#AceHistoryNews The Constitution of the United Kingdom is the set of laws and principles under which the United Kingdom is governed.
Unlike many other nations, the UK has no single constitutional document. This is sometimes expressed by stating that it has an uncodified or “unwritten” constitution. Much of the British constitution is embodied in written documents, within statutes, court judgement’s and treaties. The constitution has other unwritten sources, including parliamentary constitutional conventions (as laid out in Erskine May) and royal prerogatives.
Historically, “No Act of Parliament can be unconstitutional, for the law of the land knows not the word or the idea.”
Since the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the bedrock of the British constitution has traditionally been the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, according to which the statutes passed by Parliament are the UK’s supreme and final source of law. It follows that Parliament can change the constitution simply by passing new Acts of Parliament. There is some debate about whether this principle remains valid, particularly in light of the UK’s membership in the European Union.
Parliamentary supremacy and the rule of law
In the 19th century, A. V. Dicey, a highly influential constitutional scholar and lawyer, wrote of the twin pillars of the British constitution in his classic work Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885). These pillars are the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. The former means that Parliament is the supreme law-making body: its Acts are the highest source of English law (the concept of parliamentary sovereignty is disputed in Scots law, see MacCormick v Lord Advocate).
The latter is the idea that all laws and government actions conform to principles. These principles include equal application of the law: everyone is equal before the law and no person is above the law, including those in power.
Another is no person is punishable in body or goods without a breach of the law: as held in Entick v Carrington, unless there is a clear breach of the law, persons are free to do anything, unless the law says otherwise; thus, no punishment without a clear breach of the law.
According to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, Parliament may pass any legislation that it wishes. By contrast, in countries with a codified constitution, the legislature is normally forbidden from passing laws that contradict that constitution: constitutional amendments require a special procedure that is more arduous than that for regular laws.
There are many Acts of Parliament which themselves have constitutional significance. For example, Parliament has the power to determine the length of its term.
By the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, the maximum length of a term of parliament is five years but this may be extended with the consent of both Houses.
This power was most recently used during World War II to extend the lifetime of the 1935 parliament in annual increments up to 1945.
Parliament also has the power to change the make-up of its constituent houses and the relation between them.
Examples include the House of Lords Act 1999 which changed the membership of the House of Lords, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 which altered the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords and the Reform Act 1832 which made changes to the system used to elect members of the House of Commons.
The power extended to Parliament includes the power to determine the line of succession to the British throne.
This power was used to pass His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936, which gave constitutional effect to the abdication of Edward VIII and removed any of his putative descendants from the succession, and most recently to pass the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which changed the succession to the throne to absolute primogeniture (not dependent on gender) and also removed the disqualification of marrying a Catholic. Parliament also has the power to remove or regulate the executive powers of the Monarch.