68 Why doesn’t Britain have a written
was the Magna Carta?
70 Why is
an Ambassador sent to the Court of St. James’s?
does Britain elect its government?
are the origins of the names of the main political parties?
73 How is
the Speaker chosen?
74 What is
a ‘whip’ in Parliament?
68 Why doesn’t Britain have a
The British constitution has evolved over many centuries. Unlike the
constitutions of America, France and many Commonwealth countries, the
British constitution has not been assembled at any time into a single,
consolidated document. Instead it is made up of common law, statute law
and convention. Of all the democratic countries in the world, only Israel
is comparable to Britain in having no single document codifying the way
its political institutions function and setting out the basic rights and
duties of its citizens. Britain does, however, have certain important
constitutional documents, including the Magna Carta (1215) which protects
the rights of the community against the Crown; the Bill of Rights (1689)
which extended the powers of Parliament, making it impracticable for the
Sovereign to ignore the wishes of the Government; and the Reform Act
(1832), which reformed the system of parliamentary
Common law has never been precisely defined - it is
deduced from custom or legal precedents and interpreted in court cases by
judges. Conventions are rules and practices which are not legally
enforceable, but which are regarded as indispensable to the working of
government. Many conventions are derived from the historical events
through which the British system of government has evolved. One convention
is that Ministers are responsible and can be held to account for what
happens in their Departments.
The constitution can be altered by Act
of Parliament, or by general agreement to alter a convention. The
flexibility of the British constitution helps to explain why it has
developed so fully over the years. However, since Britain joined the
European Community in 1973, the rulings of the European Court of Human
Justice have increasingly determined and codified sections of British law
in those areas covered by the various treaties to which Britain is a
party. In the process British constitutional and legal arrangements are
beginning to resemble those of Europe.
69 What was the Magna Carta?
The Magna Carta (Latin for ‘Great Charter’) is Britain’s best known
constitutional document. In 1215 feudal barons forced the ‘tyrannical’
King John (1199-1216) to agree to a series of concessions embodied in a
charter which became known as the Magna Carta.
Sixty-one clauses set
out a clear expression of the rights of the community against the Crown.
The contents deal with the ‘free’ Church; feudal law; towns, trade and
merchants; the reform of the law and justice; the behaviour of royal
officials; and royal forests.
The King was forced to fix his seal to
the Magna Carta in a meadow next to the River Thames at Runnymede between
Windsor and Staines. It is said that he behaved pleasantly to the nobles
at the time, but as soon as he returned to his own chamber he threw
himself on the floor in a mad rage.
Since that day the Magna Carta has
become part of English Law and established the important principle that
the King is not above the law.
Original copies of the charter exist in
Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Castle and the British Museum in
70 Why are Ambassadors sent to the Court of St.
Ambassadors are sent to the Court of St. James’s because they are
appointed Ambassadors to the country of the United Kingdom and the Head of
State is the Queen. For historical reasons the Royal Court is known as the
Court of St. James; St. James’s Palace was the official residence of the
Monarch until Queen Victoria moved to Buckingham Palace.
71 How does Britain elect its government?
Parliament, the law-making body of the British people, consists of
three elements: the Monarchy, the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
They meet together only on occasions of ceremonial significance, such as
the state opening of Parliament, although the agreement of all three is
normally required for legislation.
The House of Commons consists of 659 elected members called Members of
Parliament or MPs. Its main purpose is to make laws by passing Acts of
Parliament, as well as to discuss current political issues. Elections to
the House of Commons are an important part of Britain’s democratic
The House of Lords consists of around 1,270 non-elected members
(hereditary peers and peeresses, life peers and peeresses and two
archbishops and 24 senior bishops of the Church of England). Its main
legislative function is to examine and revise bills from the Commons. It
also acts in a legal capacity as the final court of appeal. The Lords
cannot normally prevent proposed legislation from becoming law if the
Commons insists on it.
General elections are held after Parliament has
been ‘dissolved’, either by a royal proclamation or because the maximum
term between elections - five years - has expired. The decision on when to
hold a general election is made by the Prime Minister.
purposes Britain is divided into constituencies, each of which returns one
MP to the House of Commons. The British electoral system is based on the
relative majority method - sometimes called the ‘first past the post’
principle - which means the candidate with more votes than any other is
elected. All British citizens together with citizens of other Commonwealth
countries and citizens of the Irish Republic resident in Britain may vote,
provided they are aged 18 years or over and not legally barred from
voting. People not entitled to vote include those serving prison
sentences, peers and peeresses who are members of the House of Lords, and
those kept in hospital under mental health legislation. Voting is by
secret ballot. The elector selects just one candidate on the ballot paper
and marks an ‘X’ by the candidate’s name. Voting in elections is
voluntary. On average about 75 per cent of the electorate votes.
person aged 21 or over who is a British citizen or citizen of another
Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic may stand for election to
Parliament, provided they are not disqualified. People disqualified
include those who are bankrupt, those sentenced to more than one year’s
imprisonment, members of the clergy, members of the House of Lords, and a
range of public servants and officials. Approved candidates are usually
selected by their political party organisations in the constituency which
they represent, although candidates do not have to have party
The leader of the political party which wins most seats
(although not necessarily most votes) at a general election, or who has
the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons, is by
convention invited by the Sovereign to form the new
Devolution to Scotland and Wales
is committed to give the people of Scotland and Wales more control over
their own affairs by setting up a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh
Assembly. These plans were supported by the Scottish and Welsh people in
referenda held in September 1997.
