Search This Blog

Monday, May 6, 2019

Factsheet #3 - the British constitution

The Queen at the state opening of Parliament
If you were watching a football match with someone, and they kept asking you why the players didn’t pick up the ball and run with it, you probably wouldn’t much respect their opinion on how the teams should play. Knowing the rules of a game helps you to follow it. Similarly, knowing the rules of how Britain is run helps you to have an informed opinion on how it could be run better. 

The rules for running a country are known as its constitution.This week we’re going to be learning about the British constitution. Knowing more about it will help you with lots of common debating motions, for example:

  • This house would abolish the monarchy
  • This house would make voting in General Elections compulsory
  • This house would make it compulsory for 50% of MPs to be female
  • This house would introduce proportional representation
  • This house would abolish the House of Lords
  • This house would impose term limits on Prime Ministers
  • This house would make it compulsory for every second Prime Minister to be female
  • This house would ban referendums

What is the British constitution?

The first thing to know about the British constitution is that it doesn’t exist. 

Other countries, such as the United States, have a written constitution. There are often disagreements about what that written constitution really means, but at least there is one document to which everyone can refer. This has never happened in Britain (and one possible debate is ‘This house would introduce a written constitution for Britain’). Instead, the constitution has been determined partly by custom and practice - what everyone has always done and what they’re expected to carry on doing - and partly by occasional laws, passed as and when they are needed, in no very systematic fashion. The advantage of the unwritten constitution is that it can be flexible and responsive to the changing needs of a changing world; the disadvantage is that difficult situations can arise (e.g. the current confusion over Brexit, where the government, parliament and the electorate all want different things) where no one knows what to do.

What is the point of the Queen?

The monarch - currently Queen Elizabeth II - is the head of state. In theory, she is in charge of everything. Her head is on bank notes and coins, issued by Her Majesty’s Treasury, and on postage stamps, issued by the Royal Mail. She is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. When someone is put on trial, they are prosecuted in her name; all criminal cases are ‘Regina (Latin for the Queen) vs [name of the defendant]’. We pay taxes to Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs. The government is Her Majesty’s Government. The government’s programme is announced in the Queen’s Speech, given by her, in which every paragraph begins ‘My government will …’ Prime Ministers and ministers are appointed by her, and can be dismissed by her.

In practice, she has no power at all. Her role is purely symbolic. She is a figurehead, representing Britain at big national events, such as the opening of the 2012 Olympics in London, or commemorations of major anniversaries, or occasionally visiting the victims of terrorist attacks or natural disasters. This is because Britain is a constitutional monarchy.

However, she does have a role in the government of Britain. We will see how as we learn about elections and how governments are formed. If you find yourself taking part in a debate about abolishing the monarchy, remember to focus on this constitutional role, and whether it is best performed by an unelected monarch (who belongs to everyone and is attached to no party) or an elected head of state (who has been chosen by the people). Don’t get sidetracked into whether or not the Queen is a nice person, or that rude thing the Duke of Edinburgh said to someone once. That would be the ad hominem argument (see Bad Arguments #2).

How do elections work?

A General Election is called when the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, dissolves parliament. This means in effect that all the Members of Parliament (MPs) are out of a job, and new ones have to be appointed. If existing MPs want to continue being MPs, they are effectively reapplying for their jobs by standing for election. 

MPs each represent a constituency. Britain is divided into 650 constituencies, each with around 70,000 people in them. In densely populated cities constituencies cover quite a small area; in sparsely populated rural areas they will be much larger. Citizens of Britain and the Commonwealth (the Commonwealth is made up of countries that used to be in the British Empire) who are over the age of 18 and are resident in the UK are allowed to vote in General Elections, though it is not compulsory. Anyone can stand for election in any constituency provided they get the support of at least ten people and put down some money, called a deposit, which they don’t get back if they get below a certain percentage of the vote. In practice, most candidates in elections are representing one of the main parties, and most people think in terms of voting for that party rather than the individual; they say ‘I’m voting for Corbyn’ or ‘I’ve always been Conservative.’ 

