like these, where written constitutions are binding, disputes have to be settled by the courts – giving unelected judges a significant political role. This is not only undemocratic, but go against the whole principle of the constitution.
Finally, when there is no codified constitution to begin with, it is difficult to begin to implement one. Currently, no strong and durable consensus exists about what should be included in a written constitution. There are many constituents to it: statute and common law, constitutional conventions, treaties and laws of the EU and works of authority. Combining these are difficult, firstly due to the immense size of any sort of binding of all these documents, and secondly because of the difficulty in actually finding them to put together.
2a) Summarise the main features of devolved government in Scotland and Wales
Professor Vernon Bogdanor described devolution as “the dispersal of power from a superior to an inferior political party”, whereby power is delegated from the centre, with out compromising their power. Devolution in the UK has most recently taken place within Scotland and Wales, after referenda in 1997, and in 1999, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were implemented. In Scotland, 74.3% of those voting were in favour of the Parliament (45% of whole electorate), and 63.5 percent were in favour of tax raising powers. However in Wales, only 50.3% votes yes, only a quarter of the population in numbers actually voted for it, with just 6721 votes difference.
In Scotland there is a very powerful Parliament. It has tax-varying powers, or more generally has financial and administrative power, and control of monetary systems. This means it has the ability to change and make laws concerning the running of its country. Also, in some cases it can override laws made by the central government. For example, Scotland decided not to agree to Clause 28, whereby homosexuality is looked upon negatively in schools. Also, in Scotland, people pay for long-term healthcare for when they are elderly, unlike the English people. The country has a strong social conscience, and so implements many laws about welfare-related issues. This was outlined in the white-paper drawn up before its creation. The Parliament was said to “have competence in regard to health, schools, local government, housing, economic development, transport, law, environment, agriculture, sports and arts”. Money is given from the central government to the Scottish Parliament to cover the matters outlined, at a cost of £14bn per year.
Another key feature of the devolution in Scotland is that a Scottish Executive has been set up drawn from Members of the Scottish Parliament, working as an 11-man cabinet. This is headed by a First Minister and he or she recommends other ministers to be appointed. One of the important privileges of the Executive is that it is able to vary income tax, by 3p up or down, and can also change the format of local council tax. The MSPs are elected according to two systems. 73 are elected by first-past-the-post in constituencies, with an additional 56 members from party lists, and they are all elected for a fixed four year term. The first began in 1999, the next will be May of this year. Currently a coalition of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats operate the running of the Parliament.
The Welsh Assembly is comparatively less powerful and is therefore mainly an administrative assembly. It can set policies and redesign the QUANGOs within Wales, but only pass secondary legislation. This can cause difficulties, for example in the case of Clause 28, where they were forced to continue its implementation even though they wished to do otherwise. The Assembly has a £7 billion budget which is dispensed by the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain. Within the assembly, there are 60 members elected every four years, forty from constituencies and five from each of four EU constituencies, and it is headed by an Executive Committee of 8 individuals and a Leader who chairs it. Currently Labour are operating a minority government, which is trying to rectify a very apathetical, and often indifferent population.
Distinguish between devolution and federalism
Devolution and federalism both describe the distribution of power between a central or national government and subordinate bodies, commonly regional assemblies but also local and city government. Devolution is the decentralisation of power from the centre without the surrender of ultimate sovereignty whereby the central government has the constitutional authority to re-define the allocation of powers and to withdraw power from subordinate bodies, for example, the UK government restored direct rule for Northern Ireland in 1972. Within Britain there has always been a significant degree of devolution, for example, since the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland has retained its own legal system. Federalism is the division of power between a national government and regional units, the best example being the 50 states of the USA. Each level of government has areas of autonomy, for instance the states themselves decide on the death penalty, and this distribution of power is defined by and protected by a codified constitution which means that theoretically the centre cannot re-define the distribution of responsibilities. Sovereignty is shared so that the centre does not have absolute control.
Since 1997, devolution has been particularly rife in Britain, as a result of Tony Blair’s manifesto containing a policy of constitutional reform. In Scotland and Wales there has been legislative devolution, Wales has seen executive devolution, and there is now an elected assembly for London and a directly elected Mayor. Added to this, there is now a regional structure established in England, with the RDAS, regional councils and the prospect of assemblies across the country. However, none of these things are binding: the Government can just as easily take back what they don’t wish to be out of their hands for any longer, and vice versa, for example when they restored the Northern Ireland assembly after 28 years. In a federal Government, it is almost impossible for the central government to recall any of the power from the states, as it is entrenched in its constitution.
Ultimately, the main distinction between devolution and federalism is sovereignty. Devolution does not involve the sharing of sovereignty, as even though power is taken away from the government, this can be retained at any point. However, within a federalist government, sovereignty must be compromised, as power is constitutionally put in the hands of the local governments. There are other distinctions, for example federalism requires that the regional and national governments have clearly-defined responsibilities which they carry out independently of each other, whereas devolution often requires the state working with the regional devolved government.
Parliamentary Sovereignty, Rule of Law, Separation of Powers (Technically but not really)
Rigidity, Inflexibility, gets out of date, partisan, problems with entrenchment
Constitution defines the roles of the three organs of the state, and the relationship between them. Also the relationship between the state and the citizens.
Fixed term Parliaments, Regional based AMS system… better representation for the conservatives, Scotland has greater power, law making power, Wales is an administrative assembly. Scotland responsible for education, health, taxation to some extent. Jack McConnal is the First Minister in Scotland, Rhodri Morgan is First Minister in Wales. Both are Lib-Lab Coalitions, with nationalists as the opposition.
Not a minority government anymore… now a Lib-Lab Coalition
It is a BRITISH politics paper – therefore don’t write all about America… More needs to be written about the European Debate – Euro-federalism
Westminster retains overall control. Use European examples rather than American comparisons.