Open main menu

History of the Constitution of the United Kingdom

The Constitution of the United Kingdom has evolved over a long period of time beginning in the predecessor states to the United Kingdom and continuing to the present day. The relative stability of the British polity over centuries, progressing without a revolution or regime change that lasted, has obviated the need to write a constitution from first principles, in contrast to many other countries. What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, judicial precedents, convention, treaties and other sources which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution. It is thus more accurate to describe Britain's constitution as an ‘uncodified’ constitution, rather than an ‘unwritten’ one.[1][2][3][4]


Key statutesEdit

Although there is no definitive list of constitutional statutes, there are certain statutes that are significant in the history of the Constitution of the United Kingdom. Some have been repealed, several have been amended and remain in statute, while others are current legislation as originally enacted. None are entrenched.[5][6][7]

Selected Scottish documents and statutesEdit

Selected Welsh statutesEdit

Selected English statutesEdit

Selected British statutesEdit

Kingdom of ScotlandEdit


From the fifth century AD, north Britain was divided into a series of petty kingdoms. Ferocious Viking raids beginning in AD 793 may have speeded up a long-term process of gaelicisation of the Pictish kingdoms, which adopted Gaelic language and customs. There was also a merger of the Gaelic and Pictish kingdoms. This culminated in the rise of Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) as "king of the Picts" in the 840s (traditionally dated to 843),[8] which brought to power the House of Alpin.[9] When he died as king of the combined kingdom in 900 one of his successors, Domnall II (Donald II), was the first man to be called rí Alban (King of Alba).[10] The term Scotia would increasingly be used to describe the heartland of these kings, north of the River Forth, and eventually the entire area controlled by its kings would be referred to as Scotland.[11] The long reign (900–942/3) of Donald's successor Causantín (Constantine II) is often regarded as the key to formation of the Kingdom of Alba/Scotland, and he was later credited with bringing Scottish Christianity into conformity with the Catholic Church.[12]

Máel Coluim I (Malcolm I) (reigned c. 943–954) annexed Strathclyde, over which the kings of Alba had probably exercised some authority since the later ninth century.[13] The reign of David I has been characterised as a "Davidian Revolution",[14][15] in which he introduced a system of feudal land tenure, established the first royal burghs in Scotland and the first recorded Scottish coinage, and continued a process of religious and legal reforms.[16]


Coronation of Alexander III of Scotland at Scone Abbey; beside him are the Mormaers of Strathearn and Fife while his genealogy is recited by a royal poet.

The unified kingdom of Alba retained some of the ritual aspects of Pictish and Scottish kingship. These can be seen in the elaborate ritual coronation at the Stone of Scone at Scone Abbey.[17]

While the Scottish monarchy in the Middle Ages was a largely itinerant institution, Scone remained one of its most important locations, with royal castles at Stirling and Perth becoming significant in the later Middle Ages before Edinburgh developed as a capital city in the second half of the fifteenth century.[18][19]

The Crown remained the most important element of government, despite the many royal minorities. In the late Middle Ages, it saw much of the aggrandisement associated with the New Monarchs elsewhere in Europe.[20] Theories of constitutional monarchy and resistance were articulated by Scots, particularly George Buchanan, in the sixteenth century, but James VI of Scotland advanced the theory of the divine right of kings, and these debates were restated in subsequent reigns and crises. The court remained at the centre of political life, and in the sixteenth century emerged as a major centre of display and artistic patronage, until it was effectively dissolved with the Union of the Crowns in 1603.[21]

The Scottish Crown adopted the conventional offices of western European courts, including High Steward, Chamberlain, Lord High Constable, Earl Marischal and Lord Chancellor.[22] The King's Council emerged as a full-time body in the fifteenth century, increasingly dominated by laymen and critical to the administration of justice.[23] The Privy Council, which developed in the mid-sixteenth century,[24] and the great offices of state, including the chancellor, secretary and treasurer, remained central to the administration of the government, even after the departure of the Stuart monarchs to rule in England from 1603.[25] However, it was often sidelined and was abolished after the Acts of Union 1707, with rule direct from London.[26]

The Parliament of Scotland also emerged as a major legal institution, gaining an oversight of taxation and policy.[27] By the end of the Middle Ages it was sitting almost every year, partly because of the frequent royal minorities and regencies of the period, which may have prevented it from being sidelined by the monarchy.[28] In the early modern era, Parliament was also vital to the running of the country, providing laws and taxation, but it had fluctuating fortunes and was never as central to the national life as its counterpart in England.[29]

In the early period the kings of the Scots depended on the great lords of the mormaers (later earls) and toísechs (later thanes), but from the reign of David I, sheriffdoms were introduced, which allowed more direct control and gradually limited the power of the major lordships.[30] In the seventeenth century the creation of justices of the peace and the Commissioner of Supply helped to increase the effectiveness of local government.[31] The continued existence of courts baron and introduction of kirk sessions helped consolidate the power of local lairds.[32]

Principality of WalesEdit


The Principality of Wales existed between 1216 and 1536, encompassing two-thirds of modern Wales during its height between 1267 and 1277. For most of its history it was "annexed and united" to the English Crown. However, for a few generations, specifically the period from its foundation in 1216 to Edward I's completion of the conquest of Wales in 1284, it was de facto independent under a Welsh Prince of Wales, albeit one who swore fealty to the King of England.

