Full Glossary

Work In Progress…

‘A treatise on the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament (1844)’ by Erskine May – A work of authority of the British Constitution written by Erskine May, a former Clerk of the House of Commons which has been updated and republished 24 times. It is often simply referred to ‘Erskine May’.

‘Filling in the Gaps’ – A term given for the role of judges in creating Common Law which accounts for the fact that Parliament cannot legislate for every eventuality or circumstance in any given area.

‘The English Constitution’ by Walter Bagehot (1867) – A work of authority on the UK Constitution written by Victorian scholar Walter Baghehot.

‘Twin pillars of the Constitution’ – A term used by A.V Dicey to describe the importance of Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Rule of Law as principles of the UK constitution.

A v. Home Secretary – A Human Rights case that was heard before the Law Lords in 2004. The case ruled that the indefinite detention of nine terrorism suspects at Belmarsh Prison was unlawful.

Absolute Monarchy – A monarchy that retains absolute power, similar to the powers that European Monarchs possessed before the renaissance. There are few remaining absolute monarchies, but Saudi Arabia a prominent example.

Acts of Union (1707) – The Acts of Union merged the Kingdoms of England and Scotland to form the United Kingdom.

Alternative Vote – A proportional voting system in which a majority of support is needed by a candidate to be elected. Voters also vote by preference, rather than simply choosing one candidate. Introduction of this system for voting in General Elections was rejected in a referendum in 2011.

Amendments – An Amendment is change to an individual bill or a Constitution. Amendments are easy to make in the UK constitution because of its flexible nature.

An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution by AV Dicey (1885) – A work of authority on the UK Constitution written by constitutional scholar AV Dicey. In it, Dicey codified the Rule of Law and suggested that Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Rule of Law were the ‘twin pillars of the constitution’.

AV Referendum (2011) – A referendum on whether Britain should adopt the more proportional Alternative Vote system for General Elections. The public chose by 68-32% to stick with First Past the Post.

Bill of Rights – The part of a codified constitution that defines the rights and freedoms of individuals. A bill of right entrenches citizens’ rights into a Constitution.

Brexit – The nickname given for the British exit from the European Union after the EU Referendum of the 23rd June 2016.

Budget – The annual statement of expenditure made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

By-Election – A special election for a UK constituency that is held when an MP has died or resigned.

Carswell Convention – A new convention in the UK constitution whereby an MP who is planning to change parties must resign and force a by-election before doing so. It is named after Douglas Carswell, who left the Conservatives to join UKIP and in doing so resigned, thus instigating a by-election. The decision of new Change UK MPs that defected from other parties not to resign in June 2019, weakened the new convention.

Central Government – The national government of a unitary state. The Central Government of the UK is offered referred to colloquially as ‘Westminster’.

Checks and Balances – A system of government that allows the different branches of government to stop the others from dominating or gaining too much power. The U.S Constitution has a number of checks and balances, whereas these are less clear in Britain which is often said to have an ‘Elective Dictatorship’.

Civil Liberties – The basic rights granted to citizens of a country. In a liberal democracy these rights that are considered undeniable, such as freedom of speech.

Clerk of the House of Commons – A senior position in the House of Commons staff who is responsible for offering constitutional advice to MPs and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The position is currently held by John Benger.

Codified Constitution – A constitution which is mostly written down in one single document. This is the most common type of constitution and exists in 158 countries around the world.

Common Law – This law is made by taking into account the previous conclusions of judges. This creates a judicial precedent for judges to use in the future. This is often referred to as judge made law. Importantly, it ‘fills the gaps’ left by Statute Law.

Commonwealth – The organisation made up of the former members of the British Empire. The Queen remains Head of the Commonwealth.

Confidence and Supply Agreement – An agreement whereby a party agrees to support another by promising to vote with it on all votes to do with confidence and with the supply of money. Currently, the Conservatives have a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the DUP.

Constitution – A Constitution is a set of rules and agreements that defines the way in which a state or a society is run.

Constitutional Amendments – A change made to a constitution. In most constitutions, particularly rigid ones, these require a ‘Supermajority’ to pass. The U.S Constitution has only had 27 Amendments since 1787. In Britain, however, because of the flexible constitution amendments can be passed relatively easily.

Constitutional Law – A law which has a fundamental impact on the way the constitution operates. An example of a Constitutional Law in the UK is the House of Lords Act (1999). It is also called Fundamental Law.

