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Classification: Introduction

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  • KC Wheare: .. 'constitution' is commonly... used to describe the whole system of government of a country, the collection of rules which establish and regulate or govern the government... (Modern Constitutions (1966))

Types of Constitution

Written and Unwritten

  • most constitutions are enacted or codified, either in a single document or series of documents
  • following the models of the US or French constitutions
  • UK constitution is considered to be unwritten
  • despite key documents such as the Human Rights Act 1998, there is no systematic code
  • only other states not to have entirely written constitutions are New Zealand and Israel

Rigid and Flexible

  • ease with which a constitution can be altered is a factor
  • classed as rigid if they require a special process before they can be changed, usually more onerous and so restricts the ability to change a constitution compared to other laws
  • amendments to the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution requires a two thirds majority of both Houses of Congress and ratification by three quarters of State legislatures
  • in Republic of Ireland amendments must be passed by the legislature and then approved by a majority in a referendum
  • UK constitution is described as flexible
  • it requires only the normal procedure to pass on Act of Parliament, essentially a majority in both the Houses, to change any written law elements
  • UK constitution also includes non legal rules which can be changed without any formal procedure

Supreme and Subordinate

  • supreme constitution is not subject to any external superior force
  • subordinate constitution is drafted and introduced in a country by an external sovereign power, so could be amended by that external power
  • core of the distinction is whether the constitution provides the highest form of law in the land UK constitution is viewed as supreme
  • constitutional impact of UK membership of the European Union (EU) is debated
  • can be argued that UK sovereignty is limited by EU treaties but it can be seen this limitation is voluntary, under an Act of Parliament - European Communities Act 1972 and so does not alter supremacy

Federal and Unitary

  • internal division of power within a state is an important aspect
  • unitary state only the central government has primary law making powers and powers may be delegated to lower tiers
  • federal state both central government and individual territories have primary powers
  • despite devolution, UK remains a unitary state, with Parliament having the ultimate law making power

Republican and Monarchical

  • republics have no monarchy and there will normally be a President, who is a directly elected Head of State, eg US
  • some republics the President can be restricted to a more formal role of a figurehead, eg Italy or Germany
  • UK remains monarchical, with the Queen as Head of State andcontinues to hold formal powers under the royal prerogative


  • Thomas Paine: .. a government without a constitution is a government without right... (Rights of Man (1791))
  • Beetham: .. three conditions are required: its conformity to established rules; the justifiability of the rules by reference to shared beliefs; the express consent of the subordinate, or of the most significant among them, to the particular relations of power... (The Legitimation of Power (1991))

Legal Exercise of Powers

  • constitutions allocate and limit powers
  • written constitution provides a higher law in itself
  • may provide courts the power to strike down legislation, which can make laws both illegal and unconstitutional
  • US Supreme Court has such power even though there is no explicit provision in constitution (Marbury v Madison (1803))
  • in UK, Parliamentary Supremacy and common law rules govern the exercise of power
  • doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy limits the ability to challenge legislation in the courts, so laws may be unconstitutional but not illegal

Shared Beliefs

  • many written constitutions result from revolution or key historical event so inherently try to embody a set of representative ideals
  • often contain a set of fundamental rights, eg Bill of Rights in US constitution
  • in UKHuman Rights Act 1998 sets out number of individual freedoms


  • constitutions often initially approved by democratic means which lays foundation for continued acceptance
  • usually name the people as the ultimate source of authority
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