A Constitution is a set of rules, which lay down the powers and duties of the institutions of government and establish the rights and liberties of citizens. It is often claimed that the British Constitution is unwritten. This is misleading, what is true is that the British Constitution unlike the American, does not consist of one comprehensive document most of which was laid down at one historical moment (like the USA 1787) and later amended to meet changing circumstances. The American Constitution is to be found at the back of every textbook on American politics. It is impossible to produce a copy of the British Constitution, which has “evolved” over many centuries. Nevertheless, one can describe its major sources which are Parliamentary Statutes, the common law and “conventions.”

Acts of parliament which are “constitutional” in nature include, the Act of Settlement of 1700 which requires that the Monarch is a member of the Church of England and also the Parliament Act of 1911, which limited the powers of the House of Lords. Various representation of the Peoples Acts lay down the law, relating to who has and who does not have the right to vote.  The controversial Police Powers Bill which passed into law, immediately before the 1997 General Election enlarged the powers of the police in relation to arrest and search. Many principles of the Constitution are to be found in parliamentary statutes. The “common law” is to be found in judicial decisions many of which are centuries old. The formal powers of the Monarch are essentially common law powers. Individual rights are often to be found in the common law. “Conventions” can be defined as constitutional rules, which do not have legal status (they are not enforceable by the courts) but which are obeyed because most people believe that they should be obeyed for example; it is now a constitutional rule that the Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Commons, why? In a democratic age the Chief Executive politician should be accountable to the peoples elected representatives. Conventions are also vital to the conduct of modern politics in that, they dictate how some common law powers which have great historical significance, are applied in an age when they are no longer.

The British Constitution unlike the American does not include, a detailed separations of powers. Rather there is a “fusion” of powers and institutions which, according to some permits too great a concentration of power in too few hands. The “fusion” in the British Constitution means that certain members of one branch of government are also members of another branch. The Monarch is a member of all 3 branches, being the constitutional head of the legislature, the executive and judiciary. In Britain, the executive branch is led by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, formulates the major policies which affect our lives. The British Executive branch divides into 3 parts; the Prime Minister and Cabinet are politically partisan whereas the civil service is politically neutral and performs administrative tasks. The Prime Minister unlike most of his/her Cabinet colleagues does not head a government department but is given the formal title of the First Lord of the Treasury. The Prime Minister possesses 3 principle powers which are 1) the power to appoint (known as patronage) 2) majority party leader 3) chairman/woman of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister’s power to appoint the members of the Cabinet is their most powerful weapon within the executive branch. The Prime Minister decides which politicians he wants in his Cabinet, he can demote or promote he has the power to reshuffle the membership of the Cabinet and government at any time for whatever reason. The Prime Minister has the final say in the appointment of Life Peers, Archbishops and Bishops in the Church of England, members of the Judiciary. The Prime Minister chairs Cabinet meetings and is the political head of the civil service. As chairperson of the Cabinet he has the power (if he wants) to dominate Cabinet meetings. He controls the agenda, leads the discussion and sums up the “sense” of the meeting, he is also the only member of the Cabinet with a “global view” of the business of government. Cabinet ministers are too busy with their own departments to be concerned about other departments.

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The Prime Minister’s position relative to the Cabinet was described by a famous phrase “primus inter pares” – first among equals. Even though the Prime Minister enjoys powers denied by other Cabinet members (such as patronage) the Cabinet reaches decisions on a majority basis. The phrase suggests that the Prime Ministers status as First Minister was of formal nature with little extra power attached. A Cabinet is a committee of senior ministers who represent the various government departments or ministries. The Cabinet is not an official part of the constitution, in the eyes of the law it hardly exists, ...

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