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10 Features of UK Constitution
The UK constitution is an uncodified constitution, meaning that it is not contained in a single document or charter. Instead, it is made up of various sources of law, including statutes, common law, conventions, and authoritative sources. Some of the key features of the UK constitution are:
- Parliamentary Sovereignty: This principle holds that the UK Parliament is the supreme law-making body and that no other institution or authority can override its decisions.
- Rule of Law: This principle means that everyone, including the government, is subject to the law, and that the law should be applied consistently and fairly.
- Separation of Powers: The UK constitution divides power among three branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judiciary, with each branch having distinct roles and responsibilities.
- Monarchy: The UK constitution recognises the role of the monarchy as a symbolic and ceremonial head of state, with limited constitutional powers.
- Constitutional Conventions: These are unwritten rules and practices that have developed over time and govern the behaviour of the government, the monarchy, and other constitutional bodies.
- Human Rights: The UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides protections for fundamental human rights and freedoms.
- Devolution: The UK constitution allows for the devolution of powers to regional assemblies and parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
- Electoral System: The UK has a first-past-the-post electoral system, which means that the candidate who receives the most votes in a constituency is elected to parliament.
- Common Law: The UK relies on a common law legal system, which means that judicial decisions and precedents are used to interpret and apply the law.
- Flexibility: The UK constitution is flexible and adaptable, allowing for changes to be made through the democratic process, such as the passage of legislation or the adoption of new constitutional conventions.
You can learn more about this topic with our Public Law notes.
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The UK constitution
What are constitutions and why do they matter?
The term ‘constitution’ refers to the principles, rules and laws that establish and underpin a political system. The constitution creates and defines the powers of different political institutions and determines how they should relate to each other. It sets out the limits of these powers and regulates the relationship between the state and its citizens.
Constitutions place both limitations and obligations on governmental organisations in their relationship with the people, and provide opportunities for the public to influence the political process.
Click on any of the questions below to be taken to the answer.
Is the constitution of the United Kingdom written down?
Why is the UK’s constitution different to most other modern liberal democracies?
Is Magna Carta (1215) our constitution?
What are the sources of the UK constitution?
What key reforms have been made to the UK constitution over time?
What are the advantages of having an ‘uncodified’ constitution?
What are the disadvantages of having an ‘uncodified’ constitution?
Is the constitution of the United Kingdom written down?
It is often noted that the UK does not have a ‘written’ or ‘codified’ constitution. It is true that most countries have a document with special legal status that contains some of the key features of their constitution. This text is usually upheld by the courts and cannot be changed except through an especially demanding process. The UK, however, does not possess a single constitutional document of this nature. Nevertheless, it does have a constitution. The UK’s constitution is spread across a number of places. This dispersal can make it more difficult to identify and understand. It is found in places including some specific Acts of Parliament; particular understandings of how the system should operate (known as constitutional conventions); and various decisions made by judges that help determine how the system works.
Why is the UK’s constitution different to most other modern liberal democracies?
As described above, the UK’s constitution is different from many other countries in that its core aspects are not contained in a single legal source. This can be explained in part by UK history. Unlike France, Italy and many other places, the UK did not experience a revolution or moment of political rupture in the late eighteenth century or nineteenth century, when written constitutions were at their most popular after the American Revolutionary War.
Unlike in the United States, where the constitution is the ‘supreme law’ the UK system has no clear concept of a ‘higher law’: there is no clear distinction between what is a constitutional law and what is a regular law. This also means there are no special procedures for changing the constitution itself in the UK. If it is determined to do so, a ‘constitutional statute’ can be repealed or amended by simple majority votes in Parliament, like any other legislation. This differs from the situation in countries such as the United States, where the constitution is ‘entrenched’ – in other words, needing to satisfy additional requirements in order for it to be amended. The UK constitution can be altered relatively easily by the government of the day, meaning it changes more frequently than many other constitutions. It is often said that the UK Parliament is ‘sovereign’. This parliamentary ‘sovereignty’ means that Parliament can make or unmake any law, without being limited by a constitutional text.
Is Magna Carta (1215) our constitution?
