What Elements Make Up Great Britain’s Constitution

The concept of constitutions usually refers to the set of formal rules and principles that govern a nation state. Great Britain, officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a country in western Europe and is a constitutional monarchy. Its constitution is not present in a single codified document, but is instead developed over centuries of legal precedent. The United Kingdom is known for its longstanding commitment to a core set of liberties that is entrenched in laws and practices that have been handed down through generations. What follows will explore the unique elements that make up the Great Britain’s constitution.

Rule of Law is a fundamental element of the UK’s constitution. It has ancient roots, with the oft-cited Magna Carta from 1215 espousing the principle of due process and equal treatment before the law for all citizens. In more recent years, legislation such as the Human Rights Act 1998 has served to bolster the rule of law even further by enacting human rights into British law. This has seen rights safeguarded such as the right to trial by jury, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to own property, and the prohibition of torture among others.

The monarchy is undoubtedly the most historic and celebrated aspect of the UK’s constitution, with its figures such as the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William enjoying immense popularity. Although the royal family holds considerable sway over the nation, its role has evolved to one of service and patronage. This means that the Queen is excluded from day-to-day politics and the executive branch, but instead works with governments of all stripes to provide continuity and unifying presence. This often comes in the form of diplomatic tours, official engagements, and patronage of various causes.

Alongside the monarchy, the UK incorporates a system of government based on parliamentary democracy and the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary. This has been done in order to ensure that each branch is accountable to the people, thereby curtailing potential abuse of state power. The separation of powers also ensures that one branch cannot overstep its bounds or trample upon the rights of the people. This form of governmental system ensures political stability and has been successful since its introduction.

Another element of the UK constitution is the concept of sovereignty. This terms states that the highest power in the UK lies with Parliament, with no one else being legally able to override rules that have been passed by Parliament. This has been a integral part of the UK’s constitution since the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1689, which declared that no foreign prince or state could levy taxes or interfere in the government without Parliament’s explicit approval. This has been seen recently in the Brexit debate, with Parliament using its sovereign power to pass the legislation necessary to leave the European Union.

Finally, a significant element of the UK’s constitution is its codification of constitutional conventions. These are customs and practices that underpin the government, and are often seen as a moral guide for elected officials. This means that laws are not explicitly stated, but that political figures are expected to act in a certain manner. For example, the “convention of collective responsibility” states that ministerial representatives have to present a unified front, even if they disagree with government policies. This ensures a degree of unity in government, and also reinforces the principles of accountability and responsibility.

Common Law

The UK constitution is heavily reliant on common law, which is created by judges in courtrooms. Over time, this system has produced an abundance of precedent decisions, creating a comprehensive body of law that provides guidance on many different issues. This is in contrast to nations that rely heavily on written civil codes, which are produced by legislatures and can be relatively narrow in scope. This body of law has been cited in a variety of cases, with courts being able to shape decisions based on the accumulated wisdom of past cases.

Common law, and its judicial application, is seen as a key aspect of the Magna Carta, and has been a part of Britain’s legal system for centuries. This system has played a key role in advancing the rule of law and protecting the rights of citizens. This is because common law is not static, but instead, it evolves and changes based on the interpretation of the law by judges, which make it responsive to the needs of society. This has enabled the UK constitution to remain relevant and up to date, and has been an important factor in the nation’s political stability.


Devolution is the process by which the power of central government is shared throughout the UK. This has seen Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland granted increasing levels of autonomy through the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 respectively. These acts devolved powers from the central government to local administrations, which can now legislate on an array of issues. This has resulted in increased political engagement among citizens, who now have autonomous parliaments and assemblies where their particular interests can be represented.

That being said, the UK’s constitution is still ultimately centred around the Westminster parliament, and local autonomy does have its limits. This is because the supremacy of parliament, and by extension, the central government, must be respected by local assemblies. This is an important element that must be taken into consideration by those who advocate for more frequent or expansive devolution in the UK. This, however, does not mean that devolution has been a failure; on the contrary, it has been a successful attempt to give local decision-making autonomy while protecting the unity of the UK.

International Law and Treaties

In addition to local laws, the UK constitution is also subject to international law and treaties. This means that any ruling by the International Court of Justice, or any foreign court, must be taken into account when interpreting British law. This is a relatively recent development, but has become increasingly important in recent times as the UK becomes ever more interdependent upon foreign nations. This has become particularly important in considering issues such as trade, human rights, and security cooperation. Consequently, it is an integral part of the UK’s constitution that must be taken into consideration.

The concept of treaties is an even more recent development in the UK’s constitution, with the ratification of the European Union’s Treaties of Rome and Lisbon in 1972 and 2007 respectively, being two of the more prominent examples. These cases saw the UK sign up to a range of regulations, from open borders to free trade. As a result, UK legislation must obey the regulations of these treaties, meaning that decisions made by the EU parliamentary committees and courts are subject to British law.

Civil Liberties and Human Rights

Alongside these core elements of the British constitution is the nation’s commitment to civil liberties and human rights. This is another area where the UK has a rich legal precedent, with liberties such as habeas corpus being enshrined in the Magna Carta more than 800 years ago. More recently, the Human Rights Act 1998 was passed, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

The passing of this act has had a huge impact on the British legal system in terms of protecting the rights of individuals. This Act ensures that individuals are not discriminated against, that they have the right to a fair trial, and that their privacy is respected. However, this commitment must be balanced with the national security needs of the nation, thus resulting in a delicate balancing act and ongoing debate on the subject.


In conclusion, the UK’s constitution is unlike any other in the world, blending ancient traditions with modern legal principles. This blend often leads to debate, as certain values and practices must be balanced with the needs of society. While this will continue to be the case in the future, it is clear that the core elements of the UK’s constitution have formed a stable and enduring framework for the nation’s legal and political system.

Margaret Hanson

Margaret R. Hanson is a journalist and writer from the United Kingdom. She has been writing about the UK for over a decade, covering topics such as politics, current affairs, and culture. Margaret is committed to producing work that is engaging, informative, and thought-provoking.

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