Unwritten Rules: Britain's Constitutional Revolution

By Studlar, Donley T. | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Unwritten Rules: Britain's Constitutional Revolution


Studlar, Donley T., Harvard International Review


DONLEY T. STUDLAR is Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University and Executive Secretary of the British Politics Group.

When the New Labour government led by Tony Blair took office in May 1997, one of its most distinctive policies was its program of constitutional reform. Indeed, few British parties have ever campaigned so consistently on constitutional issues. From its first days in power, Labor promoted its constitutional reform agenda, which includes devolution to Scotland and Wales, an elected mayor and council for London and possibly other urban areas, removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, a Freedom of Information Act, and electoral reform at various levels of government, including a referendum on changing the electoral system for Members of Parliament. The nature of Labour's constitutional proposals, including their inspiration, implementation, and impact, will certainly play a dominant role in the future of British politics.

Constitutional Principles

The United Kingdom is comprised of four constituent parts--England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland--all under the authority of the Queen in Parliament in London. The constitution is the structure of fundamental laws and customary practices that define the authority of state institutions and regulate their relations, including those of the state with its citizens. Although the British Constitution is in principle very flexible, the fact that it is contained within no single document makes it difficult to change. Moreover, the socialization of Britain's political elites has produced a political culture based on custom and convention. The participants in government are reluctant to change the practices which brought them to power.

Even though Britain is under the rule of law, that law is subject to change through parliamentary sovereignty. Instead of a written constitution with a complicated amendment process, a simple majority of the House of Commons can change any law, even over the objections of the House of Lords. Individual rights are protected by ordinary law and custom, not by an entrenched Bill of Rights.

Although limited devolution has been utilized in the past--prominent examples include the relative autonomy in Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972 and, more recently, the change in local government taxation that ultimately contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990--the central government retains the authority to intervene in local affairs. In Britain's centralized, unitary system, the voters are asked once every four or five years to elect a team of politicians to rule them. Under the single-member-district, simple-plurality electoral system, the outcome is usually a single-party government (prime minister and cabinet) chosen based on a cohesive majority in the House of Commons, a fusion of power between the legislature and the executive. Referendums have been few and are advisory only--Parliament retains final authority. The judiciary seldom makes politically important decisions, and even then it can be overridden by a parliamentary majority. Thus, in the United Kingdom almost any alteration of the interrelationship of political institutions is constitutional in nature.

Constitutional issues were among the few over which there were major party differences during the 1997 General Election campaign. Labour and the the Liberal Democrats, the third-strongest party, had agreed on an agenda for constitutional change developed in consultation over several years. The Conservatives, under John Major, upheld traditional British constitutional principles: the unwritten constitution, civil liberties guaranteed only by laws of Parliament, maintenance of the unitary state, and a House of Lords composed of hereditary peers and life peers, appointed by the government. …

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