Cyfraith Hywel, also known as Welsh law, was the system of law practised in medieval Wales before its final conquest by England. Subsequently, the Welsh law's criminal codes were superseded by the Statute of Rhuddlan in AD 1284 and its civil codes by Henry VIII's series of Laws in Wales Acts between 1535 and 1542.

The Laws in Wales Acts formally incorporated all of Wales within the Kingdom of England. There has been no geographical or constitutional basis for describing any of the territory of Wales as a principality since then, although the term has occasionally been used in an informal sense to describe the country, and in relation to the honorary title of Prince of Wales.

After 1542: union with EnglandEdit

The Encyclopaedia of Wales notes that the Council of Wales and the Marches was created by Edward IV in 1471 as a household institution to manage the Prince of Wales's lands and finances. In 1473 it was enlarged and given the additional duty of maintaining law and order in the Principality and the Marches of Wales. Its meetings appear to have been intermittent, but it was revived by Henry VII for his heir, Prince Arthur. The Council was placed on a statutory basis in 1543 and played a central role in co-ordinating law and administration. It declined in the early 17th century and was abolished by Parliament in 1641. It was revived at the Restoration before being finally abolished in 1689.

From 1689 to 1948 there was no differentiation between the government of England and government in Wales. All laws relating to England included Wales and Wales was considered by the British Government as an indivisible part of England within the United Kingdom. The first piece of legislation to relate specifically to Wales was the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881. A further exception was the Welsh Church Act 1914, which disestablished the Church in Wales (which had formerly been part of the Church of England) in 1920.

In 1948 the practice was established that all laws passed in the Parliament of the United Kingdom were designated as applicable to either "England and Wales" or "Scotland", thus returning a legal identity to Wales which had not existed for hundreds of years following the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707. Also in 1948 a new Council for Wales was established as a parliamentary committee. In 1964 the Welsh Office was established, based in London, to oversee and recommend improvements to the application of laws in Wales. This situation would continue until the devolution of government in Wales and the establishment of the autonomous National Assembly for Wales in 1998.

Pre-Civil War EnglandEdit

Before the Norman ConquestEdit

The Kingdom of England was formed in the mid 9th Century; for example, Alfred the Great issued laws as King of the West Saxons, and what is now recognised as England came about in 927 AD when the last of the Heptarchy kingdoms fell under the rule of the King of the English, Athelstan.[33] On 14 October 1066, King Harold II of England was killed while leading his men in the Battle of Hastings against Duke William of Normandy. The event completely changed the course of English history. Until 1066, England was ruled by monarchs that were elected by the witan, (meaning wise). There were various elements of democracy at a local level too, known as folkmoot.

The NormansEdit

Henry I of England (c. 1068 – 1 December 1135) was king from 1100 to 1135, ruling through the Curia regis. When he ascended to the throne he granted the Charter of Liberties, a series of decrees and assurances to the barons. Probably the most important statement in the charter is at the beginning, where the king admits "that by the mercy of God and the common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England I have been crowned king of said kingdom". This represented a step away from absolute rule; the king had recognised that the right to rule came not only from God but also from the common counsel of the barons.

The PlantagenetsEdit

King John (24 December 1167 – 19 October 1216) was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He was the youngest brother of Richard I. His reign was fraught with conflicts; there was conflict between England and France, between England and the Pope and between the King and the barons. Eventually the barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta, a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, which established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.[34]

Henry III (1 October 1207 – 16 November 1272) succeeded his father John. Henry was only nine years of age when he became king and so the country was ruled by regents until Henry reached the age of 20. Under pressure from the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, Henry had to accept constitutional limitations on the monarchy placed by Provisions of Oxford and Provisions of Westminster and the existence of the first representative English Parliament.

The Ordinances of 1311 were a series of regulations imposed on King Edward II by the Lords and higher clergy to restrict the power of the king.

Later in the 14th century, during the reign of Richard II, there was an uprising known as the Peasants' Revolt (1381). The rebels came very close to their demands (such as fair rents and the abolition of serfdom) being granted by the king, but at the end the protesters were tricked out of such gains. The revolt remains as an important moment in history, but it failed to contribute to the written body of the constitution.

The TudorsEdit

The first Act of Supremacy (1534) made King Henry VIII the "supreme head" of the Church of England. Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving three children as potential heirs.

