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.
This is a preview of the whole essay
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, it is mentioned only once in the statute book. Cabinet meetings only last for a few hours, once or twice a week. Before the Cabinet meets to make decisions, policies have already been closely examined and amended until agreement can be reached in various Cabinet committees, which were set up by the Prime Minister. Cabinet Ministers are theoretically bound by conventions of collective ministerial responsibilities. Cabinet ministers and all other members of the government not of Cabinet rank are bound by collective responsibility to support the agreed policies in public, even if they voted against the decision and if they publicly disagree with a decision they must resign. For example, Michael Heseltine in 1986 resigned when he disagreed with the government policy on the “westland affair” he would not support the decision in public and he also objected to the Prime Ministers handling of the matter in Cabinet.
A civil service department called the Cabinet Secretariat, takes responsibility for organising the agenda for all meetings relating to the Cabinet (keeping minutes, ensuring work of the Cabinet is running smoothly.) The Head of the Cabinet office is a senior civil servant, who may be the Prime Ministers permanent secretary.
It is often suggested that Britain has a Prime Ministerial government, this is said because the Prime Minister holds a great deal of power in nearly all departments. The difference between the 2 types of governments are: Presidential government is characterised by a constitutional and political separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government, principal features are; executive and legislative branches are separately elected (each is invested with a range of independent constitutional powers.) executive authority is concentrated in the hands of the President (Cabinet and Ministers are merely advisors responsible to the President.) Electoral terms are fixed, the President can neither “dissolve” the legislature nor be dismissed by it (except through impeachment – formal process for the removal of a public official in the event of personal or professional wrong doing.) Prime Ministerial government has 2 key features; 1) office of the Prime Minister is the central link between the legislative and executive branches of government 2) Prime Minister serves as Chief Executive and the head of the bureaucracy.
Parliament is the centrepiece of the British political system. It is in parliament that the policies proposed by Her Majesty’s Government are debated and then transformed into the law of the land. It is parliament that ministers of the Crown carry out their democratic responsibilities to the elected representatives. Parliament includes the House of Commons, House of Lords and Monarch. The British legislature’s full formal title is the “Queen in Parliament.” The Monarch and the House of Lords are under the constitution, still required to give their consent to legislature proposals passed by the Common’s before they can become the law of the land as Acts of Parliament. The British Parliamentary system includes a constitutional Monarch who has no effective political power, although they may carry out certain prerogative functions, which suggest some royal influence over political decisions, there is in practice no choice available to the Monarch of the day. The Monarch’s role has become widely questioned by the public over recent years.
The House of Lords consists of the Lords Spiritual (2 Archbishops of Canterbury and York) 24 Bishops of the Church of England, hereditary peers, life peers, law lords. Lords Spiritual are only entitled to attend the House of Lords while they hold Church office. The Law Lords act as the highest court of appeal in Britain. Some functions of the House of Lords are: Legislation; most Bills are passed by Lords before becoming law (the finance bill which contains the budget cannot be rejected by the House of Lords) other Bills can only be held up for about 1 year. If the House of Lords rejects a Bill which has been passed by the Commons in two consecutive parliamentary sessions, it automatically becomes law even if the Lords reject it a second time. Adjudication; the highest court of appeal is in the House of Lords, this is performed by the Law Lords, about 5 or 10 Law Lords form a judicial committee which considers appeals.
House of Commons major functions are, maintaining and either supporting/opposing Her Majesty’s Government. Passing Bills sponsored by the government or by backbench MP’s. Scrutinising and influencing what the government does. Representing constituents and expressing the views on the country. The government produces most its legislation in the Commons. There are 6 main stages in the legislative process: 1) a legislative process may begin as a “white paper” this contains the government thinking on the matter in question. The government will consider comments from interested parties before firming up its policy by drafting a Bill to be introduced in parliament 2) “first reading”, the Bill is introduced by its title being read, there is no debate, the Bill is then printed in full and distributed to MP’s 3) “second reading”, a debate is held on the floor of the House on the general principles of the Bill, debate commences with the government minister responsible for the Bill explaining and defending its contents. The opposition “shadow” frontbencher then gives what is usually the case against the Bill, critical moment is the vote at the end of the debate, if it is rejected the Bill is withdrawn 4) “committee stage”, the Bill is referred to a standing legislative committee for a detailed clause by clause examination, standing committees are made up for each Bill (usually 20 MP’s for each committee) 5) “report stage” the Bill as amended by the committee is reported back to the House, where further amendments often introduced by the government are debated and put to vote 6) “third reading” principles of the Bill now amended are debated, if the Bill is approved by the House of Commons it then goes through a similar process in the House of Lords and also has to be given the Queen’s royal assent, the Bill is now an Act of Parliament and enters the statute book as part of the law of the land.
The legislative process takes up about 1/3 of the time of the House of Commons, most of it on government Bills.
Backbenchers are also known as Private Members, they are allocated about 20% of the timetable for their 2 major contributions to the work of the Commons; private members legislation and debates on topical issues which they select. Most significant parliamentary procedures from the backbench perspective are adjournment debates, questions oral and written and private members legislation, these procedures permit backbenchers to represent their constituents and also to compete for promotion to the frontbench. Backbench MP’s have very few opportunities to be creative legislators, they are expected to support or oppose the government legislature programme, which dominates the parliamentary timetable. They may introduce Bills which they have initiated themselves or put forward on behalf of the interests in their constituents or pressure groups to which they are sympathetic.
The British political system is one of the oldest in the world and has been a model for many other world wide political systems.