Constitutional Monarchy – A system of government in which a monarch is retained, but their role is largely symbolic with an elected government acting on their behalf. Britain has a constitutional monarchy.

Constitutional Reform Act (2005) – An act passed by the Labour Government that reformed the judicial system of the UK, including reducing the power of the Lord Chancellor and creating a Supreme Court. It also set up a Judicial Appointment Committee.

Constitutional Sovereignty – A political system where a Codified Constitution is where all power flows from. This is the case in the U.S.A.

Conventions – Conventions are elements of the UK Constitution that are expected to take place, but are not codified or specified. They form an important part of UK constitutional practice. For example, it is expected that the Queen invite the leader of a majority party in the House of Commons to become Prime Minister.

Dennison Convention – The convention that dictates how the Speaker of the House of Commons votes if there is a tied vote in the House of Commons. The Speaker will always vote for further debate, but at the final stage, will always vote for the Status Quo. The rule was last invoked after a tied vote in 2019.

Devolution – The process whereby power is delegated to lower levels by a central body. However, this process can technically be reversed. Devolution to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London was introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour Government. It has since been extended to more areas in England.

Devolved Assemblies – The Parliament for a region or province, the power from which is devolved from a central government. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood is an example of a Devolved Assembly.

Doctrine of Implied Repeal – A doctrine that dictates that if two pieces of legislation are in conflict, the latter piece of legislation is automatically deemed to repeal the first.

Elective Dictatorship – A term coined by Lord Hailsham to describe how a majority government have near dictatorial powers when they have been elected.

English Votes for English LawsThe notion that special constitutional arrangements should be made to ensure that only English MPs can vote on English-Only issues. This has been somewhat achieved with the introduction of the Grand Committee to the legislative process.

Entrenched Constitution – An entrenched constitution is one which is very difficult to change. The US Constitution, which has only been amended 27 times, is an example on an entrenched constitution.

Entrenched Provisions – Parts of a constitution that are deliberately difficult to change. These are normally existent in Codified Constitutions.

Equality Act (2010) – An Anti-Discrimination law that prohibits discrimination of individuals based on Age, Disability, Gender, Marriage Status, Pregnancy, Race, Religion or Sexual Orientation.

Equality of Legislation – The notion that all laws are equal. This notion if linked to Parliamentary Sovereignty. In an uncodified constitution there is no fundamental law, therefore all laws are equal.

European Constitution – A proposed amendment to the European Union which did not pass. In its place, the Lisbon Treaty was agreed.

European Convention of Human RightsAn international treaty to protect and enforce fundamental Human Rights in Europe. It was signed in 1950.

European Convention of Human Rights – An international treaty to protect and enforce fundamental Human Rights in Europe. It was signed in 1950. In 1998 it was codified into UK Law in the Human Rights Act.

European Court of Justice (ECJ) – The court of the European Union in Luxembourg. It is responsible for overseeing cases whereby Member States have questioned, or have not followed, European Union directives and regulations.

European Union – The collection of European States that form a collective union in which general political and social standards are accepted, like freedom of movement. It was originally called the European Economic Community, which Britain joined in 1973 and left in January 2020.

European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act (2017) – The Act of the British Parliament that allowed the Prime Minister to send Britain’s Article 50 notice to the European that Britain would be leaving the European Union.

European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 – The Act of the British Parliament that allowed the Prime Minister to send Britain’s Article 50 notice to the European that Britain is leaving the European Union. The passage of the law was delayed by the Brexit v. Miller Supreme Court Case.

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act (2020) – The Act that saw Boris Johnson’s Brexit Deal confirmed by Parliament. This meant that Britain would leave the EU on the 31st January 2020.

European Union (Withdrawal) Act (2018) – The Act that confirmed the mechanisms through which Parliament exited the European Union.

Evolutionary Constitutions – A constitution that has been built up over time, with new layers being built upon an existing structure. Evolutionary constitutions are normally flexible. Britain has an evolutionary constitution.

Executive Branch – The branch of government that holds responsibility for the running of a country on a day to day basis. In Britain, Boris Johnson is head of the Executive Branch.

External Relations – Relations that a state has with other states and international organisations.

Federal System – A system of government in which power is divided between a central (federal) government and a number of state or provincial governments. The U.S.A is the most prominent example of a Federal System.

Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011) – This Act of Parliament guaranteed that an election would be held every five years, unless certain circumstances prevented this. This removed the ability of the Prime Minister to choose the timing of the next election.

