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The Constitution. Key questions you will need to know in this topic. What is a constitution? What are the functions of a constitution? What are the types of constitutions? What are the main sources and principles of the British Constitution?

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Key questions you will need to know in this topic
Key questions you will need to know in this topic

  • What is a constitution?

  • What are the functions of a constitution?

  • What are the types of constitutions?

  • What are the main sources and principles of the British Constitution?

  • What are the main strengths and weaknesses of the traditional constitution?

  • Is parliament sovereign?

  • How significant were conditional reforms introduced by the Labour governments of 1997-2010

  • Should the UK adopt a codified (written constitution)?

The constitution1
The Constitution

  • Definition

  • Purpose

  • Origins

  • Features- parliamentary sovereignty- uncodified- unitary- fusion of powers - flexible


A constitution is a set of rules that;

  • Seek to establish the duties, powers and functions of the various institutions of government

  • Regulate the relationship between and among the institutions

  • Define the relationship between the state and the individual; i.e. define the extent of civil liberty


Why are constitutions so important important?

We cannot trust the government or, for that matter, anyone who has power over us.” p161

A constitution is the solution to the problem of power. (Power tends to corrupt, so we need to be protected from those in power).

Without a constitution the government could simply do whatever it wants – oppressing minorities, violating freedom, tyrannising the mass of the people.

Limited government
Limited Government

A form of government in which government power is subject to limitations and checks, providing protection for the individual; the opposite of arbitrary government.

Functions of a constitution
Functions of a constitution

  • 1) Complete the worksheet on the functions of constitutions


1) Establish the distribution of power within a political system

2) Establish the relationships between political institutions and individuals

3) Define and establish the limits of government power

4) Specify the rights of individual citizens and how they are protected

5) Define the nature of citizenship and how individuals may obtain citizenship

6) Establish and describe the arrangements for amending the constitution

Types of constitutions

  • Two types of constitutions

  • Codified (written)

  • Uncodified (unwritten)

  • A codified constitution is one in which the major principles underpinning the political system are collected in a single authoritative document

  • An uncodified constitution has no single source for these principles, rather, they are found in a number of places

  • Sometimes uncodified constitutions are described as unwritten, but in practice, they usually contain important written elements

  • Sometimes the distinction between the two can be blurred- no constitution ever spells out each and every practice. All constitutions contains a mixture of written and unwritten rules

Codified constitutions
Codified constitutions

  • Features

  • Codified constitutions are often produced at a critical juncture in a nation’s history: for example after independence (US constitution) or a revolution (French revolution 1797).

  • Institutions or the newly created government derive their power from the constitution

  • A codified constitution has the status of Fundamental Law or higher law placing it above ordinary law made by the legislature.

  • Under a codified constitution there is a Two tier legal system In which the constitution has a higher status than all other law.

    *Higher laws are those that concerned constitutional arrangements –who has power, the relationship between institutions, rights of citizens etc and these are safe guarded and entrenched

    *Below these are Ordinary laws, which concerns relations between citizens, administration of the state, criminality etc.-these lower laws can normally be changed without special procedures and are not safeguarded.

Advantages of a Codified Constitution

  • Provisions within the constitution are difficult to change. It is deliberately difficult to pass a constitutional amendment. (Entrenched)

  • Provides effective checks and balances upon branches of government. President cannot bypass other parts of government like the Prime Minister can.

  • Protects rights and liberties. Thatcher removed trade union rights to workers at GCHQ. This would be more difficult in the US system. Bill of Rights protects US Citizens from the government

  • Codified constitutions can be made flexible by vague wording and judicial interpretationeg. It grants the power to congress to ‘provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States’.

Disadvantages of a Codified Constitution

  • They elevate the importance of unelected judges over the elected legislature, eg. When Supreme Court decided the result of the 2000 presidential election.

  • Codified constitutions can be inflexible and cannot change over time, eg. The 2nd amendment, the right to keep and bear arms, many would argue was no longer a good idea.

  • The granting of constitutionalrights does not mean they will be properly respected. The passage of the 15th amendment in 1870 gave rights to African Americans. However, these rights were not respected for another century. A more modern example would be the Patriot act, which many think violates the bill of rights.

Uncodified constitutions
Uncodified constitutions

  • There is no single authoritative document

  • Instead there set ‘principles’ and ‘laws’ which act as an unwritten or uncodified constitution

  • There is on difference between constitutional law and statue (ordinary) law

  • No clearly defined mechanism for amending the constitution

  • However in some uncodified constitutions there are ‘basic laws’ that describe constitutional principles which are differentiated from other laws

  • UK has an Uncodified constitution

  • Isreal, New Zealand and Canada lack fully codified constitutions-they have ‘basic laws’

Advantages of a uncodified constitution
Advantages of a UncodifiedConstitution

  • Organic and can adapt to change

Origins of the uk constitution
Origins of the UK Constitution

  • Where has the UK constitution come from?

  • How has it evolved?


Features of the UK Constitution = PUUFF

Parliamentary sovereignty



Fusion of powers


Parliamentary sovereignty
Parliamentary Sovereignty

  • Sovereignty means supreme, unrestricted power.

  • In this case, the absolute and unlimited authority of Parliament which can in theory make, repeal or amend any law.


  • This type of constitution is not confined to one single document.

  • Much of it may be written down, but in a variety of documents.

  • This is known as an uncodified constitution or an unwritten constitution.

Written codified
Written & Codified

  • This type of constitution is found in one single document, which outlines the structure of the constitution and the organisation of the state.

  • This is also known as a codified or written constitution.


  • In this type of constitution and system o government, ultimate power lies with a central body which I sovereign. Theoretically, in Britain, it is parliament that is sovereign. It has the legal authority to make and repeal laws, to delegate powers to local or regional authorities.

  • The opposite is a federal constitution, where legal sovereignty is shared between government at the centre and the constituent ‘states’ e.g. USA.

Fusion of powers
Fusion of Powers

  • This is where the executive branch and legislative branch of government intermingle.

  • E.g. David Cameron is both a member of the legislative branch (MP for Witney) and the executive branch (Prime Minister)

  • E.g. Vince Cable is both a member of the legislative branch (MP for Twickenham) and the executive branch (a member of the Cabinet)


  • This type of constitution is one where changes can take place without a lengthy special procedure e.g. Parliament can simply pass another Act of Parliament.

  • The opposite of flexible is rigid; where changes can only take place as a result of a special constitutional amendment procedure.


  • Reading and Note takingChapter 6, The Constitutionp161-168