The second Act of Supremacy (1559) restored these powers over the church to Elizabeth I, reversing normalising legislation passed during the reign of her sister Mary I, although the title Elizabeth gained was "Supreme Governor of the Church of England" rather than "supreme head", so as not to imply that she had control over the church's doctrine, or, that the Monarch was usurping the primacy of Jesus. The Act also required all office-holders, including the clergy, to take an oath of allegiance acknowledging the Queen as the supreme governor of the Church of England.

The monarchy had to get the consent of Parliament in all issues, but with the threat of war looming from Spain, Parliament showed great loyalty toward Queen Elizabeth, who was a strong leader. However, after the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Parliament felt safer and thus it decreased its loyalty to the monarchy.

Parliament consisted of two levels of administration: the House of Lords that was made up of the influential peers of the realm and Lords Spiritual, and the House of Commons, which consisted of representative members of the aristocracy and the middle-class.

The House of Commons had grown sharply, doubling in size due to the prosperity of the middle-class during that time. There were a number of vocal Puritans in the House of Commons (although the extent to which they influenced the Commons is disputed, Sir John Neale identified a unified bloc of 43 members, whereas revisionists have suggested that this is an exaggeration) who began asking for more rights for the Puritans, but Elizabeth I was strong enough to ignore their demands. James I would later have problems with them.

John Aylmer, a Greek scholar, saw an immediate resemblance of the Tudor constitution to that of the classical republic of Sparta. Geoffrey Elton, who wrote The Tudor Constitution, gave hearty approval to Aylmer's conclusions. It was the Greek scholars, such as Aylmer, that popularised the Greek classical political terminology and influenced English and later British constitutionalist thought. They brought forward the idea of mixed government from Classical antiquity and applied it to their form of government.

James VI and IEdit

When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 without issue, she was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and he became King James I of England. This was a major step towards creating a single British state, although the Kingdom of Great Britain did not come about until a hundred years later.

James VI faced a fractious religious England since it contained Anglicans (of the Church of England), Puritans, Separatists (who wanted to break from the Church of England), and also many Roman Catholics, although many did not declare their continuing allegiance to Rome, which was the cause of much mistrust.

James VI was a believer in the Divine Right of Kings, which stated that Kings were chosen by God and should therefore be absolute and answerable only to God. This was corroborated by his Presbyterian belief in predestination, and such a birthright as kingship made him almost explicitly a part of the elect. Though he was Presbyterian (Calvinist, Huguenot, Puritan), he was against the Presbyterian idea of allowing the congregation (people) to elect their presbyters (church officials) since it undermined his absolutism (according to the Divine Right). Thus he was often at odds with the Puritans, who were English Presbyterians.

He did concede to the Puritans by commissioning the "King James Bible", an English language translation and interpretation of the Bible.

Then James VI began fighting with the Roman Catholics, but eventually gave them rights (after his secretly Catholic wife probably persuaded him to), exempting them from having to pay tithes to the Anglican Church, but this caused a great decrease in Anglican Church revenue, so he quickly took those rights away. The actions of King James VI were unpopular during his reign.

Civil WarEdit

Charles I and the Civil WarEdit

James was succeeded by his son who became Charles I in 1625. Charles I believed in the Divine Right of Kings, like his father, and thus continued to fight with parliament.

Parliament's main power at this time was its control of the taxes. Parliament demanded more power over the taxes. Traditionally, Parliament had voted at the beginning of a King's reign on the amount allowed for a King's Tonnage and Poundage, the customs duties (taxes on imported goods like wool and wine) that made up a large portion of a king's annual income. Now Parliament wanted to re-evaluate these taxes annually, which would give it more control over the king. James I resisted this abrogation of his 'Divine Right' and dealt with the situation by dissolving Parliament. Charles I did the same at first and later just ignored its annual evaluations.

Charles acquired much of his money with forced loans from the rich. He also received a lot of money through taxes. One important tax that Charles collected was the Ship Money tax that required the counties bordering the sea to fund a navy to protect the English coastline. The coastal counties were unhappy with it since Charles was collecting the Ship Money tax during a time of peace and since he wasn't using it really to fund the navy. To get even more money, Charles placed the Ship Money tax on the interior counties as well - which angered the English people, because now Charles was creating new taxes without the consent of the Parliament (which was against the (unwritten) law). A London MP named John Hampden refused to pay this "new," interior Ship Money tax, so he was tried for a crime by Charles I and was convicted with a vote of 7 to 5. This meant that 5 of 12 jurors were against their king, which did not look good or bode well for Charles I.

But Charles I was at war with France and Spain, and this war was costing a lot of money; he was forced to call upon Parliament (1629) to raise new taxes for him. Parliament would not grant Charles new taxes (more money) until he had signed the Petition of Rights that established conditions in which Charles had to submit to the law of the Parliament:

  • The king could not establish martial law in England during times of peace.
  • The king could not levy taxes without the consent of the Parliament.
  • The king could not arbitrarily imprison people.
  • The king could not quarter soldiers in private homes.

After Charles got the taxes from Parliament (1629), he dissolved Parliament and broke the tenets of the Petition of Rights which, under the divine right theory, he considered void.