Flexible Constitution – A Flexible Constitution is one that can be changed easily, normally via a simple law passed in Parliament. The UK has a flexible constitution.

Freedom of Information Act (2000) – A law passed by the government of Tony Blair which allows citizens the right to make reasonable requests of public bodies for information that is of the public interest.

Fundamental LawA fundamental law is one that is deeply entrenched and usually deals with constitutional issues. In the UK, there is no fundamental law. This is because under the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty all Statute Laws are considered equal.

Fusion of Powers – A system where different branches of government can be intermingled. For example, the Prime Minister is Head of the Executive but, as an MP, is also a member of the legislature. This arguably gives them enormous power.

General Election – Elections that take place at least once every five years in which MPs are elected to the House of Commons. Since the Fixed Term Parliament’s Act (2011) election dates are set for certain dates, unless certain other criteria are met.

Glorious RevolutionAn event in British History that saw William III and Mary II invited to become King and Queen of England, with strict conditions placed on them by Parliament.

Good Friday Agreement – The agreement brokered by Tony Blair that ended nearly 30 years of armed conflict in Northern Ireland. It said that Unionists and Nationalists would share political power in Northern Ireland.

Government – The group of people with the authority to govern a country or state. In Britain, the Government is normally formed from the largest party in Parliament.

Habeas CorpusA part of the Magna Carta that guaranteed that no person could be arbitrarily arrested. It is still an important legal principle today.

Head of NationThe name given for the ceremonial and symbolic role performed by the Monarch.

Head of State – The highest-ranking constitutional position in a State. In Britain the Queen is Head of State, although most of her powers are delegated to Members of the Government.

Hereditary Peers – A member of the House of Lords who is part of the peerage of the United Kingdom and has inherited their title. There are 92 hereditary peers who have remained in the House of Lords since 1999.

Homogenous Population – A population that is broadly similar in ethnic and cultural make-up. Britain has a homogenous population, as opposed to the USA, that has a diverse population.

House of Commons – The Lower Chamber of the UK Parliament. It currently has 650 members who face election at least once every five years.

House of Lords – The Upper Chamber of the UK Parliament. It currently has 778 members. Most are Life Peers who are appointed to the chamber, however, there are also 92 hereditary peers and 26 bishops.

House of Lords Act (1999) – The Act that removed all but 92 of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords. It was part of the range of constitutional reforms bought in by Tony Blair’s government.

Human Rights Act (1998) – An Act that codified the European Convention of Human Rights into UK Law. This means that UK courts can adjudicate on Human Rights issue in the UK.

Hung Parliament – A parliament that does not produce a clear majority. The 2010 General Election and 2017 General Election created a Hung Parliament in Britain.

Hung Parliament Convention – A new convention that has been established since 2010 that says that in the event of a Hung Parliament the incumbent Prime Minister stays in post until a viable Government is confirmed.

Hunting Act (2004) – A bill that was passed by the House of Commons but blocked by the House of Lords. Tony Blair then triggered the Parliament Act to push this bill through in the next parliamentary session.

Judicial Appointments CommissionThe Committee established as part of the Constitutional Reform Act to recommend appointments to the Senior Judiciary. Before this commission, the power was largely in the hands of the Lord Chancellor.

Judicial Appointments Commission – The Committee established as part of the Constitutional Reform Act to recommend appointments to the Senior Judiciary. Before this commission, the power was largely in the hands of the Lord Chancellor.

Judicial Branch – The branch of Government responsible for the Courts and Justice System.

Judicial Review – The process whereby the Judiciary considers whether or not the government has acted beyond the law. The process of Judicial Review has grown in importance in recent years. This is largely due to the effects of the Human Rights Act (1998).

Judiciary – The term given to describe the Courts and Justice System.

Lascelles Principles – A constitutional convention that existed between 1950 and 2011 that states there were certain circumstances in which the monarch could refuse to grant a request from the Prime Minister for a Dissolution of Parliament.

Law Lords – Twelve members of the House of Lords who sat as the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. In this role they were the highest court of the UK. This function was removed following the creation of the UK Supreme Court in 2009.

Law on Any Matter – A key principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty whereby Parliament can legislate on any issue that it wishes.

Legal Sovereignty – The legal concept of where power lies in the political system. In Britain, Parliament is legally sovereign.

Legal Supremacy – The concept of holding the ultimate legal power. In the UK, legal supremacy belongs to Parliament.

