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Unit 2 - Governing the UK[edit]

What is the nature of the UK constitution?[edit]

Key concepts

Content explanation

an understanding of the nature, working and major principles of the UK constitution within the context of EU membership and a comparitive knowledge of different types of constitution.

What is the role and signficance of Parliament?[edit]

Key concepts

Content explanation

a knoweldge of the functions of Parliament and an ability to discuss how well these functions are performed; in particular, the relationship between Parliament and the Executive
a comparative knowledge of the difference between parliamentary and presidential systems is required

Who has power within the executive?[edit]

Key concepts

Content explanation

a knowledge of the distribution of power within the UK executive. A knowledge of the factors that influence the relationship between the prime minister and cabinet. A knowledge of the relationship between ministers and civil servants and of their accountability to Parliament and the public.

Do judges deliver justice and defend freedom?[edit]

Key concepts

Content explanation

a knowledge of the role of the courts in relation to the Parliament and the executive. An understanding of the impact of the courts and the issues of civil liberties and individual rights.



  • Strengths of codified: enshrined in single authoritative document, branches of government clearly seperated, rights safeguarded, proceedures for amendment, educative, fewer constitutional crises
  • Weaknesses of codified: Not as flexible, amendable or evolutionary as an uncodified constitution; decisions in hands of politicians not judges
  • Codified constitution: Laws, rules and principles specifying how a state is to be governed are laid out in a signle constitutional document.
  • Constitution: Set of laws, rules and practices that specify how a state is to be governed, and which define the relationship betweeen the state and the individual
  • Constitutional: Political behaviour that is in accordiance with accepted rules and norms
  • Constitutional government: Government that operates within an agreed set of legal and political constraints
  • Uncodified constitution: The laws, rules and principles specifying how a state is to be governed are not set out in a single and entrenched document, but are found in a variety of sources
  • Unconstitutional: Behaviour that falls outside the accepted rules and norms of the political system
  • Sources of the UK constitution: Statute law (Acts of Parliament), common law (court decisions), conventions, authoritative works, European Union law
  • Common law: law derived from decisions in court cases and from general customs
  • Convention: An established norm of political behaviour rooted in past experience rather than law
  • Statute law: Law derived from Acts of Parliament and subordinate legislation
  • Rule of law: A system of rule where the relationship between the state and the individual is governed by law, protecting the individual from arbitrary state action
  • Precedent: A judicial ruling that becomes an authority when deciding later cases
  • Royal prerogative: Deiscretionary powers of the Crown that are exercised in the monarch's name by government ministers
  • Parliamentary sovereignty: The doctrine that parliament is the supreme law-making body in the UK and its decisions cannot be overturned by any higher authority
  • Sovereignty: Legal supremecy; law-mmaking authority that is not subject to a higher authority, Parliament is the Sovereign authority in the United Kingdom
  • Devolution: The transfer of political power from central government to a subnational government, e.g. the National Assembly in Wales and the Scottish Parliament
  • Federalism: The sharing of power, enshrined in a constitution, between national and regional authorities e.g. the United States of America
  • Union state: A state in which there are cultural differences and where, despite a strong centre, different parts of the state are governed in slightly different ways; this is how the United Kingdom post-1997 and post-devolution can be defied
  • Unitary state: A homogeneous state in which power is concentrated at the political centre and all parts of the state are governed in the same way
  • Cabinet government: A system of governemnt in which executive power is vested in a power, whose members exercise collective responsibility, rather than a single office
  • Constitutional monarchy: A political system in which the monarch is the formal head of state, but the monarch's legal powers are exercised by government ministers
  • Parliamentary government: A political system in which governemnt takes place through parliament, blurring the boundaries between the exercutive and legislative branches
  • Prime ministerial government: The view that the prime minister has become the dominany actor in UK government and is able to bypass the cabinet
  • Key principles of the UK constitution: parliament is sovereign, rule of law, unitary state, government takes place through parliament in a constitutional monarchy, UK membership of the EU
  • Strengths of traditional constitution (uncodified constitution): coherent system of government, evolved, clear centre, rights (due to rule of law), accountability, govt. effective in terms of policy, flexibility
  • Weaknesses of traditional constitution (uncodified constitution): centralised, unprotective of subnational, rights are weak, pre-democratic, unclear, changes too easy


  • Role of parliament: passing legislation, scrutiny, representation, recruitment, debate
  • Role of backbenchers: representating constituencies, serving constituents, voting on legislation, debates, committee work, private members' bills, executive scrutiny
  • Legislative process: Queen's speech, first reading, second reading, committee stage, report stage, third reading, house of lords, royal assent
  • Role of the House of Lords: Executive scrutiny, debate, revision of legislation, recruitment of ministers
  • Bill: A proposed piece of legislation, up to the moment when it passes all the necessary parliamentary stages and is signed by the monarch. At this point it is an act of parliament
  • Green paper: A document published by the government, typically setting out alternative proposals for future legislation. Green papers are rather like invitations for interested parties to express views
  • Westminster Parliament is still the centrepeice of UK democracy, despite devolution and the increasing importance of EU legislation
  • No resignations over BSE.
  • In recent years people have grown more disillusioned with the whole political process in the UK, and with parliament in particular
  • The main reasons for discontent are the power of the executive, the strength of political parties and the lack of independent initiative among MPs
  • There have been numerous ides for reforming parliament, but the chances of making significant improvements are very slim while governments have a vested interest in preventing ordinary MPs from living up to public expectations, and prefer an appointed chamber to an elected House of Lords
  • While governments of all parties confine themselves to tinkering with parliamentary procedure, developments sucha as the growth of "semi-autonomous" agencies mean that ministers are far less accountable now.


