68 Why doesn’t Britain have a written constitution?
68 Why doesn’t Britain have a written constitution?
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 representation.
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.
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.
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 system.
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 political views.
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 Democrats.
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’ interests.
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 their party!
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