Legislative Branch – The branch of government that discusses and makes new laws. In the UK it is made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Legislative Supremacy – The notion that one part of Parliament holds supremacy over another in law-making. In the UK, the House of Commons has had legislative supremacy over the House of Lords since the Parliament Act (1911).

Life Peerages Act (1958) – The Act of Parliament that provided for individuals to be appointed to the House of Lords for the duration of their life. Prior to this, all peerages had been hereditary.

Lisbon Treaty – A European Union Treaty signed in 2007 that changed a number of provisions on the European Union. Article 50, that allows for the leaving of the European Union, is part of the Lisbon Treaty.

Lord ChancellorTraditionally the head of the Judiciary, the office of Lord Chancellor had its power reduced by the Constitutional Reform Act and is now, by convention, held by the Secretary of State for Justice. The current Lord Chancellor is Robert Buckland.

Magna Carta (1215)This agreement established the principle that the power of the monarch was limited and that citizens had fundamental rights. Three parts of the Magna Carta are still in law today.

Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union – A significant Supreme Court Case that challenged the right of the Government to instigate Article 50 without the explicit approval of Parliament. This case limited the Royal Prerogative powers of the Executive.

Monarchical System – A system of government that has a Monarch as Head of State. Saudi Arabia is an example of a country with a monarchical system.

Money Bills – A money bill is any bill that dictates how departmental money is spent. By convention, the House of Lords does not vote against Money Bills.

Motion of No Confidence – A vote in Parliament whereby it is decided if the Prime Minister and Government has the confidence of Parliament. If a vote of no-confidence is lost, the Government must resign or call a new election. The last time a successful Motion of No Confidence was held was in 1979, which James Callaghan’s Government lost by 311-310.

Oath of Allegiance – The Oath that MPs and Lords must swear at the start of each Parliament. Famously, the Republican Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, whispered his oath. Sinn Fein do not sit in House of Commons because they refuse to swear an oath to the British Monarch.

Parliament Act (1911) – The act that limited the ability of the House of Lords to delaying legislation by two years, rather than being able to block legislation completely.

Parliamentary PrivilegeA doctrine introduced by the Bill of Rights (1689) that ensures that MPs can speak freely in Parliament and cannot be arrested for carrying out their parliamentary duties.

Parliamentary Sovereignty – A key principle of the UK constitution. In the UK, Parliament is the supreme legal authority. Parliament can create or reverse any law and this cannot be challenged by any other body.

Parliamentary System – A system in which the Executive derives its power from its position in Parliament.

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000) – A law passed that created the Electoral Commission and placed limits of campaign financing in the UK.

Popular Sovereignty – The idea that power is vested in the people and that those who govern must do it with their will in mind. General Elections are an expression of popular sovereignty.

Posonby RuleA convention of the UK Constitution that dictated that any international treaty must be placed before Parliament at least 21 days before ratification. 

Preamble – The part of a codified constitution that sets out the basic goals and vision of the country.

Presidential System – A system of government in which there is a clear separation of powers. In this system of government the different branches of government are clearly separate from each other. The U.S and Germany are Presidential Systems.

Prime Minister – The common title for the Head of the Executive in the UK. Prime Minister was not traditionally a constitutional title, but developed to become so.

Proportional Voting System – A voting system in which each vote is relatively equal and the make-up of a Parliament is directly linked to how people voted.

Proroguing – The mechanism by which a parliamentary session is ended. The Queen prorogues Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister. In 2019 the prorogation of Parliament was reversed by the Supreme Court in Miller vs. Prime Minister.

Recall of MPs Act (2015) – An Act passed in 2015 that allows an MP to be removed as an MP after a petition by his constituents. However, a petition can only be started if an MP is sentenced to a prison sentence or is suspended from the House of Commons for more than 14 days. 

Referendum – A general vote by the population on a single issue. The Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 and the Brexit Referendum of 2016 are examples of this.

Representation of the People Act (1918) – A change to the UK Constitution that allowed some women over the age of 30 to vote in General Elections.

Representation of the People Act (1969) – A change to the UK Constitution that lowered the voting age to 18.

Republic – A system of government that does not have a monarch as Head of State. In this system, the Head of State is elected. The U.S.A is a Republic. 

Republicanism – Republicanism is the belief that a country should not have a Monarch and that the Head of State should be elected. Ex-Labour MP Dennis Skinner is a famous Republican.

