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Constitution in United Kingdom

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Definition of Constitution

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Constitution :

The rules and practices that determine the composition and functions of the organs of central and local government in a state and regulate the relationship between the individual and the state. Most states have a written constitution, one of the fundamental provisions of which is that it can itself be amended only in accordance with a special procedure. The constitution of the UK is largely unwritte It consists partly of statutes, for the amendment of which by subsequent statutes no special procedure is required (See Act of Parliament), but also, to a very significant extent, of *common law rules and *constitutional conventions.

English Constitution

Introduction to Constitution

English Constitution, organic law of the United Kingdom providing for the form and powers of government. It is rooted in historic traditions and principles of liberty, which, in many respects, antedate the promulgation of the Magna Carta in 1215, and which, since the 19th century, have been held to affirm popular sovereignty.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution and most other constitutions, the English constitution is not a systematic written statement of law, but consists of a body of statutory law, customs, and judicial interpretations; it is frequently called a customary or unwritten constitution. As an example, English law makes no provision for so essential a feature of the British government as the cabinet, which originated in the 15th century as an advisory council to the king, and developed, in connection with the rise of representative government, to its present status as the executive branch of the government. Unlike constitutions that make explicit provision for their amendment and are often difficult to change, the English constitution may be changed easily. It may be altered, and in the past it has been altered, through the slow accretion of custom, by an act of Parliament, or by judicial interpretation.

Historians emphasize the antiquity and flexibility of the English constitution. Its uninterrupted development may be traced over a period of more than 900 years, from the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Throughout this period it remained adaptable, serving in turn the needs of medieval society and the rule of the bourgeoisie who established representative government and the former British Empire. It is now compatible with such recent liberal measures as comprehensive social insurance and the nationalization of basic industries and the Bank of England. See also British Political and Social Thought.” (1)