Magna Carta (translated as Great Charter) was an agreement reached at Runnymede in 1215 between King John and a group of English barons who had been part of a rebellion against the King. In chapter 39 and 40 it stated that:
39. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Magna Carta became significant in placing formal limits on the King’s power over his subjects, and in articulating the notion that the monarch should not be above the constraints of the law. In this, we can see the origins of a foundational constitutional principle: the rule of law (that everyone within a state should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of the law).
Many look to Magna Carta in the way people in other countries might look to a ‘written’ constitution. Although the extent of what it actually secured in thirteenth-century England has often been overstated, it no doubt represents a significant point in the development of our constitutional system. Much of its impact came through inspiring and supporting future developments, such as ‘habeas corpus’: that a person may not be detained without legal reason. Furthermore, it predated the existence of the UK by five centuries, and was an English document (though written in Latin).
What are the sources of the UK constitution?
The sources of the UK constitution are various, including both law and other less formal documents, without legal force.
Acts of the UK Parliament: certain pieces of primary legislation enacted by the UK Parliament form a major source for aspects of the UK constitution. These laws provide for: the devolution settlements; the right to vote and the holding of elections; the upholding of human rights; the prohibition of discrimination; the existence of the Supreme Court; and much else. As mentioned previously, despite the constitutional significance of these statutes, there is no clear formal means of distinguishing them from more regular laws which deal with policy areas such as education and transport.
Conventions: are understandings about how the constitution functions. They can be hard to define precisely and in a way that commands wide agreement; and they lack hard legal force. But conventions are the source of some of the most important features of the UK system of government. For instance, that the Prime Minister should be a member of the House of Commons able to command the confidence of that institution is only a convention. Traditionally, conventions tended not to be written down in official documents. But, increasingly in recent decades, accounts of them have come to be included in texts published by bodies such as the UK government. These include the Cabinet Manual and the Ministerial Code.
Common law: the UK has what’s known as a ‘common law’ system, meaning that judges declare the law as derived from custom and precedent. Although it is the role of the courts to interpret the rules, not to make them; in practice, through identifying what the law is, judges can create it. In doing so, they have established important features of the UK constitution, such as individual rights and the idea that public authorities are subject to limitations and do not possess arbitrary power.
Authoritative works: in the UK system, as we have seen, the constitution is spread over a number of documents and sources, which can make it particularly hard to decipher. Given this, the interpretations of experts seeking to make sense of the system can become particularly important and influential. In fact, they can become so influential to perceptions of the system that they seem to become part of it. The views of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century legal scholar, Albert Venn Dicey, for instance, came to underpin the widely accepted doctrine known as ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. The political journalist, Walter Bagehot, writing in the nineteenth century, helped shape the conception and operation of a constitutional monarchy. Although knowledge of these works has declined since the twentieth century, they continue to be important today, having shaped the ideas even of those who do not know what their source is.
What key reforms have been made to the UK constitution over time?
Although they do not provide a comprehensive picture, we can get a sense of the changing UK constitution through a number of key Acts of Parliament.
1536/1543: two laws now known as the ‘Acts of Union’ between Wales and England legally incorporated Wales into England. Among other measures, the 1536 law prevented the use of the Welsh language in court proceedings; while the 1543 Act provided more detail to the general settlement set out in the earlier law.
The Bill of Rights 1689: the Catholic King James II was defeated in the revolution of 1688-89 and replaced by Mary II and William III (the Prince of Orange), ruling jointly. The Bill of Rights in essence established the terms of his ascension to the throne, and was the outcome of negotiation between William and contemporary political leaders. It was a statute of particular constitutional importance in firmly establishing the authority and independence of Parliament in relation to the monarch. Laws could no longer be suspended or got rid of without the consent of Parliament. It also contained provisions to further protect the liberty and security of the individual.
The Act of Settlement 1701: prevented Catholics from taking the English throne and provided for the ascension of the House of Hanover. In doing so, it established Parliament’s right to decide on the line of succession, further enhancing its power. It also contained important constitutional provisions relating to the independence of the judiciary. The Act protected the salaries and positions of judges, aiming to give them the security to enforce the law without fear of retribution.