Revolutionary Constitution A constitution that has started and defined a new period of a country’s history, often coming after a time of national strife. The US Constitution agreed in 1787 was a revolutionary constitution.

Royal Assent – The final stage of the legislative process in which the Monarch agrees to a law. By convention Royal Assent is now never refused, the last time it was refused was by Queen Anne in 1707.

Royal Prerogative – A number of privileges and powers of the monarch, most of which have now been passed to the Prime Minister and members of the government. For example, the Prime Minister appoints the Cabinet on behalf of the monarch.

Salisbury ConventionThe convention by which the House of Lords will not oppose legislation that was part of a government’s election manifesto.

Second Amendment – The controversial Amendment of the U.S Constitution that still allows all Americans to own a gun.

Separation of Powers – A majority of greater than a half (a simple majority) to enforce a decision. Normally super majorities require two-thirds of a vote.

Sewell Convention – The convention that says that the Westminster Government will not legislate on issues that are devolved to the devolved areas. These issues are called ‘Devolved Powers’.

Shared Sovereignty – When power is deliberately split up among different bodies. This is most common in a Federal System.

Simple Majority – A majority that only requires more than half to pass. Parliament requires Simple Majority’s for the passage of laws.

Snap Election – An election called before it was required. Snap Elections have been harder to call since the passing of the Fixed-Term Parliament Act (2011). However, the June 2017 Snap Election shows that it is still possible.

Sovereignty – The quality of having supreme power or authority. In the UK, Parliament is sovereign.

Speaker of the House of Commons – The figure responsible for overseeing debates and motions in the House of Commons. The speaker retains and impartial position in the House and sits as an independent. The current Speaker of the House of Commons is Jon Bercow.

State Opening of Parliament – The yearly event whereby the Queen officially opens Parliament for the year. As part of this event she also gives the ‘Queen’s Speech’, this lays out the government’s plans for the coming year.

Statute Law – Laws created via Act of Parliament. They are considered the superior form of law.

Statutory Instrument – Sometimes also called ‘secondary legislation’. These are laws that can be passed by the executive having been pre-authorised by another Statute.

Supermajority – A majority of greater than a half (a simple majority) to enforce a decision. Normally super majorities require two-thirds of a vote.

The Act of Settlement (1701)The Act of Settlement placed clear rules on who could take the throne. It barred Roman Catholics, and those married to Roman Catholics, from becoming monarch.

The European Communities Act (1973) – The Act of Parliament that saw the UK join the European Union (then the European Economic Community). By doing this, the UK accepted the supremacy of European Law.

The European Union Referendum (2016) – A referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union. The result was that 51.8% of people voted in favour of Brexit.

The Rule of Law – The concept that states there is equality before the law and that no one can be punished without trial. It is a key principle of the UK constitution.

The Scottish Independence Referendum (2014) – A referendum for the people of Scotland on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom and become and independent country. The result was 55% in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom.

U.S Bill of Rights – The first Ten Amendments of the U.S Constitution which solidify civil liberties into the U.S Constitution. These were passed in 1791.

U.S Congress – The collective name of the US legislature. Congress is made up of the House of Representatives and the US Senate.

U.S Constitution (1787) – The codified Constitution of the United States that has only been amended 27 times.

U.S Senate – The Upper Chamber of the U.S Congress in which two Senators represent each of America’s fifty states.

UK Supreme Court – The highest court in the UK. It was set up as part of the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005. It is the highest court in both civil and legal matters.

Uncodified Constitution – A constitution which has a number of different sources and is not written down in a single document (therefore often called an ‘unwritten’ constitution).

Unconstitutional – When something is found not to adhere to the constitution. This cannot happen in the UK as the UK has no codified constitution, but is quite common in the U.S.

Unitary Systems – A system of government in which power is held centrally, although it may be devolved by the central body. The UK has traditionally been seen as having a unitary system.

Unwritten Constitution – A term often used instead of ‘codified constitution’. It is a constitution in which not all articles or parts of it are written down in a single place.

War Powers Act – An often-proposed Act of Parliament that would remove the Prime Minister’s prerogative power to launch military operations and would require the consent of Parliament before military action is commenced.

Westminster Parliament – The Parliament of the United Kingdom made up of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and The Crown.

Works of Authority – These are collections of work that are so influential they are often considered to be sources of the UK constitution. An example is Walther Bagehot’s ‘The English Constitution’.

Written Constitution – A term often used for codified constitutions.