Meaning of Constitution

The following is an old definition of Constitution [1]: Originally, an important decree or edict. Later, the laws and usages which gave a government its characteristic features – the organic law.0 The constitution of England consists of customs, statutes, common laws, and decisions of fundamental importance. American constitutions are enacted; but the meaning of much of them is found in decided cases. 0 The English, constitution is a growth. Rights in favor of the Commons were established as follows: (1) In the reign of Henry III (1216-72), participation in levying taxes and in legislation, and control of applications for supplies. (2) In the reign of Edw. III (1326-77), enlarged participation in levying taxes and in legislation; inquiry into public abuses; impeachment of public ministers. (3) In the reigns of Hen. IV, V, and VI (1399-1461), the exclusive right to impose taxes; the right to grant supplies to the sovereign upon redress of grievances; larger participation in legislation; control of the administration; impeachment of ministers; and certain rights of privilege – freedom of speech in Parliament, freedom from arrest during attendance upon Parliament, and the right of deciding upon election returns. An act of extraordinary legislation by which the people establish the structure and mechanism of their government, and in which they prescribe fundamental rules to regulate the motion of the several parts. The body of rules and maxims in accordance with which the powers of sovereignty are habitually exercised. Although, in some sense, every State may be said to have a constitution, the expression ” constitutional government ” applies to those States only whose fundamental rules or maxims prescribe how those shall be chosen who are to exercise the sovereign powers, and impose restraints upon that exercise, for the purpose of protecting individual rights, and of shielding them against any assumption of arbitrary power. If the constitution is unwritten there maybe laws or documents which declare some of its important principles; as, in England, in the cases of the Magna Charta, Petition of Rights. Habeas Corpus Act, Bills of Rights, and the Common Law as the expositor of those charters. In America, the principle of constitutional liberty is that sovereignty resides in the people; and, as they could not collectively exercise the powers of government, written constitutions were agreed upon. These instruments create departments for the exercise of sovereign powers; prescribe the extent and methods of the exercise, and, in some particulars, forbid that certain powers, which would be within the compass of sovereignty, shall be exercised at all. Each constitution is, moreover, a covenant on the part of the people with each individual thereof, that they have divested themselves of the power of making changes in the fundamental law except as agreed upon in the constitution itself. A written constitution establishes iron rules, which, when found inconvenient, are difficult of change; it is sometimes construed by technical rules of verbal criticism rather than in the hight of great principles; and it is likely to invade the domain of legislation, instead of being restricted to fundamental rules, and thereby to invite demoralizing evasions. An unwritten constitution is subject to perpetual change at the will of the law-making authority; against which there can be no security except in the conservatism of that authority, and in its responsibility to the people, or, if no such responsibility exists, then in the fear of resistance by force. Our State constitutions are forms of government ordained and established by the people in their original sovereign capacity to promote their own happiness and permanently secure their rights, property, independence, and common welfare. They are deemed compacts in the sense of their being founded on the voluntary consent or agreement of a majority of the qualified voters of the State. A constitution is in fact a fundamental law or basis of government, and falls strictly within the definition of “law” as given by Blackstone, – a rule of action prescribed by the supreme power in a state, regulating the rights and duties of the whole community. It is in this light that the language of the Constitution of the United States contemplates it; for it declares that this constitution, etc., “shall be the supreme Law of the land.” A constitution is the letter of attorney from the people. Constitutions guard the rights of personal security, personal liberty, private property, and of religious professions and worship. Constitutions are mainly for the protection of minorities. In times of excitement and distress, their rights are most likely to be sacrificed. By the Revolution the transcendant powers of Parliament devolved upon the people. A portion of this power they delegated to the government of the United States. Such as remained they bestowed upon the governments of the States, with certain express limitations and exceptions. The Federal Constitution confers powers particularly enumerated; that of each State is a grant of all powers not excepted. The former is construed strictly against those who claim under it; the latter, strictly against those who stand upon the exceptions, and liberally in favor of the government itself. The Federal government can do whatever is authorized, expressly or by clear implication; the government of a State, whatever is not prohibited. The Federal Constitution went into effect the first Wednesday of March, 1789. September 14, 1786, commissioners from five States met at Annapolis, and recomimended that a general convention be held at Philadelphia, to revise the Articles of Confederation. February 21, 1787, the congress of the confederation made a similar recommendation. May 25, 1787, the delegates assembled, organized, and, about four months later, to wit, September 17th, adjourned, having drafted a ” Constitution of the United States of America.” June 21, 1788, the document, as a constitution, was ratified by the ninth State. September 13, 1788, Congress set the time for choosing Presidential electors, appointing March 4, 1789, as the day, and New York City as the place, when and where the new Government of the United States should begin operations. See Confederation, Articles of; National. The Constitution was ordained and established by ” the people of the United States.” It was not necessarily carved out of existing State sovereignties, nor was it a surrender of powers already existing in State institutions, for the powers of the States depend upon their own constitutions; and the people of every State had the right to modify and restrain them, according to their own views of policy or principle. On the other hand, it is clear that the sovereign powers vested in the State governments, by their respective constitutions, remained unaltered and unimpaired, except so far as they were granted to the government of the United States. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (Amd. Art. X) The government, then, can claim no powers which are not granted to it, and the powers actually granted must be such as are expressly given, or given by necessary implication. . . The instrument is to have a reasonable construction, according to the import of its terms; and where a power is expressly given in general terms, it is not to be restricted to particular cases, unless that construction grows out of the context expressly, or by necessary implication. The words are to be taken in their natural and obvious sense, not in a sense unreasonably restricted or enlarged. It unavoidably deals in general language. It did not suit the purpose of the people in framing this great charter of our liberties to provide for minute specifications of its powers, or to declare the means by which these powers should be carried into execution. It was foreseen that this would be a perilous and difficult, if not an impracticable, task. The instrument was intended to endure through a long lapse of ages. It could not be foreseen what new changes and modifications of power might’ be indispensable to effectuate the general objects; and restrictions and specifications, which, at the present, might seem salutary, might, in the end, prove the overthrow of the system itself. Hence its powers are expressed in general terms, leaving the legislature, from time to time, to adopt its own means to effectuate legitimate objects, and to mould and model the exercise of its powers, as its own wisdom, and the public interests, require. The Federal government is one of enumerated powers. The question respecting the extent of the powers actually granted will continue to arise, as long as our system shall exist. There is no phrase in the instrument which excludes incidental or implied powers, and which requires that everything Ranted shall be expressly and minutely described. Even the Tenth Amendment, framed for the purpose of quieting the excessive jealousies which had been excited, omits the word “expressly,” and declares only that the powers ” not delegated to the United States, . . nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people;” thus leaving the question, whether the particular power, which may become the subject of contest, has been delegated to the one government or prohibited to the other, to depend upon a fair construction of the whole instrument. A constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and of all the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. Its nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which comipose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves. The powers given imply at least the ordinary means of execution. . The government which has a right to do an act, and has Imposed on it the duty of performing that act, must be allowed to select the means. But this use of means is not left to general reasoning. To the enumerated powers is added that of making “all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” (Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 18.) “Necessary” (g. v.) does not here import an absolute physical necessity, so strong that one thing to which another may be termed necessary cannot exist without that other. If this clause does not enlarge it cannot be construed to restrain the powers of Congress, or to impair the right of the legislature to exercise its best judgment in the selection of measures to carry into execution the constitutional powers of the government. The revolution which established the Constitution was not effected without immense opposition. Fears were entertained that the very powers which were essential to union miglit be exercised in a manner dangerous to liberty. The rule laid down in M’Culloch v. Maryland has ever since been accepted as a correct exposition of the Constitution. It is settled that the words “all Laws which shall be necessary and proper tor carrying into Execution” powera expressly granted or Tested have a sense equivalent to the words: laws, not absolutely necessary Indeed, but appropriate, plainly adapted to constitutional and legitimate ends; laws not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution; laws really calculated to effect objects intrusted to the government. It was needful only to make express grants of general powers, coupled with a further grant of such incidental and auxiliary powers as might be required for the exercise of the powers expressly granted. Perhaps the largest part of the functions of the government have been performed in the exercise of implied powers. It is indispensable to keep in view the objects for which the powers were granted. If the general purpose of an instrument of any nature is ascertained the language of its provisions must be construed with reference to that purpose and so as to subserve it. And there are more urgent reasons for looking to the ultimate purpose in examining the powers conferred by the Constitution than there are for construing any other instrument. We do not expect to find in a constitution minute details. It is necessarily brief and comprehensive. It prescribes outlines, leaving the filling up to be deduced from these outlines. . . The powers conferred upon Congress must be regarded as related to each other, and all means for a common end. Each is but part of a system, a constituent of one whole. No single power is the ultimate end for which the Constitution was adopted. A subordinate object is itself a means designed for an ulterior purpose. It is impossible to know what those non-enumeraied powers are, and what their nature and extent, without considering the purposes they were intended to subserve. Those purposes reach beyond the mere execution of all powers definitely intrusted to Congress and mentioned in detail. . In the nature of things, enumeration and specification of all the means or instrumentalities, necessary for the preservation and fulfillment of acknowledged duties, were impossible. They are left to the discretion of Congress, subject only to the restrictions that they be not prohibited and be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the enumerated powers. . . The existence of a power may be deduced fairly from more than one of the substantive powers expressly defined. . . Congress has often exercised powers not expressly given nor ancillary to any single enumerated power. These are resulting powers, arising from the aggregate powers. Illustrative instances of the recognition and exercise of such powers are found m the right to sue, and to make contracts; the oath required of officers;building a capitol or Presidential mansion; the penal code; the census “of free white persons in the States,” as to persons not free and in the Territories: the collection of statistics; carrying the mails, and punishing offenses against the postal laws; improv ing harbors; establishing observatories, light-houses, break-waters; the registiy and construction of ships, and the government of seamen; the United States bank – for the convenience of the treasury and internal commerce, and to which the government subscribed one-fifth of the stock, although the bank was a private corporation doing business for its own profit priority of debts due to the United States over other creditors; the Legal Tender Acts of 1863 and 1863. Constitutions are instruments of a practical nature, founded on the common business of human life, adapted to common wants, designed for common use, and fitted for common understandings. A constitutional provision is ” self-executing ” or ” self -enacting ” when it supplies the rule by which the right given may be enjoyed and protected, or the duty imposed may be enforced. It is not self-executing when it merely indicates the principles, without laying down rules by means of which those principles may be given the force of law. . . Some provisions are mandatory; others, without legislation, are dormant.