The Treaty and Acts of Union of 1706-1707: provided for the union of Scotland and England. Two Acts were passed, one by the English Parliament and one by the Scottish Parliament, implementing the Treaty of Union. Whilst England and Scotland had the same monarch since 1603, they retained separate legislatures. After the Acts of Union, they united to form a single legislature: the Parliament of Great Britain, and a single state. Nonetheless, Scotland retained its own legal system, arrangements for education, local government, and religion.
Act of Union 1800: brought about a Union of Ireland and Great Britain. This arrangement began on a controversial footing because it was not accompanied by measures to remove political discrimination against Catholics.
The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949: established in law the primacy of the House of Commons and reduced the power of the House of Lords. The Acts meant that the Lords could in most cases no longer veto legislation if the Commons was determined to pass it. Bills could be presented for Royal Assent without the approval of the second chamber, as long a certain amount of time had elapsed and certain other conditions were met. The Lords no longer had any power at all to reject bills certified as relating to financial matters, giving the Commons clear control over money.
The European Communities Act 1972: provided for the UK’s ascension to the three European Communities (the European Economic Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and the European Coal and Steel Community). Constitutionally, the most significant aspect of the Act was that European Community Law (later EU law) became incorporated and binding within UK domestic law. Furthermore, it stipulated that Community Law was ‘supreme’ within a member state, with potential conflicts between domestic law and EU legislation overseen by the European Court of Justice. It eventually became established that an Act of Parliament could be ‘disapplied’ in as far as it contradicted European law – a new departure for the UK constitution.
The Human Rights Act 1998: gave direct effect in domestic law to the rights contained within the European Convention on Human Rights, which was adopted in 1950 after the Second World War. The 1998 Act meant that human rights cases could be heard in UK courts, rather than individuals having to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Additionally, it stipulates that as far as possible judges must interpret Acts of Parliament so they are compatible with the rights in the Convention. If this is not possible, they may issue a declaration stating that the legislation is incompatible. However, this does not affect the validity of the primary legislation and the law remains the same unless it is altered by Parliament.
The House of Lords Act 1999: reduced the size of the House of Lords and largely removed hereditary peerages (where an individual could inherit a seat in the Lords through their family). It reduced the number of peers from 1330 to 669.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018: repealed the European Communities Act 1972 (see above), thus removing the provision that EU legislation automatically takes effect as domestic law in the UK. It was introduced by the Theresa May government in 2018 as part of the process of the UK’s exit from the European Union. It transferred all EU law onto the UK statute book and gave ministers powers to make changes to this ‘retained EU law’ in the future.
What are the advantages of having an ‘uncodified’ constitution?
Some praise the UK’s uncodified constitution for its flexibility. As the timeline above indicates, the constitution has been modified frequently over many years in response to changing circumstances. Its proponents argue this allows for a pragmatic approach, where different things can be tried, tested and developed, with an optimal arrangement being honed over time. They point to other countries with hard to change codified constitutions that have been unable to update their political systems in line with changing attitudes and political realities. The issue of gun ownership in the United States provides one often cited example of this, where controls have been hard to implement because of the 2 nd Amendment.
Many also believe that having an uncodified constitution is more democratic. Rather than being bound by the decisions of past generations, it allows for each successive generation to influence the constitution through the representatives they elect. If a party with a constitutional reform agenda is elected, they are able to carry out what the people have voted for. The new Labour government of 1997 had a wide-ranging constitutional programme, including devolution and human rights, that might have been difficult to implement otherwise. In an uncodified constitution, its supporters argue, it is elected politicians, rather than unelected judges, who have the final say.
What are the disadvantages of having an ‘uncodified’ constitution?
Critics of the uncodified constitution argue that it leaves the political system open to abuse. In the UK system, there are few checks on the power of a government with a majority in the House of Commons, which could alter the rules for its own advantage. In theory, a powerful government could abolish the devolved legislatures and repeal the Human Rights Act. There are also few barriers against a government rushing through poorly thought-out changes to the constitution.
