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These notes are from a series of esays the BBC commissioned in 2003 and put on their website. It even includes A2 route D stuff (which can be found here .................) . Maybe someone in the beeb had a kid doing Edexcel G&P. Anyway, they are a little dated but still useful. Thanks to the beeb!

The UK constitution
Unit 2/1: Governing the UK by Nicola McEwen Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh writes for BBC Parliament


Constitutions are designed to set out the rules and regulations within which governments operate.
They establish the composition, powers and functions of the institutions of the state, regulate the relations between these institutions, and enshrine the legal rights and duties of the citizenry.
An important distinction can be drawn between codified and uncodified constitutions.

Codified constitutions are largely written, centred around a single document incorporating key constitutional provisions that are binding on all political institutions.
They are usually 'entrenched', enjoying the protection of a higher or supreme court, and can only be repealed or amended by special provisions, beyond the ordinary legislative process.
Examples of codified constitutions include the American Constitution of 1878, or the German Basic Law of 1949. Indeed, most constitutions are written and codified.
The United Kingdom is rare among liberal democracies in not having a codified constitution of this kind.
Unwritten constitution
The UK constitution is often described as an 'unwritten constitution', but it is best described as 'partly written and wholly uncodified' (Budge et al, 1998).
It is derived from a number of sources. Its principal source is statute law, i.e., laws passed by the UK Parliament.
Statute law is particularly important for determining the powers and scope of government, and the conduct of elections.
Examples include the Act of Union of 1707, which united Scotland with England and Wales, the various Representation of the People Acts, which extended the right to vote, and the European Communities Act of 1972, which took the UK into the European Community.
An array of conventions, or unwritten understandings and customs, also surround the rules of constitutional behaviour. Although not supported by law, these are considered to be binding.


Government without a constitution is power without right Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1795
For example, it is a convention that the monarch sign Acts of Parliament passed by both Houses, and that the government should resign after losing a vote of 'no confidence'.
Constitutional authority is also derived from common law, that is, the legal principles and 'precedents' established by judicial decisions.
As a source of constitutional authority, common law has largely been replaced by statute law, but it remains important in the sphere of civil liberties, and in fundamental constitutional principles, such as the Royal Prerogative and parliamentary sovereignty.
Royal role
A historic feature of the UK constitution, the Royal Prerogative gives the Crown (the monarch) special powers, including the power to declare war, to make treaties, to pardon criminals, and to dissolve Parliament.
Today the role of the monarch in such matters is largely ceremonial, but the Royal Prerogative gives considerable powers to government ministers acting on the Queen's behalf.
The single most important principle of the UK constitution is that of parliamentary sovereignty.
Under this principle, Parliament can make or unmake any law on any subject whatsoever. No one Parliament is bound by the decisions of its predecessors, nor can it bind its successors.
There is no higher body, such as a supreme court, that constrains the legal authority of Parliament.
However, parliamentary sovereignty is now directly challenged by the UK's membership of the European Union.
EU membership necessitates the 'pooling' of sovereignty over areas where the member states have agreed to act together.
All laws passed at the European level are considered legally superior to domestic law, and are ultimately protected by a higher constitutional court, the European Court of Justice.
Should European Community law and UK law conflict, EC law will prevail.
© Nicola McEwen 2004 Lecturer in Politics University of Edinburgh
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2561719.stm
Published: 2003/09/01 10:04:03 GMT
© BBC MMVII

Role and Significance of Parliament
Unit 2/2: Governing the UK by Nicola McEwen Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh writes for BBC Parliament

A central feature of the UK political system is parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy.
Whereas in a presidential system, the powers and personnel of the executive are formally separated from those of the legislature, the distinctive elements within a system of parliamentary government are more closely inter-related.

The Prime Minister and his ministerial team are drawn from Parliament. Although formally appointed by and responsible to the monarch, they are politically accountable to Parliament.
In legal theory Parliament refers to the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown.
In practice, the Crown plays a largely ceremonial role as head of state, while the legislative process unfolds within the two Houses of Parliament.
The House of Commons
The House of Commons, the lower House, is the most powerful of the two Houses of Parliament.
It is made up of 659 MPs, each elected in one of 659 constituencies throughout the UK.
Notwithstanding the rare exceptions, such as Martin Bell, the former journalist elected as an independent 'anti-sleaze' MP in 1997, almost all MPs are elected as members of a political party.
The House of Commons fulfils four key functions:

