Recent changes in the constitution of Great Britain

Seminar Paper, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)



1. Introduction

2. Attitudes towards the constitution and its changes
2.1. Reforms of Parliament
2.2. Electoral Reform
2.3. Individual Rights
2.4. Devolution and regional government
2.5. Written constitution or not

3. Conclusion


Before dealing with the actual topic it is necessary to explain how the current situation could arise. This will be done in the following with a very brief overview over the history of the British constitution and its main sources.

The first document belonging to the constitution is the Magna Charta from 1215. It was to protect the rights of the community against the Crown. As a result of the Declaration of Rights the powers of Parliament were extended by the Bill of Rights in 1689. Thirdly in 1832 was the Great Reform Bill which reformed the system of Parliamentary representation. The last great reforms were in 1911 the Parliament Act which decreased the power of the House of Lords and in1918 the Representation of the People Act which gave women over 30 the right to vote. As a result of this development the British people are not citizens as in any other modern, democratic state but they are subjects of the Crown and accept the Queen as their head of state.

It can be seen that the constitution dates back almost 800 years. This is much more than many other constitutions, for example the German one. As one can imagine it has undergone many grave changes. During the 18th century it was an aristocratic 'balanced' constitution. In the course of the Victorian Age it became a middle-class liberal constitution which developed to the liberal democratic constitution that it is today. Furthermore a few words to the process of change have to be said in advance. This process consists of dialogue between the forces of conservation on the one hand and the forces of transformation on the other. The resulting upshot is always a compromise which represents the terms and arrangements on which a country can be ruled and which the people will accept.[1]

2. Attitudes towards the constitution and its changes

As a result of the development outlined above Britain has now a unitary, uncodified (often called 'unwritten') and flexible constitution. These characteristics can also be seen as the explanation why the constitution could be changed so often and above all so gravely. At the moment there are many discussions going on how to reform it. There are of course various points of view from no change at all to radical reforms, but the greatest difference between the reformers is that some want piecemeal reforms; however radical and others champion a written constitution. All political parties have different attitudes and several groups and individuals support changes only on certain fields such as devolution. During the last 15 years there has been a movement for constitutional reform which was never seen in Britain before to such an extent. A very important step in this direction marked the foundation of the "Charter 88" (named after the charter from 1688), an independent organisation of politicians, academics, lawyers, writers and journalists. It has over 80,000 supporters “that believe there is a better way to run the country.”[2] They call for a Bill of Rights, for a written constitution to define and limit the powers of Parliament, for a reform of the House of Lords to make it a democratic and non-hereditary chamber and for Proportional Representation (short PR) instead of the first-past-the-post electoral system. It is said that these demands are at least partly due to the long period of Conservative government, first under Margaret Thatcher and then under John Mayor, during which the opposition came to the insight that the constitutional situation as it was then no longer worked the way it was supposed to work. It simply gave too much power to the governing party.

In the following the opinions of Britain's three most popular parties will be compared in respect to the topics reforms in Parliament, electoral reform, individual rights (including Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information Act), devolution and whether Britain should have a written constitution or not. The steps that have been taken already and the ones that are to be taken will also be discussed.

2.1. Reforms of Parliament

The governing Labour Party introduced a “constitutional reform” programme during its first term (which can bee seen as its biggest achievement by the way). This can be put down to Labour’s general attitude towards constitutional changes, which can be characterised as ”Steps towards measured, sensible reforms of the ‘centralised, inefficient and bureaucratic’ system of government.”[3] So according to the above mentioned theory the Liberals can be characterised as the ‘forces of transformation’ and the Conservatives as the ‘forces of conservation’, who want gradual improvement rather than radical changes. The Liberal Democrats set the “priority to restoring trust between people and government, renewing Britain’s democracy and giving the government back to the people”[4].

One of the most extensive reforms is the one of the House of Lords including a series of changes, which may come in action in the next term if the government accepts all proposals. Charter 88 calls the changes “a victory for those campaigning for a more democratic UK.”[5] Stage one was to remove most of the hereditary peers. Only 92 were left to stay during a transitional period. These measures are likely to be taken[6]:

- introduction of a ‘people’s peer’ to represent the man and woman in the street
- creation of a new upper house with about 550 mostly elected members, these members are to be elected on a regional basis using Proportional Representation
- at least 20% of crossbenchers to avoid domination of one party
- introduction of an independent Appointments Commission to ensure a balance concerning gender and ethnicity, to act as “filter” to avoid unsatisfactory candidates and to make sure that party balance does not favour governing party
- slight extent of power to delay secondary legislation up to 3 months
- new Constitutional, Human Rights, Devolution and Treaties Committees
- get power to delay secondary legislation up to three months


[1] Coxall, Bill/Robins, Lynton: Contemporary British Politics. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998, p. 165

[2] [ 2003-06-03 ]

[3] Coxall, Bill/Robins, Lynton : Contemporary British Politics. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998, p. 173

[4] ibid.

[5] [2003-06-03]

[6] [2003-06-03]

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Recent changes in the constitution of Great Britain
University of Leipzig  (Anglistics)
British Politics and Society Today: An Introduction
2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
422 KB
Recent, Great, Britain, British, Politics, Society, Today, Introduction
Quote paper
Maria Brüßler (Author), 2003, Recent changes in the constitution of Great Britain, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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