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The Form of the British Constitution

When people take part in any activity they have to act according to certain rules. A nation needs a set of agreed rules by which it may govern itself. We call these rules a Constitution. From this you will soon realize that when we describe a country as a "Constitutional Monarchy" we mean a country with a King who regards himself as limited in his actions by the nation's rules.

Now we often say that some countries have a "written constitution". For example, the United States of America and France have written constitutions. In both these countries the whole of the constitution is set out in an official volume which anyone can buy and study. On the other hand, it is often said that the British Constitution is unwritten, meaning that it is not written in a single official handbook. In this sense it is quite true that Britain has an unwritten constitution. Some of the rules, those which have been made by Parliament, are written down in statutes but many more depend on customs. Here is a good example of the unwritten nature of the British Constitution. At any time during the last two hundred years, an educated Englishman would understand what was meant by the term "Prime Minister". Yet it was only in the year 1917 that the Prime Minister was recognized officially by being mentioned in an Act of Parliament.

Britain is a constitutional monarchy. That is to say, a monarch reigns but is limited by the rules of the State, rules which depend partly on written laws but even more on established customs which have been handed down from generation to generation.

The Sovereign. First of all there is the Sovereign, at present Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Her office is hereditary, meaning that it is handed down from one generation to the next. You will notice that this is the main difference between a Monarchy and a Republic. In a Republic, for example the United States of America or France, the head of the State is elected; he is known as the President and holds office for a limited number of years only.

The Monarchy is the oldest part of the British Constitution. The Sovereign once had very great personal powers but in practice these are now exercised by the Queen's advisers, the Ministers. For this reason it is sometimes said that the Queen reigns but she does not rule.

The House of Lords. Originally this was a very powerful body indeed, much more powerful than the House of Commons, but today its powers are strictly limited and the real powers have passed to the "Lower House", the House of Commons.

The House of Commons. The third, but much the most powerful of the three elements which form part of the British Constitution, is the House of Commons. This body is directly elected by the people of Britain and nearly everyone over the age of twenty-one has the right to vote. General Elections must take place at least every five years but in practice they usually occur more frequently than this. Since 1902, successive Prime Ministers have been members of the House of Commons and never of the House of Lords.

Parliament. The Queen, the Lords and the Commons form the Parliament. You should notice that "Parliament" is a word which sometimes causes confusion. Very often in ordinary conversation people refer to Parliament when really they mean the House of Commons or sometimes the Government. But strictly speaking, Parliament means much more than just the House of Commons; it means the Queen, the Lords and the Commons all acting together.


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