  • Representation: Once elected, MPs are expected to represent all of their constituents. MPs may also represent 'interests' such as trade unions, or particular professions, provided these interests are declared. Almost all MPs represent political parties, and usually vote according to the party line (the whipping system).
  • Government Personnel: Although parliament does not appoint the government, it provides a forum in which budding ministers can demonstrate and hone their political skills, while serving ministers can make or break their career depending on their performance at the Commons' despatch box.
  • Legitimisation: Described as the 'core defining function' of the House of Commons (Norton, 2001: 313), the legitimisation function permits the elected assembly, acting on the people's behalf, to grant (or withhold) its approval for most actions of the government, including legislation and the grant of money.
  • Scrutiny of the Executive: As governments tend to enjoy large parliamentary majorities, Parliamentary approval is rarely withheld. However, the House of Commons plays an important role in scrutinising the policies and actions of the government, in debates, parliamentary questions and within the influential cross-party select committees.
The House of Lords
Prior to its reform in 1999, the House of Lords (the upper House) had over 1,200 members, although only one third to one half attended regularly.
Its unique feature was that its membership was largely based on inheritance.
Almost two thirds of those entitled to sit in the House of Lords had inherited their peerage, while around one third were appointed by the government to serve as 'Life Peers' until their death.
There are also a small number of Law Lords and Bishops. The House of Lords is not only unelected, it is also politically unrepresenative.
In 1997, almost half of all Peers sat on the Conservative benches, while just 12% represented the Labour Party, and 6% represented the Liberal Democrats.
The remaining third, known as 'cross-benchers', had no political affiliation (Coxall and Robins, 1998: 321-5).
The House of Lords shares many of the functions of the lower House, especially in scrutinising the government and providing its remaining personnel.
However, it is much weaker, and its powers diminished considerably during the twentieth century.
Uncontroversial legislation can be initiated in the House of Lords, but more important is its role in revising and refining legislation introduced in the House of Commons.
Peers tend to be more interested in the detail rather than the principle of legislation and, by a convention known as the Salisbury Convention, do not vote on the principle of measures included in the government's election manifesto.
Peers lost the power to delay or amend money bills in 1911, but they can still amend and delay non-money bills.
In addition to its legislative and scrutinising function, the House of Lords has an important judicial function, as the highest court of appeal.
© Nicola McEwen 2004 Lecturer in Politics University of Edinburgh
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2561809.stm
Published: 2003/09/01 10:03:40 GMT

© BBC MMVII

Power within the Executive
Unit 2/3: Governing the UK by Nicola McEwen Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh writes for BBC Parliament

Whereas Parliament is the focus of the legislative process, the formulation and execution of policy is the responsibility of the government.
As head of the executive branch of government the prime minister enjoys considerable power.
He (or she) hires and fires cabinet ministers and directs, presents and co-ordinates the work of the government. He also has the power to decide when to hold the next election (within the maximum five-year term), enhancing his power over his political opponents.

In his role as national leader the prime minister represents the country in international relations and enjoys extensive prerogative powers in international negotiations and crises.
The prime minister is directly supported by a growing number of senior officials and advisors working in the Prime Minister's Office.
Surrounding the prime minister is a cabinet, usually of around 20 to 23 ministers.
Each is appointed by the prime minister and is given responsibility for directing the work of a government department.
Collectively, the cabinet co-ordinates government business, including the legislative programme, constitutional issues, and public expenditure decisions.
It gives formal approval to policy decisions, and brings authority and legitimacy to the business of government. It can also act as a forum for debating policy issues and reconciling policy disagreements, and will play a key role in crisis management.
In practice the business of government more commonly takes place in smaller cabinet committees.
There are 25-30 standing committees, covering permanent policy areas in domestic and international affairs.
Much work is also carried out within a range of temporary, ad hoc committees, set up to tackle issues of the day.
The most important committees are chaired by the prime minister and senior ministers. Cabinet ministers and committees are bound by the convention of collective responsibility.
As such, once a decision is made, all ministers are bound by it and must support it publicly. If they cannot do so, they are expected to resign their ministerial post.
The civil service
Cabinet ministers are supported in their work by the civil service, the bureaucracy of the state.
The civil service is politically neutral and must serve the government of the day, regardless of the party in power.
The duty of civil servants is first and foremost to their minister. In turn, ministers are subject to the convention of individual ministerial responsibility, and are held accountable for the decisions taken on their behalf by their civil servants.
When serious mistakes are made, ministers may come under pressure to resign. A notable example was the resignation of the entire Foreign Office ministerial team, following fierce criticism of the department's handling of the 1982 Falklands crisis.
Crucially, the cabinet represents a symbol of the collective nature of the executive.
Within a system of cabinet government, ministers play a full part in decision-making and are equally accountable for the decisions taken.
The prime minister
In such a system, the prime minister may be described as 'first among equals'. Yet the increased concentration of power and responsibility in the office of the prime minister, especially during the Thatcher years, led commentators to conclude that cabinet government had been replaced by a presidential-style prime ministerial government.
However, there are a number of constraints on the powers of the prime minister.
For example, the prime minister's powers of patronage are limited by the pool of available talent, and some of his party's most senior figures are just too big to exclude. It is difficult to imagine Blair's cabinet without Gordon Brown!
Furthermore, although the prime minister plays the key role in developing government policy, he needs the approval of the cabinet, especially on controversial issues, if he is to bind them to the decision.
Prime ministerial power is largely dependent on the skills, style, energy and resources the individual brings to job, as well as his capacity to respond to the many unforeseen events and circumstances beyond his control (Coxall and Robins, 2001).
A more appropriate description of government today is captured in the term 'core executive' (Rhodes and Dunleavy, 1995).
The core executive refers to the complex web of institutions, networks and relations which embed the prime minister, cabinet, key cabinet committees and senior officials at the heart of the government machine.