For some the UK’s constitution is pragmatic, for others it is piecemeal. In other words, changes often happen in stops and starts and through gradual, sporadic tweaks. When the constitution isn’t considered as a whole, they say, it can lead to unintended negative consequences.
Finally, many argue that the UK’s uncodified constitution is confusing and ambiguous. This makes it more difficult for citizens to fully understand, and therefore to know when a government is abusing its position. This lack of clarity can also be exploited by those in power to get away with things that would be more difficult if the rules were clearer. It also can make the business of governing harder, as there will be doubts surrounding the roles and responsibilities of different political institutions. Proponents of a codified constitution argue that stating clearly all in one place how the political system operates would enable the government to better serve the public and the public to better engage with government.
Click here for a PowerPoint on the basics of the UK constitution, that condenses the information above. The PowerPoint is primarily designed for teachers covering the topic.
Vernon Bogdanor, Brexit and our unprotected constitution
Andrew Blick, Populism and the UK Constitution
Nat le Roux, ‘Unconstitutional Democracy?’
Nat le Roux, Is there a tension between Parliamentary Democracy and referendums?
From the UK Parliament website :
Human Rights Act Review : Do not risk UK’s constitutional settlement and enforcement of rights by amending Act, urge MPs and Peers
The Parliament Acts explained by the UK Parliament website
The Constitution Society
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1 (page 6) p. 6 What constitution?
- Published: April 2013
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What constitution?’ asks why Britain never adopted a ‘modern’ constitution. The traditional view of constitution saw it as an inheritance, developed over time from the national spirit. The modern constitution was created at the time of the American Revolution. This was a rationalist exercise, where people agreed on the terms of government. It required a single document, antecedent to government that provided a comprehensive fundamental law. This modern type still needed to be embraced by the people. A lack of revolutionary crisis since 1688 has meant that Britain has not needed to reconstitute itself politically. Furthermore, like the common law system, British politics pragmatically favours precedent over abstract principle.
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The Constitution Unit
What is the UK Constitution?
The UK is often said to have an ‘unwritten’ constitution. This is not strictly correct. It is largely written, but in different documents. But it has never been codified, brought together in a single document. In this respect, the UK is different from most other countries, which have codified constitutions. But not all: New Zealand and Israel also lack a codified constitution.
Codified constitutions are typically produced following a major historic turning point, such as the grant of independence, revolution, defeat in war, or complete collapse of the previous system of government. None of these things have happened to the UK, which is why it has never had cause to codify its constitution. (Our one revolution, in the 17 th century, did briefly produce a written constitution: Cromwell’s Instrument of Government).
This is the reason why the UK has not felt the need to codify its constitution. But the UK does have a constitution, to be found in leading statutes, conventions, judicial decisions, and treaties. Examples of constitutional statutes include the Bill of Rights 1689, Acts of Union 1707 and 1800, Act of Settlement 1701, Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, Human Rights Act 1998, Scotland Act, Northern Ireland Act and Government of Wales Act 1998. Examples of conventions include that the monarch acts on ministerial advice; that the Prime Minister sits in the House of Commons; that the Queen appoints as Prime Minister the person most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons. These and other conventions have themselves been codified in documents such as the Cabinet Manual.
Parliamentary sovereignty is commonly regarded as the defining principle of the British Constitution. This is the ultimate law-making power vested in the UK parliament to create or abolish any law. But parliament can limit its law making power, as in the Human Rights Act; or devolve legislative power, as in the Scotland Act. Other core principles of the British Constitution include the rule of law, the separation of government into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the accountability of ministers to parliament, and the independence of the judiciary.
The main disadvantage of an uncodified constitution is that it is harder to understand. Another is that it is easier to amend than in countries with written constitutions with elaborate amendment procedures. But this flexibility can also be seen as an advantage: it has enabled the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, introduction of the Human Rights Act, devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and creation of the Supreme Court.
The UK constitution has multiple guardians. These include the Supreme Court , in its constitutional judgements (such as Miller/Cherry in 2019 ); the House of Lords Constitution Committee, and the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee; the Lord Chancellor; and specific constitutional watchdogs, such as the Judicial Appointments Commission, or the Electoral Commission.
