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Lecture 1: Introduction to the UK Constitution

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John Stanton

on 2 October 2017

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Transcript of Lecture 1: Introduction to the UK Constitution

Lecture 1: Introduction to the UK Constitution
Module Handbook
Module aims and objectives

Structure and schedule


Nature of Con and Ad

Books and reading

Tutorial schedule
Nature of the UK Constitution
Partially written, partially written.



Introduction to Module and Handbook

Defining a constitution

Nature of the UK Constitution

Institutional structure of the constitution

Historical development and sources of the UK Constitution

Do we have a constitution?
Lecture Outline
Defining a constitution and its functions
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it shall be the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations upon such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as shall seem to them most likely to effect their safety and happiness”

US Declaration of Independence

Jennings: “If a constitution means a written document, then obviously Great Britain has no constitution. In countries where such a document exists, the word has that meaning. But the document itself merely sets out the rules determining the creation and operation of governmental institutions, and obviously Great Britain has such institutions and such rules. The phrase ‘British constitution’ is used to describe those rules"

Griffith: “The constitution of the United Kingdom lives on, changing from day to day; for the constitution is no more and no less than what happens. Everything that happens is constitutional. And if nothing happened that would be constitutional also”.
Constitutional Conventions
Dicey: ‘…conventions, understandings, habits or practices which, though they may regulate the … conduct of the several members of the sovereign power … are not in reality laws since they are not enforced by the courts’.

Jennings: ‘The short explanation of the constitutional conventions is that they provide the flesh which clothes the dry bones of the law; they make the legal constitution work; they keep it in touch with the growth of ideas’.

Not law / legally enforceable




Formation of a government
Royal Assent
Prime Minister and Cabinet

Essential post-lecture reading

Elliott and Thomas, Chapters 1 and pp. 36 - 62

Additional reading

Parpworth, Chapters 1 and 11

J.A.G. Griffith, ‘The Political Constitution’ (1979) 42 Modern Law Review 1

J. E. Khushal Murkens, ‘The Quest for Constitutionalism in the UK Public Law Discourse’, 3 (2009) Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, pp.427-455

Twitter account for module
“The whole system of government of a country, the collection of rules which establish and regulate or govern the government”
(Professor K C Wheare)
‘The constitution of a state … forms the backcloth of government and its powers … [it] is a set of rules, written or unwritten, which identifies the principal institutions of the state, their powers and relationships with other state institutions and the relationship between government and citizen’. (H Barnett)
“A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government, and a government without a constitution is power without right … A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government; and a government is only the creature of a constitution”
(Thomas Paine)
What should a constitution do?
Paine: It should ‘contain the principles upon which the Government shall be established, the manner in which it shall be organized, the powers it shall have, the Mode of Elections, the Duration of Parliaments … the powers which the executive part of the Government shall have; and, in fine, every thing that relates to the compleat organization of a civil government, and the principles upon which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound’.
Wicks: ‘[The UK constitution] unlike the more common codified constitution, … retains sufficient flexibility to allow adaptation to suit the changing circumstances of society with minimum procedural restraints. This ability to change carries with it a danger that nothing is sacred; no principle secure from the priorities of the current government’.
Institutional structure of the constitution



Parliamentary executive
Historical development and sources
Allocation of sovereign power
Magna Carta 1215
Bill of Rights 1688
European Communities Act 1972
R v SoS for the Home Department, ex parte Factortame (No 2)

Establishment of the UK
Act of Union (with Scotland) 1707
Act of Union (with Ireland) 1800
Government of Ireland Act 1920

Scotland Act 1998
Scotland Act 2016
Government of Wales Act 1998
Government of Wales Act 2006
Northern Ireland Act 1998
Institutional arrangements
Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949
R (Jackson) v AG

House of Lords Act 1999
Constitutional Reform Act 2005

Protection of human rights
Human Rights Act 1998
Do we have a constitution?
Full transcript