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100 Questions Answered: Constitution and System of Government (Q68-Q74)

Q68. 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.

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.

Q69. 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 London.

Q70. Why are Ambassadors sent to the Court of St.James’s?

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.

Q71. 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 system.

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.

For electoral 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.

Any 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 backing.

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 government.

Devolution to Scotland and Wales

The Government 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.

The Welsh 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.

Q72. What are the origins of the names of the main political parties?

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.

Q73. 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’ interests.

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 opposition.

Q74. What is a "whip" in Parliament?

whip statements

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!

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.

Whips 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 backbench supporters.

"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 under discussion!

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