William Laud and Thomas Wentworth were appointed to fill the void that the Duke of Buckingham left.

On top of the wars England had with France and with Spain (both caused by the Duke of Buckingham), Charles I and William Laud (the Archbishop of Canterbury) began a war with Scotland in an attempt to convert Scotland to the Church of England (the Anglican Church). This was called the Bishops' War (1639–1640) and it had two major parts: The first Bishops' War (1639) ended in a truce. The second Bishops' War, the following year, began with the a Scottish invasion of England in which the Scottish defeated the English and remained stationed in England until their issues were solved. To get the Scottish out, Charles I signed the Treaty of Ripon (1640), which required England to pay an indemnity of £850 for each day that the Scottish were stationed in England.

During the second part of the Bishops' War, Charles I had run very low on money (since he was also fighting France and Spain), so he was forced to call a Parliament to make new taxes. He and the Parliament could not agree on anything, so after three weeks, Charles I dissolved the Parliament. Then he desperately needed new taxes, so Charles I called a Parliament again and it would only help him if he agreed to some terms, which ultimately made Charles I a constitutional monarch. It was called the Long Parliament (1640–1660), because it was not officially dissolved by its own vote until 1660.

These terms were:

  • That Charles I had to impeach Thomas Wentworth and William Laud. He reluctantly placed them under arrest and put them in The Tower, executing Wentworth in 1641 (for which Charles I never forgave himself since he was close to Thomas Wentworth) and William Laud in 1645.
  • Charles I had to agree to the Triennial Act (1641), which required the Parliament to meet every three years with or without the king's consent.
  • Charles I had to abolish the Court of the Star Chamber, a royal court controlled completely by Charles I in which the prosecutor was also the judge (which pretty much guaranteed a guilty verdict for the defendant) and it was intended to be used to implement the will of the king legally with a "judicial" façade. It was considered an "extralegal" court. It dealt with odd cases and punishments.
  • Charles I had to abolish the High Court, which was the same as the Court of the Star Chamber, though it dealt with religious heresy. It was considered an "extralegal" court.
  • Charles I had to accept the Grand Remonstrance and allow the circulation of its copies, and it was a document that outlined (hyperbolically) the crimes that officials had accused Charles of committing since the beginning of his reign. Charles I was also never to do any of those crimes again.
  • Charles I, most importantly, had to agree never to dissolve a Parliament without the consent of the Parliament.

Most of England believed that Parliament had done enough to curb the power of King Charles I, but the radicals in Parliament (the extremist Puritans) and the radicals around the country (again, extremist Puritans) wanted to reform the Church of England by getting rid of the bishops (and all other things with the semblance of Catholicism) and by establishing the Puritans' method of worship as the standard. This caused a political division in Parliament, so Charles I took advantage of it. He then sent 500 soldiers into the House of Commons to arrest five of the Puritans' ringleaders (John Hampden included). The five ringleaders had been tipped off, so they had left Parliament and Charles I was left with only shame for storming Parliament.

King Charles I left London and went to Oxford, and the English Civil War began (1642). The North and West of England were on Charles I's side (along with most of the Nobles and country gentry). They were known as the Cavaliers. Charles I created an army illegally (since he needed the Parliament's consent).

The South and East of England were on Parliament's side and were known as Roundheads, for their haircuts. In response to Charles I raising an army, they did so as well. Yet, they didn't have the military might that King Charles I (and his nobles) had, so they solicited the help of the Scottish with the Solemn League and Covenant that promised to impose the Presbyterian religion on the Church of England. They called their army the New Model Army and they made its commander Oliver Cromwell, who was also a member of Parliament. The New Model Army was composed mostly of Presbyterians.

Oliver Cromwell and the CommonwealthEdit

Though Parliament won, it was clear to the Scots that it was not going to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant by imposing Presbyterianism on England (Puritanism wasn't quite Presbyterian), so the New Model Army, Parliament and the Scots began falling apart. The Scots were paid for their help and sent back to Scotland.

The Presbyterian Roundheads were interested in freedom to practice their religion and not in making the Presbyterian religion the state religion.

Cromwell proposed that Parliament reinstate the bishops of the Church of England and King Charles I as a constitutional monarch, but allow for the toleration of other religions. Though at the end of the war, the people of England could accept Charles I back in office but not religious toleration. They also wanted the New Model Army dissolved since it was a provocative factor. Thus Parliament disallowed religious toleration and voted to disband the New Model Army, but the New Model Army refused the order.

Charles I then made the same deal that the Roundheads had made with the Scottish and Parliamentary Presbyterians. He solicited the help of Scotland (and the Presbyterians) and in return he promised to impose Presbyterianism on England. The New Model Army would not allow this deal to be made (because it would give Charles I military power once more). Thus a "new" civil war broke out in 1648.

This time, Scotland, the Parliamentary Presbyterians and the royalists were on the side of Charles I. The New Model Army and the rest of Parliament were against him.

