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Great Britain

The United Kingdom is a constitutional hereditary monarchy, a democratic state without a written constitution, in which it is not the people but the parliament that functions as sovereign. The prime minister has extensive decision-making power.

Front row, British Queen Elizabeth II, 3rd left, and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, 3rd right, at Clarence House, London. (& copy AP)

introduction

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the only European state without a constitution formulated in a single document. However, this does not mean that there are no written constitutional sources. These include the existing legal regulations, traditional conventions and recognized representations of the constitutional principles. Of particular historical importance are:
  • the Magna Charta of 1215, to which the legal binding of the exercise of political power is attributed,
  • the Petition of Rights of 1628, which made tax collection dependent on parliamentary approval and guaranteed protection against arbitrary arrest, and
  • the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which is now also interpreted as a provision to protect against imprisonment without trial.

Source text

A momentous break in the monarchical tradition - Oliver Cromwell

[...] Oliver Cromwell was born on April 25, 1599 into a family of not particularly wealthy country nobility in Huntingdon in the east of England [...]. The young man studied in Cambridge for a year, but the death of his father in the summer of 1617 ended the excursion into the world of knowledge. From now on he has to take care of the family.

[...] However, he begins to disregard worldly possessions. Because sometime between 1628 and 1631 Cromwell must have had a religious awakening experience, since then he has been a radical Puritan. An attitude that immediately brings him into opposition to the court and the Anglican state church: both are assumed to have Catholic inclinations. [...]
In March 1628 Oliver Cromwell moves into the House of Commons as MP for Huntingdon. The parliamentarians claim to speak for the people. However, they are only elected from the top of the social pyramid, the landowners, merchants and the prosperous middle class. Three months after Cromwell took his seat in the House of Commons, Parliament presented the King with the Petition of Right, a remarkable document in which civil liberties are more clearly laid down than ever before: the protection against arbitrary arrest by officials of the king, the inviolability of the personal freedom of the citizen, the government's responsibility to parliament and, ultimately, essential for a democracy, albeit not completely representative, the demand that the king's government should not raise taxes without the consent of parliament.
The monarch agrees to the petition because he needs money for his war against France. Of course, he doesn't even think about keeping his word. Charles I from the House of Stuart [...] sees himself as a ruler based on divine law at a time when the absolutist monarchy is beginning to assert itself everywhere as a form of government. In 1629 he dissolves parliament without further ado. [...]
In the spring of 1640 he was forced to convene a new parliament, which went down in history as the "short" one. The Cambridge constituency is represented by Oliver Cromwell. The MPs are not inclined to approve the money for the war, but rail against royal tyranny and religious oppression. [...] In response, the King dissolves Parliament. But after the defeat against the Scots at Newburn, he has to convene it again. This time it will be a long parliament and last until the king's own miserable end.
[...] Parliament is divided. Many MPs are fundamentally loyal to the throne. But Cromwell recognized long ago that the signs were pointing to a storm. According to his personal motto Pax quaeritur bello ("Let us seek peace through war"), he equips a small armed force at his own expense. [...] On August 22, 1642, Charles had the royal war banner set in Nottingham, and the civil war had begun. [...]
For Cromwell [...] the war brings a downright meteoric rise. He confirms his conviction that he is doing God's work and that the Lord has chosen him as His tool. Cromwell is able to inspire his faithful soldiers and to form a powerful army from the thousands of inexperienced who flock to the flags, the New Model Army. On June 14, 1645, with the Ironsides, Cromwell's iron-strong cavalry, she wins the decisive victory over the king's army at Naseby - Karl flees to Scotland.
[...]. In 1648 the war flared up again. [...] Cromwell [...] again asserts itself against the royalists. [...] In December 1648 the troops of Colonel Thomas Pride "purge" the parliament of around 140 moderate, mostly Presbyterian MPs. Cromwell does not want to be associated with this prank, which has turned the house into a "rump parliament" (the rump) - he only returns to the capital a few days later. In the following time he seems to have tried several times to get the king to give in.
But this one, now under house arrest, continues to finish. He can no longer avert the high treason trial against himself. To the end he insists on his rights as a king by the grace of God. Parliament found him guilty - Cromwell's signature was third from the top on the death sentence. Charles I surrenders to his fate. On January 30, 1649, he ascended the scaffold at Whitehall with a majestic gesture.
[...] Cromwell wears the crown several times. But the country is no longer a kingdom, but has been called the Commonwealth of England since May 1649. [...] Parliament is dissolved and receives an even weaker successor, consisting of members of the strictest faith, the "Saints". You are appointed, not elected. [...] In the office of protector (lord protector since 1657), which is tailored entirely to Cromwell, lies an abundance of power that King Charles would have envied him for. The general of parliament has become a military dictator. [...]
In August 1658 a fever throws down the lord protector, [...] Cromwell's doubts about the ability of his son Richard to succeed him are to be confirmed very quickly, [...] in 1660 Richard goes into French exile. England is a kingdom again, and the restoration begins under Charles II.
[...] The political legacy of Oliver Cromwell, however, remained as insurmountable to his enemies as it had once been his Ironsides. Never again would a king be able to disregard the will of Parliament.

