The way in which a country is governed, and power is organised and distributed, is called its constitution.
In many countries the constitution is written down. They therefore have what is known as a written constitution.
In the countries of the United Kingdom we do not have a written constitution to tell us how power is to be divided up. The way in which we are governed is of course known, and has been written about in many books, but we do not have one document which sets it all out for us.
Until 2000 we had no single document to guarantee our rights as citizens, but that at least has changed. But We do now have a statute which guarantees our 'human rights'—the Human Rights Act 1998 and we will be looking at the rights which it confers later in this book.
The British unwritten constitutionhas been developing for over 700 years, and it continues to do so. It is in part founded upon statute and case law, but mainly upon custom and convention—the widely accepted view of proper behaviour, which has become hardened into accepted rules of law. According to Laws of England, the constitution is based upon the idea that 'no body or political party has a monopoly of wisdom, that State bodies should be democratically and legally accountable, and that they should promote good government in the general interest, rather than in their personal interests or the interests of limited sections of society.'
In practice this means that no one person should be given so much power that he or she can become a dictator and tyrant. Power is separated and distributed in such a way that this cannot happen. This principle is called the separation of powers.
The British Constitutionis therefore unwritten and it is flexible. It is open to relatively quick change by Act of Parliament to meet the changing needs of the nation. This is one important difference between our system and that of the USA, which, being written, is more rigid, and can only be changed by special procedures, which can take a long time.
6. The Branches of Government : The Legislature, Executive and Judiciary
In the United Kingdom (UK), power is divided so as to ensure that it never becomes dangerously concentrated in the hands of one person, or even a small group of people, the idea is to separate and therefore limit the powers of government by splitting governmental functions into the legislative, executive and judiciary.
1. THE MONARCH / CROWN The Queen
2. LEGISLATURE 3. EXECUTIVE 4. JUDICIARY
Parliament Government Judges
Members of Parliament (MPs) Prime Minister and other Ministers in House of Commons and of State in Cabinet Peers in House of Lords (in political party with majority of MPs)
The roles of the legislature, executive, and judiciary in UK constitution.
The Legislature It is a kind of assembly with the power to pass, amend, and repeal laws. The law created by a legislature is called legislation or statutory law. In England their chief law maker is The Queen in Parliament. All Acts of Parliament must receive the Royal Assent—the Queen's agreement and her signature, before they can become law.
THE EXECUTIVE The Executive is the power which can take the initiative for change: it can take action. LOCAL GOVERNMENT In the 'town and country' the local authority in each area decides such matters as who should clean the streets, what the traffic speed and parking restrictions might be, and what sort of school organisations we should have. The executive in the Local Authority is formed by the political party which wins the local elections, and has greatest number of councillorson each county or borough council. The local executive is therefore voted in (and can be voted out) by the people. NATIONAL GOVERNMENT The national executive is always known as the Government. It is formed from the winning political party at the nationwide General Election.
The leader of that winning party becomes Prime Minister. He or she chooses other members of that party to be in charge of different aspects of government—for example, foreign affairs, money and taxation, law and order
The Government makes the day-to-day decisions about the public life of the country: foreign policy—even war and peace; the level of taxation; expenditure on roads, hospitals, education, and welfare.
THE JUDICIARY The Judiciary (judges) has two vital roles in UK constitution. First, where there is any dispute about constitutional law, the judges must decide what the law is. Their most important role, however, is to act as an independent check on the powers of the executive. Only the courts have the authority to stop any individual or body of persons from exceeding their powers, or making improper use of their powers. This is known as preventing an abuse of power.
We should therefore understand that:
Legislature. The Queen is a part of the legislature—here she is known as 'the Queen in Parliament'. It is the Queen who opens and dissolves (closes) Parliament. Laws passed by Parliament can become laws of the land only when she signs her assent to them. The last occasion on which Royal Assent was refused by a monarch was 300 years ago. It is now a feature of the constitution that the monarch always gives Royal Assent to laws passed in Parliament—it is her 'constitutional duty' to do so.
Executive. The Queen is head of the executive. Government operates in her name. It is the Queen who invites a new Prime Minister to form a Government. The Government Ministers are chosen by the Prime Minister, but they are formally granted their 'seals of office' by the Queen, and are called 'Ministers of the Crown'. Even the leader of the largest 'minority' party, which opposes the Government in Parliament, is called 'Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition', and is paid a special salary for holding this office.
Judiciary. It is in the 'name of the Queen' that our system of justice is administered. The sovereign is the 'fountain of justice and mercy'. The actual power of doing justice in the courts has been placed in the hands of the judges but they are all called 'Her Majesty's Judges'; they receive their 'Warrants of Appointment' from the Queen and all courts display the Royal Coat of Arms to show that they do their work in the name of the Queen. All criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the Queen. The cases are called R v Smith, or Jones or whatever the defendant is called. Here 'R v' means 'Rex versus' or 'Regina versus'—'The King against' or 'The Queen against'—depending on whether we have a king or queen on the throne. Even the prisons are 'HM [Her Majesty's] prisons'. We saw earlier how hundreds of years ago the king would sit in court to hear cases. Today, however, the Queen does not actually sit in court, for all justice is administered 'in her name'.