In the Battle of Preston (1648) Cromwell and his New Model Army defeated Charles I.

Then one of Cromwell's officers, Colonel Pride, destroyed the Presbyterian majority in Parliament by driving out of Parliament 143 Presbyterians of the 203 (leaving behind 60). The new Parliament constituted a Rump Parliament, which was a Parliament in which the minority (Presbyterians) carried on in the name of the majority that was kicked out. The Rump Parliament:

  • Abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords in Parliament (it then executed Charles I after publicly trying him for crimes).
  • Created a republic called the "Commonwealth" that was really just a dictatorship run by Cromwell.

Scotland was against Cromwell's "Commonwealth" (Republic) and declared Charles I's son king at Edinburgh as King Charles II, but Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated him (1650) and he fled to France where he stayed until 1660.

Cromwell then went to Ireland to govern it, but was "disgusted" with the Catholics, so he massacred many of them (in battle) and so the Irish rebelled against him as well.

Cromwell then dissolved the Rump Parliament and declared himself to be the Lord Protector (dictator).

Richard Cromwell and Charles IIEdit

Cromwell died (1658) and was succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell, who tried to keep power militarily and absolutely, but he was also incapable of unifying all of the diverse groups (religious and ethnic). General George Monk came down from Scotland and overthrew Richard. He then invited the remnants of the Long Parliament (the Rump Parliament) to reconvene. The Long Parliament met and officially ended (in 1660, after being open since 1640) when it voted to dissolve itself and create a new Parliament. The new Parliament began the Restoration (of the monarchy) by choosing Charles I's son Charles II to be the King of England.

Post-Civil WarEdit

Popular political movementsEdit

The idea of a political party with factions took form around the time of the Civil War. Soldiers from the Parliamentarian New Model Army and a faction of Levellers freely debated rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647. The Levellers published a newspaper (The Moderate) and pioneered political petitions, pamphleteering and party colours. Later, the pre-war Royalist (then Cavalier) and opposing Parliamentarian groupings became the Tory party and the Whigs in the Parliament.

In 1649 Diggers, a small people's political reform movement, published The True Levellers Standard Advanced: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men.[35] This is another important document in the history of British constitutionalism[citation needed], though different from the others listed here because the Diggers' declaration comes from the people instead of from the state. They are some times called "True Levellers" to distinguish themselves from the larger political group called the Levellers, which had supported the republicans during the civil war. The Diggers were not satisfied with what had been gained by the war against the king and wanted instead a dismantling of the state. They can be best understood through such philosophies as libertarianism, anarchism, and religious communism.

Also at this time, the Polish Brethren arrived in England and Holland. The sect of Polish Brethren had been driven out of Poland after The Deluge because they were commonly considered to be collaborators with the Swedish.

The Diggers' radical ideas influenced thinkers in Poland, Holland, and England, playing an especially important role in the philosophy of John Locke. Locke, in turn, profoundly impacted the development of political ideas regarding liberty, which would later influence the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Glorious RevolutionEdit

The Glorious Revolution was the overthrow of James II in 1688 and his replacement with William III and Mary II as joint monarchs. The Convention Parliament of 1689 drew up a Declaration of Right to address perceived abuses of government under James II and to secure the religion and liberties of Protestants. This was enacted by the Parliament of England as the Bill of Rights 1689, which limited royal power and reaffirmed certain civil rights, building on the Petition of Right 1628 and the Habeas Corpus Act 1679.[36] The Parliament of Scotland approved it as the Claim of Right.

Both the Bill of Rights and the Claim of Right contributed a great deal to the establishment of the concept of parliamentary sovereignty and the curtailment of the powers of the monarch.[37][38] Leading, ultimately, to the establishment of constitutional monarchy. They furthered the protection of the rule of law, which had started to become a principle of the way the country is governed.[39][40]

Act of SettlementEdit

In the Act of Settlement 1701, Parliament altered the line of succession to the throne. In order to preserve the Protestant succession, Parliament ensured the Crown would pass to Sophia, the granddaughter of James I and first cousin to Charles II and James II. Sophia's son George I became King in 1714 and his descendants, including the incumbent monarch Queen Elizabeth II, have reigned Britain ever since.[41]

The Act also introduced the concept of judicial independence by establishing that judges can keep their position as long as they maintain "good behaviour". Before 1701 a judge's position was held at the disrection of the monarch and there were instances of judges being removed from their position after making judgements that the monarch did not like. After the Act of Settlement, a judge could only be removed from office by the agreement of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords with the subsequent approval of the monarch.[42]

The Kingdom of Great BritainEdit

After severe economic dislocation in Scotland in the 1690s, there were moves toward the political union of England and Scotland.[43] The Treaty of Union was agreed on 22 July 1706,[44] and then ratified by both the Parliament of England and Parliament of Scotland each passing an Act of Union in 1707.[45] The English and Scottish parliaments were replaced by a combined parliament, the first Parliament of Great Britain. It sat in Westminster and largely continued English traditions without interruption. Forty-five Scots were added to the 513 members of the House of Commons and 16 Scots to the 190 members of the House of Lords. It was also a full economic union, replacing the Scottish systems of currency, taxation and laws regulating trade.[46]

