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Constitutional Law

Does the UK have a written constitution?

Yes and no. But mainly no. If that sounds like a confusing answer, I apologise. Let me explain.

Yes and no. But mainly no. If that sounds like a confusing answer, I apologise. Let me explain.

The UK constitution is generally described as having an unwritten constitution. This means that there is no single, written document which lays out how the British constitution works.

This is in contrast to, for example, the United States of America. The US has a written – or codified – constitution, which is aptly named the Constitution of the United States.

Originally written on just four pages of parchment, the US Constitution lays out the structure of the government, balanced across three branches – the executive, legislative and judiciary.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has no such document. But that does not mean that the there are no written elements to it.

The British constitution is made up of a combination of different written documents and also conventions, all of which have been created and established over a number of centuries.

The earliest written element of the UK constitution is the Magna Carta, Latin for ‘Great Charter’. Signed under duress by King John of England in 1215, the Magna Carta laid the bedrock of what we now call the British constitution by placing restrictions on the power of the monarch.

Over time, the Magna Carta was joined by other constitutional documents – the Petition of Right (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Act of Settlement (1701), the Parliament Acts (1911, 1949), the European Communities Act (1972) and the Human Rights Act (1998).

With each document, the constitution gradually began to take the shape of what we see today. But the constitutional conventions which have developed are equally as important.

These conventions include parliamentary sovereignty, which is the principle that Parliament is the UK’s supreme legislative body, and the rule of law, which says that no one is above the law.

In many ways, the nature of the UK constitution is a reflection of the length of time it has taken to develop. For almost a millennium, the United Kingdom has organically grown into what we know and recognise today.