The Constitution Explained

What are constitutions? Why do they matter? What are the components of the United Kingdom’s (UK) constitution? How does it all fit together? What are the main debates about the constitution and how has it developed over time? These are important questions, but it can be hard to find answers to them.

The Constitution Explained attempts to provide answers to these questions, and more. Starting with the basics and moving on to its various parts, we’ve broken down the UK constitution to try and provide an introduction that’s useful to a range of different audiences. In each section listed below you’ll find an overview of the different topics covering frequently asked questions, contemporary debates, historical trends and including a range of resources to help you understand what it’s all about.

Unlike many others countries, the UK famously lacks a ‘codified’ or ‘written’ constitution. This does not mean it does not have a constitution – just that it is spread across a number of places. This can make it particularly hard to understand. But it is important for the effective functioning of democracy that the political system is understood. Otherwise, it can be difficult to know when governments are breaking the rules or not doing what they should be doing. It can also make it hard to get involved in politics and to bring about change. We hope the Constitution Explained will be a useful tool for those looking to improve their understanding of the contemporary UK constitution and its history.

The sections have been designed with the A level Politics syllabus specifically in mind. But they should also be helpful to undergraduates, and anyone else besides who wants to find out more.

Click on any of the headings below to take you to the topic page.

The UK constitution

This page looks at the nature of the UK constitution compared to that of other countries, focusing on the pros and cons of having an ‘uncodified’ constitution. It also outlines the various sources of the UK constitution in statute, convention and the common and gives an overview of how it has changed over time and what the key developments have been.

Parliament

On this page, the role and functions of the UK Parliament are explained. The debate around reforming the House of Commons and the House of Lords is also covered. You’ll find recent changes to the way Parliament operates outlined as well.

The executive

This page details the roles and powers of the UK executive and in what documents we can find them set out. It also looks at the principles of cabinet government and collective cabinet responsibility, and explores the question of whether these principles are still adhered to as much as they once were.

Rights

This page gives on overview of what rights are and why they matter in a constitution. It looks at the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 and how the Act fits into/has changed the UK constitution. There is also a more general discussion about whether rights should be ‘entrenched’ or not.

The judiciary

This page focuses on the origins and function of the UK Supreme Court. It explains judicial review and touches on the Human Rights Act and the question of whether judges have become too politically active. The page on rights (below) has more detail on this. Also introduced is the concept of sovereignty and some of the debates surrounding it.

Electoral systems

This page explores what electoral systems are and why they are important. It sets out the main features of all of the electoral systems in use in the UK. In particular, readers will get an introduction to some of the criticisms of First-Past-the-Post and the debate about whether the UK should more to a more proportional system for parliamentary elections.

Devolution

On this page, you’ll find out what devolution is and how it came about. Devolved elections, powers and the relationship of the devolved governments to central government are all looked at. How devolution fits into the bigger picture is also considered, including the debate around federalism, asymmetry, and whether there should be more devolution to England.

Direct democracy

The differences between direct democracy and representative democracy are set out on this page. Also explored are the different methods of direct democracy and their use in contemporary contexts, including in the UK. The debate around referendums, popular democracy and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is also touched on here.

Political ideas

This page gives some further insight into the political ideas that underpin different approaches to the UK constitution.

More detail

If you’re looking to dig into these topics in more detail, we recommend getting a copy of Professor Andrew Blick’s recent book UK Politics, which provides a comprehensive overview of the UK political system. The book will be especially helpful for recent Politics undergraduates.

Finally, if you have any comments or feedback on the Constitution Explained please don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing info@constitutionsoc.org.uk.