Prime ministerial governmentEdit

The role of prime minister began to emerge during the period 1721-1742 as Robert Walpole chaired cabinet meetings, appointed all other ministers, and developed the doctrine of cabinet solidarity.[47][48]

The United KingdomEdit

The United Kingdom was created by the Union in January 1801 of the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, which had been ruled by English and British monarchs since the Middle Ages, with the passing of the Act of Union 1800.[49] This created the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Supremacy of the CommonsEdit

The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons by limiting the legislation-blocking powers of the House of Lords. The Life Peerages Act 1958 allowed the creation of life peers which gave the Prime Minister the ability to change the composition of the House of Lords.

Expansion of the electoral franchiseEdit

Between 1832 and 1928, numerous Acts of Parliament repealed voting restrictions and expanded the franchise from just 5% of the adult population to universal suffrage for all male and female adults aged 21 and over. The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.[50][51]

William Ewart Gladstone's UK Midlothian campaign between 1878-80 began the move towards modern political campaigning.

Irish independence and partitionEdit

In 1912, the House of Lords managed to delay a Home Rule bill passed by the House of Commons. It was enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1914. During these two years the threat of religious civil war hung over Ireland with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers opposed to the Act and their nationalist counterparts, the Irish Volunteers supporting the Act. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the crisis on political hold. A disorganized Easter Rising in 1916 was brutally suppressed by the British, which had the effect of galvanizing Catholic demands for independence. Prime Minister David Lloyd George failed to introduce Home Rule in 1918 and in the December 1918 General Election Sinn Féin won a majority of Irish seats. Its MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster, instead choosing to sit in the First Dáil parliament in Dublin. A declaration of independence was ratified by Dáil Éireann, the self-declared Republic's parliament in January 1919. An Anglo-Irish War was fought between Crown forces and the Irish Republican Army between January 1919 and June 1921. The war ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 that established the Irish Free State.[52] Six northern, predominantly Protestant counties became Northern Ireland and have remained part of the United Kingdom ever since, despite demands of the Catholic minority to unite with the Republic of Ireland.[53] Britain officially adopted the name "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927.

European lawEdit

The European Communities Act 1972 (UK) incorporated European Community law into United Kingdom law, which subsequently became European Union law. It is arguable that the European Communities Act of 1972 is “semi-entrenched”; for as long as the UK remains a member of European Union that Act cannot be repealed.[7]

Devolution and other New Labour reformsEdit

First termEdit

In Labour's first term (1997–2001), it introduced a large package of constitutional reforms, which it promised in its 1997 manifesto. The most significant were:

Second termEdit

During the Labour government's second term (2001-2005), the House of Commons voted on seven options in February 2003 on what proportion of elected and appointed members (from 100% elected to 100% appointed) the House of Lords should have. None of the options received a majority.

In 2004, a Joint Committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords tasked with overseeing the drafting of the Civil Contingencies Bill, published its first report, in which, among other things, it suggested amending the bill's clauses that grant Cabinet Ministers the power "to disapply or modify any Act of Parliament" as overly wide, and that the bill should be modified to preclude changes to the following Acts, which, it suggested, formed "the fundamental parts of constitutional law" of the United Kingdom:[54]

This amendment was defeated by the government and the bill was passed without it. However, the government partially one recommendation — the Human Rights Act 1998 may not be amended by emergency regulations.

The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 created the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and guarantees judicial independence.

Conservative-Liberal Democrat reformsEdit

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition introduced several reforms including the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which reformed the Royal Prerogative and made other significant changes; the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which introduced fixed-term parliaments of 5 years.

A key Liberal Democrat policy was that of voting reform, to which a referendum took place in May 2011 on whether or not Britain should adopt a system of Alternative Vote to elect MPs to Westminster. However, the proposal was rejected overwhelmingly, with 68% of voters in favour of retaining first-past-the-post.

Royal succession in the Commonwealth RealmsEdit

In late October 2011, the prime ministers of the Commonwealth realms voted to grant gender equality in the royal succession, ending the male-preference primogeniture that was mandated by the Act of Settlement 1701.[55] The amendment, once enacted, also ended the ban on the monarch marrying a Catholic.[56] Following the Perth Agreement in 2011, legislation amending the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Act of Settlement 1701 came into effect across the Commonwealth realms on 26 March 2015 which changed the laws of succession to the British throne. In the United Kingdom, it was passed as the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.

Further devolutionEdit

Further powers were devolved under the Government of Wales Act 2006, Northern Ireland Act 2006, Northern Ireland Act 2009, Scotland Act 2012, Wales Act 2014, and the Scotland Act 2016.

