What are some of the significant conventions in the UK constitution?

The British constitution is reliant on a large number of conventions.

Conventions are unwritten rules that, although not legally binding, are by custom duly followed. As an uncodified constitution, Britain relies significantly on constitutional conventions. So what are some examples of these, and what happens if constitutional conventions are not happened?

What are some key examples of constitutional conventions in the UK?

There are a number of key constitutional conventions that exist in the UK. Some of these are below:

The Salisbury Convention

Clement Attlee had a clear mandate from the 1945 General Election.

In the 1945 General Election Clement Attlee’s Labour Party won a majority of 146 seats. They had a wide-ranging reform agenda that included the creation of the NHS and the nationalisation of key industries. However, there was a distinct danger that the Labour plans would be thwarted by the House of Lords who at this time were made up almost entirely of hereditary peers. In fact, in 1945 only 16 of 761 peers were Labour members.

Consequently, there was a danger of a constitutional crisis with the unelected House of Lords rejecting an agenda from the elected House of Commons that clearly, as shown in the election, had an electoral mandate. As such, two Lords, Lord Addison (Labour) and Lord Salisbury (Conservative) came to an agreement that became known as the Salisbury-Addison convention (normally referred to as simply the Salisbury Convention).

They agreed that:

  • The House of Lords would not vote at Second or Third Reading against any bill that was expressly outline din the Government’s manifesto.
  • The House of Lords may amend such bulls, but must not add ‘wrecking amendments’ to such bills. These are amendments that are clearly designed to thwart the passage of the bill.

In practice, this mean that bills in the government’s manifesto were very likely to become Acts of Parliament.

The Financial Privilege of the House of Lords

Henry IV first established Commons financial privilege.

It has been along-held convention that the House of Commons has supremacy over the House of Lords of financial matters. In fact, it was in 1407 that Henry IV established the sole right of the House of Commons to initiate laws that would extend taxation. Over the centuries, this has become ever more entrenched.

Government resignation following a motion of no confidence

James Callaghan was the last PM to lose a motion of no confidence.

Britain is a parliamentary democracy. This means that the government only holds power with the support of the House of Commons. The main way that this support is tested is through a ‘motion of no confidence’. If a majority of MPs support this motion, it is an established convention that the government should resign and that general election should be held if no other government can be formed. The last PM to lose a motion of no confidence was James Callaghan in 1979 who agonisingly lost the vote by 311-310.

Between 2011-2022 this convention was codified into law through the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011). However, with the repeal of this legislation through the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act (2022), the convention came back into force.

The Denison Convention

The Denison Convention is named after a former Speaker.

In the UK the Speaker of the House of Commons has a duty to remain impartial in the proceedings of the House. However, they are sometimes required to vote in the House of Commons if a vote ends in a tie. What they should do in this situation is dictated by the Denison Convention, named after John Denison, the Speaker from 1857 to 1872. If there is a tie, under the convention the Speaker should vote to do one of two things:

  • Continue Debate – This means that if the Speaker’s vote can encourage more debate on an issue, they will vote to do this. This will depend on what the vote is about and where in the process it might come. For example, if a bill was tied at Second Reading the Speaker would vote for the bill as it could be debated further in Committee, Report and Third Reading Stage. However, if the same bill were tied at Third Reading the Speaker would vote differently.
  • Keep the Status Quo – If there is no room for further debate, the Speaker will vote for the status quo. This means they will vote:

– Against the Third Reading of any bill.

– Against any Motion of No Confidence.

– Against any amendment put forward by the House of Lords.

It is very rare for the convention to deployed in the UK due to the rarity of votes finishing in a tie. However, it was invoked by John Bercow on the 3rd April 2019 when vote on whether to hold more indicative votes on potential Brexit options finished as a tie.

Collective Ministerial Responsibility and Individual Ministerial Responsibility

Matt Hancock resigned from government after a clear breach of IMR.

Collective Ministerial Responsibility (CMR) and Individual Ministerial Responsibility (IMR) are important conventions for holding Governments and their Ministers to account. CMR dictates that all decisions of the government are taken collectively and that if a Minister does not feel they can support a government decision in the public, then they should resign from their post. This promotes a united position that the government can take on key issues. IMR dictates that government ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their department and are responsible for the way that their personal conduct reflects on the Government. As such, if they fall short in either of those two areas they would be expected to resign.

The Lascelles Principles

Alan Lascelles wrote a letter to The Times using the pen-name of Senex.

Apart from during the period of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011-2022) the right to call an General Election has been a royal prerogative power. This has been something tht gives immense political power to the Prime Minister as they can call an election at a strategically suitable time. However, one limit was a set of conventions that emerged called the Lascelles Principles, named after Sir Alan Lascelles, the Private Secretary to George VI. The principles outlined three narrow parameters in which a monarch could refuse the request of a Prime Minister to hold an early election:

  1. If the current Parliament was still “vital, viable, and capable of doing its job”.
  2. If a General Election would be clearly detrimental to the economy.
  3. If the Monarch could find another Prime Minister who was able to win the confidence of the House of Commons.