Since the vote to leave the EU, some have suggested that the UK faces a ‘constitutional moment’ which might lead to a codified constitution. But the difficulties of agreeing a written constitution should not be underestimated, and the democratic benefits of a written constitution should not be exaggerated.
- What is a constitution?
- What are constitutional conventions?
- Designing a constitutional convention
- Democracy in the UK After Brexit
- Rebuilding constitutional standards: five questions for the next Conservative leader
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The British Constitution
There is no written constitution in the UK and England. There are few sets of written rules and the regulations that are maintained by the governments of these countries.
Table of Content
England is one of those countries across the globe that does not have any written constitution. These countries basically follow the path of an “uncodified constitution” . There are some set of written rules and regulations that are followed by the government of the UK. These rules are basically established by the collaboration of English and Scottish laws along with the different treaties and agreements that are set internationally which is accepted by the UK. This form of “uncodified constitution” has been widely developed from the laws of the English people. There are many founding principles along with important laws that come from the consents and bills which were undertaken by the parliament of England prior to the establishment of the UK.
About British Constitution
The parliament of England is often called “the mother of parliaments”, which has an existing span of more than seven centuries. The set of documents that belongs to England’s constitution is considered as the “MAGNA CARTA”, or “Great Charter of the Liberties of England”, which was drawn up by the barons and forced for the acceptance by King John in 1215. Hence the power of this accepted document guided the advancement of the laws of England over several centuries. This has also inspired a huge number of documents related to the constitutions that were drawn up by different countries. This remarkably included the constitution of the USA along with the global declaration of Human Rights.
Among the other different bills of landmarks which have set the major principles in the “British Constitution” are known to be the “English Bill of Rights”. This bill was passed just after the “Glorious Revolution of 1689” and the “Acts of Union 1707”. This has established the link between “England” and “Scotland” within a unified constitution of the UK.
Parliament and Constitution
In respect to the absence of a written constitution there was an argument about the powers of the government that can be implemented without the acceptance of Parliament. The experts of the constitution have also agreed about the consultation of the Parliament along with the voting, prior to the activation of “Article 50” of the “Treaty of Lisbon” by the Prime Minister in order to take the UK out from the “European Union” . They haven’t supported the idea of vote, debate and consultation of the Parliaments before the UK moves out of the European Government in the ending part of the long negotiation. A group of normal citizens asked the High Court to break off the activation of “Article 50” without the consent of the parliament in 2016. The High Court delivered the verdict on 3rd of November and later on it was confirmed through the Supreme Court on 24th January. Voting of the Parliament before the “Article 50” of “Treaty of Lisbon” needs to be activated and hence it did the same.
Common Law and the Constitution
“Common Law” is another strong aspect of the “uncodified constitution” of the UK after the Parliament. There is no “Penal Code” or “Civil Code” in Great Britain; however the “Common Law” plays a vital role which is based on the historic principles of choosing right or wrong. Despite being based on historical principles, the “Common Law” can be changed at any time along with the determination of the judges. This is the reason for the slower rate of evolution is being illustrated in order to reflect the changes in the social norms along with the society also. The evolution of the “Common Law” cannot be done with the inconsistency with the parliamentary law however the verdict of the “Common Law” can be challenged while appealing to the higher courts.
Other Elements of the British Constitution
Rights and the Obligations of the people are defined by several other elements. There are several global conventions along with treaties that define the legality of the methods such as human rights, marine pollution and so on. People of the UK also follow the European Law and as per the “Primacy principle” which consists through the “Charter” of the “European Union”, the laws of the EU can take over the laws of the UK if there is any situation of incompatibility.
Church and the State
Churches and their rituals in the UK are the ceremonial heritage of England. However, the Monarch is not responsible or does not have any authority for the running of the churches in England, whereas in the government he does have some responsibilities. Apart from that, bishops in the “House of Lords” have partial authority to take part in the debates within the house. They also don’t have the authority to oppose the legislation that are passed through the “House of Commons”.