Scottish Independence referendumEdit

On 18 September, a referendum was held in Scotland on whether to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country. The three UK-wide political parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats - campaigned together as part of the Better Together campaign while the pro-independence Scottish National Party was the main force in the Yes Scotland campaign, together with the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party. Days before the vote, with the opinion polls closing, the three Better Together party leaders issued 'The Vow', a promise of more powers for Scotland in the event of a No vote. The referendum resulted in Scotland voting by 55% to 45% to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The Smith Commission was announced by Prime Minister David Cameron on 19 September 2014 to propose the powers that would be devolved to the Scottish Government. Once the recommendations had been published they were debated in the UK Parliament and a command paper was published in January 2015 putting forward draft legislative proposals. A Scottish Parliament committee report published in May 2015 said that this draft bill did not meet the recommendations of the Smith Commission, specifically in relation to welfare payments. A spokesman for the UK Government said that a full Parliamentary discussion would follow.[57] A bill based on the Smith Commission's recommendations was announced by the UK government in the May 2015 Queen's Speech.[58] The bill subsequently became law as the Scotland Act 2016 in March 2016.

EU referendumEdit

On 20 February 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union would be held on 23 June 2016, following years of campaigning by eurosceptics. Debates and campaigns by parties supporting both "Remain" and "Leave" focused on concerns regarding trade and the single market, security, migration and sovereignty. The result of the referendum was in favour of the country leaving the EU with 51.9% of voters wanting to leave.[59] The UK remains a member for the time being, but is expected to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would begin negotiations on a withdrawal agreement that will last no more than two years (unless the Council and the UK agree to extend the negotiation period) which will ultimately lead to an exit from the European Union.[60]

In October 2016 the prime minister, Theresa May, promised a "Great Repeal Bill" which would repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and import its regulations into UK law, with effect from the date of British withdrawal. The regulations could then be amended or repealed on a case-by-case basis.[61]

The Supreme Court issued a ruling in January 2017 that an Act of Parliament is needed before the government can trigger Article 50 to leave the European Union.[62]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ US Senate Resolution 155 of 10 November 1997 formally acknowledges aforementioned declaration.
  2. ^ The single legal jurisdiction is now known as England and Wales.
  3. ^ Agreed to by Parliament of Scotland as part of the Treaty of Union.