  • Cabinet government: A system of government in which executive power is vested in a cabinet, whose members exercise collective responsibility, rather than a single office.
  • Core executive: The organisations and actors who coordinate central government activity, including the prime minister, the cabinet, cabinet committees, the Prime Minister's Office, the Cabinet Office and top civil servents
  • Prime Ministerial government: The view that the prime minister has become the dominant actor in UK government and is able to bypass the cabinet
  • Roles of Prime Minister (patronage, Authority in cabinet, Party leadership, Party standing, Policy-making role, Prime Minister's Offce):
    • Patronage: appoints ministers, reshuffles cabinet, allocates cabinet posts, dismisses ministers
      • Constraints - senior colleages for inclusion, Labour PM required shadow cabinet, ideological balance, botched reshuffles, sacked may emerge as rival, availability of talented backbenchers
    • Authority in the cabinet system: chairs cabinet meetings, cabinet agenda, sums up, bilateral meetings, appoints chairs of committees, restructurs
      • Constraints - requires cabinet support on major/controvertial issues, senior ministers have authority, problem if minister feel ignored, not involved in detail
    • Party leadership: authority in position, elected, majority of HoC
      • Constraints - party support not unconditional, backbench rebellion
    • Public standing: high profile, communicator-in-chief, crisis leader, international representative
      • Constraints - unpopularity undermines authority, focus of media criticism
    • Policy-making: directs policy/sets agenda, policy areas of choosing, key in times of crisis
      • Constraints - limited time/lack knowledge, lack resources provided by departments, lack of success
    • Prime Minister's Office: advice/support for PM, helps PM over policy/communication, special advisers, reorganised government structure
      • Constraints - limited resources, power of other departments
  • Summarised role of prime minister: providing direction for government, political and party leadership, making appointments to major public offices, charing the cabinet and steering it's decisions, answering PMQs, choosing date of general electionm, communication, international representative
  • Blair premiership: commanding, emphasis on policy and joined-up government, strengthening PM Office and Cabinet Office, growth in special advisers, proliferation of task forces, strong in parliament, party and opinoin poles, communicator in chief, influence of Gordon Brown
  • Role of Cabinet: registering decisins made in cabinet committees, handling political crises, discussing major issues, receiving reports on recent developments, settling disputes between departments
  • Bilateral meeting - A meeting between the prime minister and a departmental minister in which policy is agreed
  • Cabinet - The meeting of senior ministers and heads of government departsments. It is formally the key decision-making body in UK government,
  • Cabinet committees - Committees appointed by the prime minister to consider aspects of government business. They include standing committees and ad hoc committees.
  • Kitchen cabinet - an informal grouping of the prime minister's senior ministerial colleagues and special advisers.
  • Collective responsibility weakened: Temporary suspension, leaks, dissent and non-resignation, prime ministerial dominance
  • Roles of ministers: policy leadership, representing departmental interests, departmental management, relations with parliament
  • May resign if: mistakes made within departments, policy failure, political pressure, personal misconduct, collective responsibility
  • Collective responsibility: The convention that all members of the government are collectively responsible for government policy. Ministers who oppose a key element of government policy should resign
  • Individual ministerial responsibility: THe convention that ministers are responsible to parliament for the policy of their department, the actions of officials within it, and their own misconduct.
  • Principles of civil service: impartiality, anonymity, permanence
  • Civil servant - an official employed in a civil capacity by the Crown
  • Special adviser - A temporary political appointment made by government minister
  • Compulsory competitive tendering - The policy that public bodies are compelled to open up contracts to provide services to outside bodies
  • Executive agency - An agency performing a government policy delivery function that is subordinate to, but not controlled by, a government department
  • Market-testing - The policy that activities provided by public bodies such as government departments should be subject to tests for efficiency, including outside bids to provide services
  • Privatisation - The transfer of state-owned assets to the private sector, often through the sale of shares
  • Public-private partnership - An initiative to bring private sector finance into the provision of public sector functions
  • Reforms under Conservatives of Civil Service: efficiency, agencies, markets, privatisation, management, regulation
  • Concerns: fragmentation, inappropriate business practices, accountability, politicisation


  • Fusion of powers: A feature of UK government in which the three branches of government do not operate independently
  • Judiciary: The governmental branch responsible for interpretation and enforcement of laws through courts
  • Redress of grievances: A remedy for a citizen's compaint about an administrative action taken by any publicly funded body
  • Judiciary independency and impartiality: Liberal democratic theory suggests that freedom depends on judicial indpendence from the executive, and that citizens must have confidence that any grievences against the government can be redressed. IN the UK, prior to June 2003 reforms, the judciary was tied closely to the executive through the political role of the Lord Chancellor, who was head of the judiciary.
  • Civil liberties: Freedoms possessed by a country's citizens that are guaranteed in law, with corresponding obligations imposed on government for their observance
  • Human rights: Claims to fundamental freedoms advanced by citizens, whether or not they're are guaranteed in the law of a particular country
  • As a result of the increased power of the law, demand is growing for a judiciary that enjoys greater constitutional independence
  • While judges are becoming more active and powerful, they are still unrepresentative of ordinary people
  • By June 2003, the position of Lord Chancellor was ripe for reform, as Britain moved slowly towards a written constitution with a separation of powers