The British Constitution is not documented unlike the other constitutions across the globe. Hence, it is concluded as uncodified, and therefore it has the power to change the laws at any point of time. “Common Law” is another strong aspect of the “un-codified constitution” of the UK after the Parliament.
Salient Features of British Constitution
The English Constitution has made a great circuit of the globe & has become a common possession of civilized man. (G. B Adams) A Constitution means certain principles on which the Government of the State is organized & which determines the relations between the people & the Government the Constitution of British is unique in nature & has provided inspiration for a number of other constitutions in the world.
Following are the salient features of the British Constitution.
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The British Constitution is unwritten in nature but it does not imply that all of its parts are unwritten. It means that it has not been reduced to writing in a single document. Some of the components are found in written from. Such as the Reform Act, 1832, the Parliament Act of 1911 etc.
- Evolution Growth:
British Constitution is a result on evolutionary growth. Constitution efforts as well as needs of time shaped its spontaneous growth.
- Flexible Constitution:
British Constitution is a flexible Constitution & parliament can amend it like alterations in the statutory laws by a simple majority.
British have a unitary constitution. All powers of the state are concentrated in the hands of a single government for the whole country. There are no units or states in British.
The Parliament consists of two chambers House of Lords & House of Commons. The House of Commons is a popular chamber whose member directly elected by the people while the House of Lords is basically a hereditary chamber & its member are nominated by the Queen.
- Supremacy of the Parliament:
In U.K, Parliament has complete Supremacy or sovereignty. No law enacted by the parliament can be challenged in the court on the plea that is against the constitution.
- According To De Loeme:
“British Parliament can do everything except to make a man into a woman”.
- Constitution Monarchy:
From the Constitution point of view, the crown is the repository of the entire Government of authority in British.
- Contrast In Theory & Practice:
There is a sharp contrast between theory & practice in British As of points out that “theoretically, British Government is an absolute monarchy, its government from signifies constitution monarchy while in practice, the Government structure is closer to Republican from.
- Collective Responsibility:
of Commons & the crown.
- Limited Separation Of Power:
In British, there is limited Separation of power. There is a concentration of political powers in the parliament while the cabinet which exercises executive power is just a committee of the parliament. Nevertheless, many safeguards have been provided especially under Act of Settlement of 1701 to secure the independence of the judiciary from under influence on the part of the other two branches on the Government.
- Independence of Judiciary:
Necessary safeguards have been provided against all sorts of interference in the judicial process. Judges are paid liberal salaries & ensured the security of service.
- Rule of Law:
U.K Constitution provides rule of law. The principle of rule of law may be defined as that no one is above or below the law. All the persons are equal in the eyes of law. F any person violates the law, he should face the trial of the case in the Government & no person is given imprisonment until his offence is proved in the court.
- Fundamental Rights:
Fundamental rights of the citizens have not been incorporated in the form of a list in the English Constitution. Constitution law is not the creator but a product of fundamental rights, which have been recognized from time to time by the Courts.
Conventions play a vital role in the British political system. A government is formed & removed on the basis of the convention. As Prof. Smith says that the conventions are the main living source behind the Constitution.
- Two Party System:
Two party system is flourished in British right from the beginning of the parliamentary period. Before the emergence of the present labour party in the second decay of the present century, the fight was between the conservatives & the Liberal party, but now the liberal party has lost its political significance.
- XVI: Universal Adult Suffrage:
Every individual of the age of 18 has the right to vote.
- Mixed Constitution:
The British Constitution is a mixture of the monarchical, aristocratic & democratic principal.
The British Constitution is a symbol of Conservativeness. The trend of the people of U.K is absolutely in favor of old institutions & this concept is the existence of conservatism.
- Establishment of Local Government Institutions:
The existence of local Government in the U.K. Constitution is another comprehensive feature of the Constitution. Local Government institution is symbols of the civil liberties & freedom of the people.
Another characteristic of the English Constitution is its unreality. It has rightly been pointed out that nothing in it is what seems or seems what it.
Conclusion: To conclude, I can say, that the British Constitution in neither absolutely unwritten nor absolutely written. It is a combination of both & has made a circuit for the globe & has become the common possession of civilized man.
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