Notes and References

  1. Concept of Constitution provided by the Anderson Dictionary of Law (1889)


Notes and References

  • Information about Constitution in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  • Guide to Constitution

    The Constitution in the History

    The British Constitution consists of all the laws and practices that govern the United Kingdom. It details the relationship between the individual and the state as well as the relationship of the three powers: the Judicial (courts), Legislative (The Commons/ Lords) and Executive (Symbolically the Queen although her powers are now exercised predominantly by the Prime Minister). The British Constitution is not formed of one document as many other constitutions are – US, France etc. – but is made up of a variety of sources. This is called an uncodified constitution.

    Constitution Meaning in Politics

    Description of Constitution published by Mona Chalabi: Unlike in the United States, there is no written constitution in the United Kingdom As a result, history counts a great deal — the United Kingdom “constitution” is just the accumulation of decisions and practices over time.

    Constitution Meaning, as used in the UK Parliament

    A constitution is the set of principles and rules by which a country is organised and it is usually contained in one document. In the UK a constitution has never been codified in this way; instead, the various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which, taken together, govern how the UK is run are referred to collectively as the British Constitution.

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    • Article Name: Constitution
    • Author: Danny W.
    • Description: Definition of Constitution In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Constitution : The [...]

    This entry was last updated: April 27, 2017


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