© Nicola McEwen 2004 Lecturer in Politics University of Edinburgh
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2561931.stm
Published: 2003/09/01 10:03:06 GMT

© BBC MMVII

Judges, Justice and Freedom
Unit 2/4: Governing the UK by Nicola McEwen Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh writes for BBC Parliament

The structure of the court system in Northern Ireland and Scotland differs from that of England and Wales, but its role and significance in the political system is similar throughout the United Kingdom.
The principles of judicial independence and judicial neutrality are central tenets of the judiciary.

Under the principle of judicial independence, judges should be protected from political interference and political control.
There is some overlap in the UK, however, between the judiciary and the institutions of government. Senior members of the judiciary sit as Law Lords in the House of Lords, while the Lord Chancellor plays a pivotal role at the heart of government.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the judiciary remains separate from government and Parliament, and their independence is protected by a combination of statute law, common law and convention.
Judicial independence is deemed essential if judges are to have the authority to protect and defend civil liberties.
Such liberties are enshrined in the legal rights we enjoy as citizens of the state, and preserve a range of individual freedoms such as freedom of speech and thought, and freedom of movement and peaceful assembly.
Judicial neutrality holds that judges should be politically neutral. This is closely related to the uncodified nature of the UK constitution and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, discussed earlier.
There is no entrenched constitution in the UK. Parliament is the ultimate source of legal authority, and is not constrained by any higher court (with the exception of the European Court of Justice).
Thus the courts cannot overturn an Act of Parliament for being unconstitutional. Rather, judicial neutrality means that judges should be neutral in their stance to the law, and seek to apply laws passed by Parliament in an impartial, unbiased and technical manner.
From judgement to law
In practice, however, the role of the judiciary goes beyond a strict application of the law. Judicial decisions, over time, have contributed to making the significant body of common law upon which many constitutional principles are based.
Even in the case of Acts of Parliament (statute law), there is often considerable scope for judicial interpretation of what the law entails.
The political weight of the courts has been strengthened by the Human Rights Act (1998) which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.
This has given judges the power to make declarations as to the compatibility of Acts of Parliament with the rights set out in the Human Rights legislation, and suggest appropriate remedies where incompatibilities are found.
In addition, the process of judicial review permits judges to challenge the conduct of governmental authorities on the grounds that their actions may be unlawful, irrational, or that they have followed improper procedure.
For example, in the mid-1990s, judges declared that the secretary of state for social security had acted unlawfully when he withdrew entitlement to income-related benefits for asylum seekers, while the home secretary was found to have acted unlawfully on 14 occasions, several relating to the detention and sentencing of prisoners (Coxall and Robins, 1998; Dearlove and Saunders, 2000).
Although this may suggest that the process of judicial review strengthens judges' capacity to defend our civil liberties against an over-arching central government, such high profile cases are rare.
Most cases of judicial review have found in favour of central government, often to the detriment of local government and trades unions.
Indeed, the extent to which judges administer justice and defend freedom is inevitably contingent upon their understanding of society and upon the value-judgements they make when weighing up what they consider to be in the public interest.
In this respect, the unrepresentative nature of the judiciary - overwhelmingly white, privately-educated, privileged men - must surely raise questions as to whether 'justice' is always done.

© Nicola McEwen 2004 Lecturer in Politics University of Edinburgh
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2561959.stm
Published: 2003/09/01 10:02:52 GMT
© BBC MMVII

Unit 2 Reading List
If you would like to read more about this topic try the following books:-
I Budge, I Crewe, D McKay and K Newton, The New British Politics (1998)
B Coxall and L Robins, Contemporary British Politics , 3rd edition (1998)
J Dearlove and P Saunders, Introduction to British Politics , 3rd edition (2000)
J A G Griffith, The Politics of the Judiciary , 5th edition (1997)
P Heywood, Politics , 2nd edition (2002)
B Jones, D Kavanagh, M Moran and P Norton, Politics UK , 4th edition (2001)
P Norton, British Polity (2001)
G Peele, Governing the United Kingdom , 3rd edition (1995)
R Pyper, The British Civil Service (1995)
R A W Rhodes and P Dunleavy, Prime Minister, Cabinet and Core Executive (1995)