Whoever gets the most votes in each constituency is elected MP for that constituency. This system is called first past the post. Critics of first past the post point to its problems. One problem is that if the number of MPs in Parliament can be very different from the total number of votes cast for their party. For example, in the 2015 General Election, UKIP got nearly 4 million votes (12.6% of the votes cast) but only one MP  (0.2% of the MPs) because their votes were spread across many constituencies. Another problem is that in certain areas, certain parties win all the time; the Conservatives are almost certain never to win in Barnsley, and Labour are almost certain never to win in Tunbridge Wells. This can make voters in those areas feel that there is not much point in voting, as the result is always the same. Supporters of first past the post say that it gives a clear, simple result, and also that it gives everyone their own named MP to represent their area, to whom they can bring their local problems, whether they voted for him or her or not.  They also say it is more likely to deliver an overall majority in parliament for one party, ensuring stable government (see below for an explanation of how this works). The alternative to first past the post is proportional representation, a system already used in many countries, whereby the number of MPs more nearly reflects the number of votes cast.

How are governments formed?

Once the election is over, we have 650 new MPs, who form the House of Commons. The Queen then appoints a Prime Minister and asks him or her to form a government. 

So who gets the ride in the bullet proof Jaguar to Buckingham Palace for the job offer? The leader of the party which can ‘command the support’ of the House of Commons. This means their party can be sure of winning a vote in the House of Commons. To do that they will need the support of a majority of MPs. If one party has an overall majority, that is, they have more MPs than all the other parties combined, it is easy for the Queen to choose. For most of the twentieth century, elections were ‘won’ by just one party getting an overall majority. Lately, however, that has not always been the case. When no party has an overall majority, the result is known as a hung parliament. The 2017 General Election created a hung parliament; the Conservatives were the largest party, but did not have an overall majority, so they had to do a deal with a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to form a government. In a hung parliament, small parties, and even individual MPs, have much more power, as they can get concessions from the government by threatening not to support them in a vote in parliament.

Who is the government?

The government is made up of ministers, each of whom has responsibility for a particular area, e.g. health, education, defence etc. They make decisions about how the health service, schools, the armed forces etc. are run. The head of the government is the Prime Minister. ‘Prime’ means first or most important. In theory, ministers are appointed by the Queen (they are called ‘ministers of the crown’); in practice, they are appointed (and can be dismissed) by the Prime Minister. The most important ministers (about 20) form the Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister. The Cabinet makes decisions jointly about matters that affect the whole government. While they may debate these decisions vigorously in their meetings, once a decision is made, ministers are expected to support it. If they feel they cannot support it, they are expected to resign. Discussions in Cabinet meetings are supposed to be private, so that everyone can speak their mind freely.

How are laws passed?

For a new law to be passed, a bill to enact it it has to win a majority in a vote in the House of Commons. It then goes on to the House of Lords, which is made up of people who have not been elected, but were chosen by leaders of the political parties, usually for long service. There are also a few members of the House of Lords who are hereditary, that is they only have the job because they inherited it from their fathers. The House of Lords debate all bills, and may make small changes to them, but in practice they never vote against the House of Commons. Their job (in theory) is to provide wise guidance and advice. Once a law has been passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Queen signs the bill and it becomes law.

What about referendums?

Supporters of referendums say that they are much more directly democratic than parliamentary democracy. Critics say that they create division in a country because they reduce complicated issues to a simple, binary choice with no possibility of compromise or negotiation.

Supporters of Brexit often refer, naturally enough, to the 2016 referendum on the European Union, when 52% voted Leave. They protest angrily that ‘the will of the people’ has been ignored because we have not yet left the EU. However, the fact is that unlike in some other countries (e.g. Switzerland), referendums have no place in the British constitution. 

Britain is a parliamentary democracy. This means that the will of the people is expressed not by referendums, still less by opinion polls, but by parliament, made up of MPs elected by the people. The 2016 referendum on EU membership was merely ‘advisory’, and had no force in law; that is, the government would be quite entitled, under the British constitution, to say, ‘Oh, so 52% of people want to leave the EU, do they? That’s interesting. We still think on balance, though, that it would be better for the country to stay in the EU.’ If the question of EU membership was decided by parliament voting as it thought best, we would not leave the EU, because the overwhelming majority of MPs are pro-Remain. 


This clash between what parliament wants and what the people want (or at least what they said they wanted in June 2016) has created a constitutional crisis. The crisis has arisen partly because when David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, called the referendum in 2016, he never expected Leave to win and made no preparations, constitutional or otherwise, for what to do if they did. Perhaps he should have remembered what every teacher knows; never ask a question unless you are sure you are going to get the answer you want.

No comments:

Post a Comment