Ronald D. Gerste, "An iron lesson", in: DIE ZEIT No. 36 of August 28, 2008

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Constitutional basis

The substance of the British Constitution can be traced back to two principles: the Rule of Law, that is, the legal obligation of state action, and the sovereignty of parliament. The Rule of Law protects the citizens from arbitrary state decisions and forces the parliament to give legal form to the transfer of powers to the government. Laws can be repealed or changed by a simple majority in parliament. Special majorities to amend the constitution are not necessary because there is no constitutional document. The "constitutional reality", as it is reflected in the state of the legislation, can be changed quickly and flexibly.

The practice of flexible constitutional development is simplified by the English legal tradition. It is based on common law. The main feature of the common law tradition is the orientation of case law to precedents, i.e. to model decisions that can be used to resolve new disputes and that can be further developed by the new legislation. The starting point for legal decisions is always the specific case and not a general rule. There is no legal code, such as the German Civil Code (BGB). The Scottish common law tradition differs from the English one in that it is based on elements of English law on continental European, Roman legal traditions, the continued validity of which was guaranteed to Scotland in 1707 by the union with England.

The second cornerstone of the British Constitution, in addition to the binding of state action to laws, is parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament passes the laws and controls the legislation on its own, but is not itself bound by a superordinate constitutional text. Parliament, not the people, is the constitution-maker. A constitutional court that could revise parliamentary decisions does not exist and is inconceivable without a constitutional document.

Parliamentary sovereignty

Constitutions of democratic states usually stipulate that state power emanates from the people, i.e. that the people are sovereign. How is the British peculiarity of parliamentary sovereignty to be explained, and what practical significance does it have today? Parliamentary sovereignty was achieved in the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89. It marked the end of the conflict between the Catholic ruling house of the Stuarts and the Protestant parliament. The approval of the deposition of the Stuarts and the subsequent accession to the throne of the Protestant Wilhelm III. von Orange and his wife Maria was bound by parliament with a number of constitutional requirements in his favor. This catalog of freedom, the Bill of Rights of 1689, which ended absolutist rule in Great Britain and established the constitutional monarchy, gives parliament the freedom rights (free choice, free speech, tax law). Important privileges (Royal Prerogatives) have been formally retained by the monarch to this day, such as supreme command of the army and responsibility for declarations of war, foreign and contractual policy, the right to pardon and numerous appointment rights. These privileges are in fact exercised by the Prime Minister in daily politics. For example, Tony Blair was able to order British troops to enter Iraq without having to inform Parliament.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, universal, direct, equal, free and secret suffrage was enforced by the Liberal Party and its predecessor party, the Whigs, due to the political demands of the rising bourgeoisie, the working class and the women's rights movement (suffragettes). However, this did not change the constitutional position of Parliament. Formally, British citizens remained subjects of the Queen and never became state power. These connections are certainly not always present in everyday political life in Great Britain. No British citizen thinks he lives in a "second class" democracy. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is important for a number of other reasons. Last but not least, the unitary state is derived from it. Parliamentary sovereignty is indivisible. Although competencies can be transferred to regional parliaments, for example in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, these, unlike the German states, cannot invoke their own state quality. All political institutions in Great Britain can theoretically be dissolved again with a one-vote majority decision in the lower house of the British Parliament.

