THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION
To say that a state has a constitution can mean two different
things in different countries. Usually it means a
set of written rules governing how laws can be made,
and setting out the rights and duties of citizens
that can be enforced by a constitutional or supreme
court. But sometimes there is no written constitution
so that the term simply describes how a state is governed,
what are the main institutions of government and the
usual conventions observed by the government and the
is an unwritten constitution. But although no laws
passed by Parliament can be directly challenged by
any British court, there are restraints on government.
Laws define the maximum length of parliaments, the
electoral system, qualifications for citizenship,
and the rights of non-citizens. There are the rules
and procedures of Parliament itself, and interpretations
of laws made by the courts in light of the traditions
of the common law.
A fundamental principle of the British constitution is
"the sovereignty of Parliament". But nowadays decisions
of the European Union have to be observed because
of the treaties that Britain has entered into; and British
courts must observe the judgements
of the European Court and
the new Human Rights Act. Textbooks are written on
"The British Constitution" and constitutional law,
but no one authority will agree fully with another.
Some constitutional disputes are highly political
- such as what should be the composition and powers of
the House of Lords and what is the
best system of national and local elections.
Some reformers want a written constitution, as does the
third largest party at Westminster,
the Liberal -Democrats. But others, including the
leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties value historical continuity
coupled with flexibility and have no wish for big
issues to be settled by a constitutional court, as
in the United
States and many other
democratic countries. But what holds the unwritten
system together is that party leaders observe conventions
of political conduct.
Conventions and traditions are very important in British
political life. For example, the second largest party
in the House of Commons not merely opposes the Government
but is called "Her Majesty's Loyal Oppositions". It
has a guaranteed amount of time in Parliament to debate
matters of its own choice, and its rights are defended
by the Speaker, who chairs proceedings in the House
The Leader of the Opposition has offices in Parliament
and receives financial support from the Treasury both
for his or her office and for the Shadow Cabinet.
These are senior members of the main opposition party
who 'shadow' Government ministers in different departments.
The Leader of the Opposition also has a constitutional
status (that is why we use capital letters). He or
she stands beside the Prime Minister on formal state
occasions, as when the Queen opens Parliament or when
wreaths are laid at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance
Question Time, when Members of Parliament may ask questions
of government ministers, is another parliamentary
convention. Questions to the Prime Minister by the
Leader of the Opposition are usually lively and combative
occasions, often widely reported.
competitive party system
Under the British system of parliamentary democracy,
candidates nominated by political parties, and sometimes
individual independent candidates, compete for the
votes of the electorate in general elections and by-elections.
(By-elections are held to fill a vacancy when an MP
resigns or dies in office). The struggle between the
parties to influence public opinion, however, is continuous,
and takes place not only at election time.
role of the media
Proceedings in Parliament are now broadcast on digital
television and recorded in official reports, known
as Hansard. Although copies
of this are available in large libraries and on the
Internet, www.parliament.uk, most people receive their
information about political issues and events from
newspapers, TV, and radio.
there is a free press - that is, one that is free
from direct government control. The owners and editors
of most newspapers hold strong political opinions
and run campaigns to influence government policy.
All newspapers have their own angle in reporting and
commenting on political events. Sometimes it is difficult
to distinguish fact from opinion.
Spokesmen and women of all political parties put their
own slant on things too - known today as 'spin'.
the law states that political reporting on radio and
television must be balanced. In practice, this means
giving equal time to rival viewpoints. Broadcasters
are free to interview politicians in a tough and lively
fashion, as long as their opponents are also interviewed
and treated in more or less the same way.
During a general election, the main parties are given
free time on radio and television to make short party
political broadcasts. In citizenship lessons in schools
young people are encouraged to read newspapers critically
and to follow news and current affairs programmes
on radio and television.