  1. ^ "What is the UK Constitution?". UCL Constitution Unit. Retrieved 11 November 2014.
  2. ^ "What is the British Constitution?". The Constitution Society. Archived from the original on 11 December 2014. Retrieved 15 November 2014.
  3. ^ "The Big Question: Why doesn't the UK have a written constitution, and does it matter?". The Independent. 14 February 2008. Retrieved 15 November 2014.
  4. ^ "Magna Carta and contemporary constitutional change". History and Policy. 13 March 2015. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  5. ^ Turpin, Colin; Tomkins, Adam (2011). British Government and the Constitution. Cambridge University Press. p. 5. ISBN 9781139503860.
  6. ^ "Britain's unwritten constitution". British Library. Retrieved 27 November 2015.
  7. ^ a b "Bill of Rights 1689 - Commons Library Standard Note". UK Parliament. 5 October 2009. p. 5. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  8. ^ B. Webster, Medieval Scotland: the Making of an Identity (St. Martin's Press, 1997), ISBN 0333567617, p. 15.
  9. ^ B. Yorke, The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain c.600–800 (Pearson Education, 2006), ISBN 0582772923, p. 54.
  10. ^ A. O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, A.D. 500 to 1286 (General Books LLC, 2010), vol. i, ISBN 1152215728, p. 395.
  11. ^ Webster, Medieval Scotland, p. 22.
  12. ^ A. Woolf, From Pictland to Alba: 789 – 1070 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), ISBN 0748612343, p. 128.
  13. ^ B. T. Hudson, Kings of Celtic Scotland (Westport: Greenhill 1994), ISBN 0313290873, pp. 95–96.
  14. ^ G. W. S. Barrow, "David I of Scotland: The Balance of New and Old", in G. W. S. Barrow, ed., Scotland and Its Neighbours in the Middle Ages (London: Bloomsbury, 1992), ISBN 1852850523, pp. 9–11.
  15. ^ M. Lynch, Scotland: A New History (London: Random House, 2011), ISBN 1446475638, p. 80.
  16. ^ Webster, Medieval Scotland, pp. 29–37.
  17. ^ Webster, Medieval Scotland, pp. 45–7.
  18. ^ P. G. B. McNeill and Hector L. MacQueen, eds, Atlas of Scottish History to 1707 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), ISBN 0950390410, pp. 159–63.
  19. ^ Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community, pp. 14–15.
  20. ^ Mackie, Lenman and Parker, A History of Scotland, ISBN 0140136495.
  21. ^ Thomas, "The Renaissance", pp. 200–02.
  22. ^ G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce (Berkeley CA.: University of California Press, 1965), pp. 11–12.
  23. ^ Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community, pp. 22–3.
  24. ^ J. Goodacre, The Government of Scotland, 1560–1625 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), ISBN 0199243549, pp. 35 and 130.
  25. ^ Goodacre, The Government of Scotland, 1560–1625, pp. 150–1.
  26. ^ Mackie, Lenman and Parker, A History of Scotland, p. 287.
  27. ^ K. M. Brown and R. J. Tanner, The History of the Scottish Parliament volume 1: Parliament and Politics, 1235–1560 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp. 1–28.
  28. ^ Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community, p. 21.
  29. ^ Mitchison, A History of Scotland, p. 128.
  30. ^ McNeill and MacQueen,Atlas of Scottish History to 1707, pp. 191–4.
  31. ^ R. A. Houston, I. D. Whyte, Scottish Society, 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), ISBN 0521891671, p. 202.
  32. ^ R. Mitchison, Lordship to Patronage, Scotland 1603–1745 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), ISBN 074860233X, pp. 80–1.
  33. ^ Feilden, p.2
  34. ^ "Magna Carta: an introduction". The British Library. Retrieved 23 November 2014.
  35. ^ [1]
  36. ^ "Bill of Rights". The British Library. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  37. ^ "Rise of Parliament". The National Archives. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
  38. ^ "Constitutionalism: America & Beyond". Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State. Archived from the original on 24 October 2014. Retrieved 30 October 2014. The earliest, and perhaps greatest, victory for liberalism was achieved in England. The rising commercial class that had supported the Tudor monarchy in the 16th century led the revolutionary battle in the 17th, and succeeded in establishing the supremacy of Parliament and, eventually, of the House of Commons. What emerged as the distinctive feature of modern constitutionalism was not the insistence on the idea that the king is subject to law (although this concept is an essential attribute of all constitutionalism). This notion was already well established in the Middle Ages. What was distinctive was the establishment of effective means of political control whereby the rule of law might be enforced. Modern constitutionalism was born with the political requirement that representative government depended upon the consent of citizen subjects.... However, as can be seen through provisions in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the English Revolution was fought not just to protect the rights of property (in the narrow sense) but to establish those liberties which liberals believed essential to human dignity and moral worth. The "rights of man" enumerated in the English Bill of Rights gradually were proclaimed beyond the boundaries of England, notably in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789.
  39. ^ "Rule of Law". The British Library. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  40. ^ "The Rule of Law". The Constitution Society. Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  41. ^ "The Act of Settlement". UK Parliament. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  42. ^ "Independence". Courts and Tribunals Judiciary. Retrieved 9 November 2014.
  43. ^ "Acts of Union: exhibition marks the 300th anniversary of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1 May 1707". University of Aberdeen. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  44. ^ "Uniting the Kingdom?". The National Archives. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  45. ^ "Act of Union 1707". UK Parliament. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  46. ^ R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 3rd edn., 2002), ISBN 0415278805, p. 314.
  47. ^ Dr Andrew Blick and Professor George Jones — No 10 guest historian series, Prime Ministers and No. 10 (1 January 2012). "The Institution of Prime Minister". Government of the United Kingdom: History of Government Blog. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
  48. ^ Carter, Byrum E. (2015) [1955]. "The Historical Development of the Office of Prime Minister". Office of the Prime Minister. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400878260.
  49. ^ "The Act of Union". Act of Union Virtual Library. Retrieved 15 May 2006.
  50. ^ "Getting the vote". National Archives. Retrieved 16 November 2014.
  51. ^ "The History of the Parliamentary Franchise". House of Commons Library. 1 March 2013. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  52. ^ Joost Augusteign, ed., The Irish revolution, 1913–1923 (Basingstoke, 2002)
  53. ^ Thomas Henessy, A History of Northern Ireland, 1920–1996 (1998)
  54. ^ Joint Committee on Draft Civil Contingencies Bill - First Report
  55. ^ "Commonwealth agrees historic change to give sex equality in Royal succession". Daily Mail, 28 October 2011. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  56. ^ "British monarchs can soon marry Catholics". National Catholic Reporter, 28 October 2011. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  57. ^ "Holyrood powers bill 'falls short' of Smith proposals". BBC News. BBC. 14 May 2015. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  58. ^ "Scottish devolution: What next for Scotland?". BBC News. Scotland. 27 May 2015. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  59. ^ Erlanger, Steven (23 June 2016). "Britain Votes to Leave E.U., Stunning the World". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 June 2016.
  60. ^ EU Brexit referendum: UK 'must not delay leaving', BBC News. Retrieved 24 June 2016.
  61. ^ Mason, Rowena (2 October 2016). "Theresa May's 'great repeal bill': what's going to happen and when?". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 October 2016.
  62. ^ "Article 50 'Brexit' Appeal". The Supreme Court. 24 January 2017. Retrieved 28 January 2017.


  • Henry St Clair Feilden, "A Short Constitutional History of England". Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1882.

External linksEdit