The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty has repeatedly led to irritations with regard to European integration. A number of British constitutional interpreters and influential politicians have advocated and are of the opinion that there can be no real shift of power from London to Brussels, since the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty implies that parliament can decide anew and differently on all matters of politics at any time.

The permanent involvement in international, including European treaties and organizations raises the question of whether Great Britain has not already accepted restrictions on parliamentary sovereignty. Furthermore, it is hardly conceivable that the London Parliament, for example, would be politically in a position to abolish the newly established parliamentary representations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the stroke of a pen against the declared will of the people there. The protection of fundamental rights, which was created in British law in 1998 with the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the British government co-signed in 1952, can hardly be ignored by the British Parliament in individual cases.

Head of State and Cabinet

The British system of government
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a hereditary constitutional monarchy. The country's head of state is the ruling monarch. He or she has the task of appointing the members of the government, the bishops of the Church of England (the English state church), chief judges and the heads of the military sworn in on the monarch, at the suggestion of the Prime Minister. The duties of the monarch are representative, ceremonial and integrative in nature. The current Queen Elizabeth II of the Hanover-Windsor-Mountbatten family has ruled since 1952. She (or the royal family) represents the country at home and abroad, and is the head of the Anglican State Church. The Queen gives legitimacy to acts of state, such as the annual opening of parliament, on the occasion of which she reads out the government declaration (speech from the throne) drawn up by the Prime Minister. Her position above the party dispute makes her a generally recognized figure of national integration, even in times of war and crisis.

British leaders since 1940
The most important political function in the British system of government is that of Prime Minister. British Prime Ministers are powerful because they have a great patronage potential that allows them, for example, to promote around 100 MPs from the ruling party to ministers inside and outside their cabinet and to other government offices and the governing bodies of a wide variety of public offices from health to tourism to order the BBC. But above all, with the help of the government majority, they control the lower house, which is decisive for political decisions. Today, prime ministers are increasingly seeking approval for their policies in direct contact with the people with the help of the media. Influence on reporting about the government, the professional control of one's own appearance in public, has meanwhile become at least as important for the head of government as the substance of government activity. Traditionally, the "management" of public opinion has employed secrecy and the selective and tactical dissemination of information. Lobby journalism is particularly suitable for the latter. The government decides on access to the exclusive "club" of around 150 journalists who receive "confidential" information from the government spokesman every day, the source of which they are not allowed to publish.

Working principles

Government work is based on three traditional principles:
  • The first principle, the dominant position of the Prime Minister, includes, on the one hand, the competence to determine the guidelines of politics, which also a German Chancellor has. In addition, the prominent role of the prime minister also has an impact on decision-making processes within the government. The prime minister is able to distribute this among many ad hoc cabinet circles that he or his confidants control. Even more important is the prime minister's ability to exercise extensive decision-making power, which is not limited by a coalition partner, a constitutional text, a constitutional court, the head of state or parliament. The British system of government is therefore also referred to as prime ministerial government or, polemically, even as "elective dictatorship". How the respective prime minister perceives his wide-ranging design options naturally depends on the person of the incumbent. Margaret Thatcher was known during her tenure as Conservative head of government from 1979 to 1990 for her tough cabinet regime and for her will to shape politics based on firm political principles. Tony Blair exercised a similarly tight control over his cabinet. As a rule, both ruled with their advisory staff bypassing the cabinet.
  • The second principle is that of the collective responsibility of the round of ministers for government decisions. Criticism of cabinet decisions should be expressed internally at the relevant meetings, but externally the minister either has to support the decision or he or she has to resign. In view of the often highly complex issues, which are decided weekly on Thursday mornings for a very limited time, in practice an exchange of views in the cabinet is only possible on a few topics, and only if the Prime Minister allows it.Cabinet discipline has thus also become an instrument for disciplining critical ministers.
  • The third principle is that of ministerial responsibility. Each minister is responsible for the correct performance of his ministry's tasks. Serious mistakes by ministries can become grounds for resignation, even if there is no personal fault on the part of the minister. With the frequent changes of ministers in Great Britain, also between the departments, it is obvious that a minister is actually always dependent on the loyalty and timely warnings from the official apparatus of his ministry.