The Sewell Convention

Under the Sewell Convention, the Westminster Parliament will not pass laws that are within the legislative competency of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.

The Sewell Convention is an important part of the UK’s devolution settlement. It dictates that the Westminster Parliament does not normally legislate on areas of policy that are within the legislative competency of the devolved institutions. For example, the Westminster Parliament will not pass laws relating to education policy in Scotland.

Interestingly, the Sewell Convention was codified into law in the Scotland Act (2016) and Wales Act (2017). However, it was codified as a convention with the understanding that it retained that status.

What conventions have not been fully embedded?

Sometimes conventions disappear from practice. For example, the Ponsonby Convention relating to ratifying international treaties was codified into law through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (2010).

However, new conventions may also emerge, often with differing levels of success:

Carswell Convention:

Change UK was a very short-lived political party in the UK.

In 2014 two Conservative MPs left the part and ‘crossed the floor’ to join UKIP. Whilst it is not unprecedented for an MP to do this (Churchill did so twice), it is unusual. In both these cases the MPs concerned, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, resigned therefore initiating by-elections. This would therefore allow their constituents to ratify the decision they had taken and give them a new mandate as MPs representing them from within a new party in Parliament. It appeared that a new ‘Carswell Convention’ may emerge. However, this failed to constitutionally stick. Indeed, 11 MPs who left the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats to join a new party call ed the Independent Group of Change (Change UK) did not resign to give the the electorate a say on the decision.

Parliament and Military Intervention:

Theresa May ordered military action in Syria without military approval.

The decision to order military action is a royal prerogative power that belongs solely to the Prime Minister. However, in recent year it has been an emerging convention that Prime Ministers seek parliamentary approval when launching military action. Some examples of occasions this has taken place include:

Iraq (2003)

Libya (2011)

Syria (2013)

Iraq (2014)

Syria (2015)

However, in 2018 Theresa May decided to order military action in Syria without first seeking parliamentary approval. This shows the convention is not yet fully embedded, although it has become accepted as ideal that Prime Ministers seek approval for military action from Parliament.

What happens if conventions are not followed?

One of the problems with the reliance on conventions is what happens if they are not followed. In these instances, they can create a constitutional crisis. By far the most famous example of of this was the People’s Budget Crisis from 1909-1911.

The Liberal Government of 1906 had a radical programme.

The most famous constitutional crisis occurred after the 1909 budget. In 1906 a Liberal Government was elected who proposed a radical welfare reform programme. These reforms needed to be paid for and, as such, in 1909 a radical economic programme accompanied it. This became known as the ‘People’s Budget’. The budget would see tax raises for the wealthy and included a 20% tax on selling land, something that the land owning aristocracy in the House of Lords were particularly displeased with. The Liberal Chancellor, David Lloyd-George, called it a war budget:

“This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests”

The Liberals did not have a majority in the House of Lords and in 1909 the People’s Budget was defeated in the Lords. Technically the House of Lords could reject a budget but not amend it. However, this had not happened in 200 years and it was now an established convention that the Lords did not interfere with the government’s budget at all. When the Lords rejected the bill they said they would pass it if the Liberals could win an election with this as part of their campaign, something they then did (albeit relying on the Labour and Irish Parliamentary Party to form a government) in January 1910. The Lords therefore accepted the budget in 1910. However, unprepared to see the unelected Lords frustrate their agenda once more, the Liberals had also campaigned for need legislation to limit the power of the Lords. This again caused a constitutional stand-off which only ended when the Lords passed the Parliament Act (1911) under threat that George V would flood the House of Lords with new Liberal Peers in order to create a majority.

Article Summary

Uncodified constitutions rely significantly on conventions and the British constitution is no exception. There are a number of conventions in the UK that are fundamental to the functioning of the constitution.

Key Terms

Convention – An unwritten rule that by custom is usually followed.

Salisbury Convention – A convention that dictates that the House of Lords does not vote against bills that were in the Government’s election manifesto.

Financial Privilege – A convention dictating that only the House of Commons can vote on budgetary matters.

Motion of No Confidence – A mechanism in the UK Parliament via which a government can be removed in the UK.

Denison Convention – A convention that dictates how the Speaker votes in the event of a tie in the House of Commons.

Collective Ministerial Responsibility – A convention that dictates that the government is collectively responsible for decision-making.

Individual Ministerial Responsibility – A convention that holds individual ministers to account of their actions.

Lascelles Principles – A set of principles that sets out the limited circumstances under which the monarch might reject a Prime Minister’s request.

Sewell Convention – A convention that dictates that the Westminster Parliament will not legislate on devolved issues.

Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011) – A statute law that codified what was traditionally a royal prerogative power. It was repealed in 2022.

Carswell Convention – A convention that looked set to emerge but failed to do so.

People’s Budget 1909-1911 – A constitutional crisis that occurred between 1909 and 1911.

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