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The British Parliament - How the Powers of Parliament and those of the Government are balanced

Essay 1992 11 Seiten

Anglistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction

2. Which role does Parliament play in the British Constitution?

3. The British Parliament
3.1 The House of Lords
3.2 The House of Commons

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This paper is about the British Parliament, which constitutes such a wide range of topics that some selected aspects have to be concentrated on. For that reason the political function of the British Crown will be neglected. The main aim of this essay will be to find out how the powers of Parliament and those of the Government are balanced. It is assumed that the powers of making und passing laws und the control of the executive are indicators of this problem.

First of all, the role that Parliament plays in the British Constitution will be defined. In this context it will be important to note that the British Constitution as such does not exist in writing, which raises the question as to whether this fact causes any negative consequences for the democratic process. Moreover, the structure and composition as well as the functions of the two Houses of Parliament will be dealt with. And some characteristic features of the parliamentary system in Britain will be pointed out in order to draw a comparison between the British and the German Parliament. Of course, this comparison will have to focus on the most significant aspects. In the final part the preceding considerations wi11 be summarized and a personal judgement on the two different systems in Britain and Germany will be made.

2. Which role does Parliament play in the British Constitution?

It has to be emphasized that Britain as opposed to most other countries does not have a written constitution. Basically the British Constitution consists of three elements, namely "Statute Law", "Common Law" and "customs"[1]. Statutes are enacted by Parliament and are put down in writing. Acts of Parliament are, for example, the "Bill of Rights of 1689" or the "People Acts of 1948 and 1949".[2] These Acts of Parliament do not necessarily refer to constitutional aspects, but some of them concern the Constitution in so far as they define the powers and limits of particular institutions, for instance, of the House of Lords. Yet they do not determine the relations between all the institutions of the state and thus do not meet the requirements of a constitution on their own. So the other elements are of constitutional significance, too. "Common Law" is not written down in any statutes, but consists of judicial decisions which establish precedents for later judgements and in this way can establish constitutional rights. Of course, customs are not written down either. Nevertheless they play an important part in the British Constitution. It is, for example, constitu­tional customs that the Sovereign does not take part in the Cabinet's assemblies and does not reject bills the two Houses of Parliament have agreed to and passed.[3]

Apart from the elements "Statute Law", "Common Law" and "customs" there are some features of the British Constitution I would like to mention briefly. Firstly, the United Kingdom is not a federal state as the Federal Republic of Germany is, but a unitary one. As a result of this fact the local government in the United Kingdom receives its powers and is dependent on the enactment of the Westminster Parliament. Secondly, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are responsible to Parliament. And finally, the political parties have an important function in the par1iamentary system of Britain.[4]

As to the role Parliament plays in the British Constitution it can be said that its legislative powers are not limited by any influence of the courts of law. That means that enactments by Parliament cannot be declared unconstitutional, which makes an important difference to the German system. In Germany a law passed by the "Bundestag" could be judged unconstitutional by the "Bundesverfassungsgericht", for example, if it does not comply with the personal rights every citizen is guaranteed. Consequently, this law will have to be changed or at least altered. The obviously strong position of Parliament concerning legislation leads to the question as to what the relationship between Parliament and the Administration looks like. To what extent does Parliament control the executive part of the Government? Has it got a strong position here as well?

As already mentioned above the Ministers are responsible to Parliament. Not only does the Ministers' resonsibi1ity refer to their actions, but also to the "actions of their departments"[5]. If Parliament does not approve of a Minister's policy and loses confidence in him, the Minister will be forced to resign. So the executive is also controlled by Parliament. Since the House of Commons, the most powerful one of the two chambers, is elected by the people, the strong position of Parliament ensures that the political system of Britain works democratically. Although there is no denying the fact that the House of Commons is an important democratic device and plays a powerful role in the British Constitution, there are some factors to be found in the system of government which are not under the direct control of Parliament. First of all the influence of the British Crown has to be mentioned. Ministers are appointed and the meetings of the House of Commons can only be convened by the Monarch. However, it has to be admitted that these rights of the Monarch's are executed on the advice of the Prime Minister. A more important limit to the powers of Parliament is the fact that the Government can make decisions in foreign policy without parliamentary assent. Treaties with foreign countries need not be ratified by Parliament; nor is it up to the decision of Parliament whether war should be declared or not. The declaration of war is a decision the Prime Minister has to take.[6] Contrary to the British system in Germany the ratification of the "Bundestag" is necessary in either case.


[1] Sydney D. Bailey: British parliamentary democracy, 1978, p. 2.

[2] Anthony H. Birch: The British system of government, 1991, p. 21.

[3] Sydney D. Bailey: British parliamentary democracy, 1978, p. 4.

[4] Ibid., pp. 5,6.

[5] Anthony H. Birch: The British system of government, 1991, p. 22.

[6] Anthony H. Birch: The British system of government, pp. 23-25.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf – Anglistisches Institut
british parliament powers government



Titel: The British Parliament - How the Powers of Parliament and those of the Government are balanced