The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh
was opened in 1999 following the election of its 129 members - 73 directly
elected on a constituency basis, plus 56 elected by proportional
representation. It will be able to make laws and raise or lower the basic
rate of income tax by up to three per cent. Scotland will continue to
elect MPs to Westminster to represent Scottish interests.
Assembly, which opened in May 1999 in Cardiff, and has 60 members,
directly elected every four years. It debates issues of concern in Wales
and is responsible for a substantial budget, but the Principality will
continue to share the same legal system as England.
72 What are the origins of the names of the main
The Conservative and Unionist Party dates back to the Tory Party of the
late eighteenth century. This broadly represented the interests of the
country gentry, merchant classes and official administerial groups. After
Britain’s 1832 (electoral) Reform Act, members of the old Tory Party began
forming ‘conservative associations’. The name Conservative was first used
as a description of the Party in the Quarterly Review of January 1830 -
‘conservative’ because the Party aims to conserve traditional values and
practices. The Conservative Party today is the leading right-wing party.
The term ‘Tory’ is still used today to refer to somebody with conservative
The original title of the Labour Party, the Labour Representation
Committee, makes the origins of the party clear - to promote the interests
of the industrial working class. In 1900 the Trades Union Congress
co-operated with the Independent Labour Party (founded 1893) to establish
The Labour Representation Committee with Ramsay MacDonald as First
Secretary. This took the name Labour Party in 1906.
The Liberal Party emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a successor
to the historic Whig party. ‘Whig’ was originally a Scottish Gaelic term
applied to horse thieves! In the late eighteenth century the Whig Party
represented those who sought electoral, parliamentary and philanthropic
reforms. However, the term ‘Whig’ does not survive today. After 1832 the
mainly aristocratic Whigs were joined by increasing numbers of
middle-class members. By 1839 the term Liberal Party was being used, and
the first unequivocally Liberal government was formed in 1868 by William
Gladstone. In 1988 the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party
(SDP) merged into a single party called the Liberal
73 How is the Speaker chosen?
Contrary to what the title would imply, the Speaker of the House of
Commons does not speak - that is, he or she does not make speeches or take
part in debates. The office has been held continuously since 1377 and
originally the Speaker spoke on behalf of the Commons to the Monarch. That
role is now largely ceremonial and today the Speaker’s central function is
to maintain order in a debate, and he or she may not vote other than in an
official capacity - that is when the result of a vote is a tie. Even then,
he or she is not allowed to express an opinion on the merits of the
question under debate and must vote in such a way as to give the House
another chance to decide.
The Speaker has three deputies - the Chairman of Ways and Means and his
or her two Deputy Chairmen. Like the Speaker, they can neither speak nor
vote other than in their official capacity. The Speaker is not a Minister
nor a member of any political party. He or she is still a Member of
Parliament, representing a constituency and the constituents’
The choice of Speaker is by election, with Members of
Parliament each having one vote. Though the Cabinet and Prime Minister
will often be known to favour a particular candidate when a vacancy
occurs, support from backbench MPs is vital. In 1992 Betty Boothroyd was
elected in a contest with the former Cabinet Minister, Peter Brooke.
Usually a Speaker is elected by his or her fellow MPs without
74 What is a ‘whip’ in Parliament?
The term ‘whip’ is said to owe its origin to the ‘whippers-in’ - people
who keep the hounds in order at fox-hunting meets. Parliamentary whips are
supposed to be similar disciplinarians, controlling the pack of MPs in
Government whips are all Ministers of the Crown. The
principal task of the Chief Whip is the management of government business
in the House. He or she must try to ensure that, in spite of the
activities of the opposition, Parliament has passed all the legislation
and done all the tasks which it had planned during that session.
in the two main parties are organised by subject and by region. They
monitor opinions inside their party and report back to the leadership,
maintaining valuable day-to-day contact between ministers and their
‘The Whip’ also refers to a document sent out
weekly to MPs detailing the forthcoming business of the House. Items are
underlined once, twice or three times to indicate their importance to the
party leadership. When a ‘three-line’ whip is issued, the leadership is
letting MPs know that it expects them to turn up and vote on the matter