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United Kingdom


The Constitutional Texts

There are many good reasons for studying the British constitution in the period 1776 to 1849, but such a study presents considerable difficulties that are unique to Britain. In the later eighteenth century the British people prided themselves on living under the most stable constitution that they had ever enjoyed and under the freest constitution in Europe. Many enlightened men across Europe agreed with them. Admirers of the British constitution could list many admirable features that the constitution possessed: the monarch was subject to constitutional restraints; the executive could govern effectively only with the support of the two houses of parliament; sovereign power was shared by the combined legislature of King, House of Lords and House of Commons; parliament represented men of wealth, status and power; while even ordinary British subjects enjoyed many civil liberties under the rule of law (including the right to a trial when accused, the right to trial by jury, liberty of conscience and a free press). While it is quite easy to point to the virtues of the British constitution, it is also possible to list some of its weaknesses: the monarch could exploit crown patronage to influence the composition of both houses of parliament; some political rights at national and local level were officially open only to members of the established Church of England; and the parliamentary franchise was exercised by only about twenty per cent or less of adult males.

What cannot be done in Britain in this period – unlike a growing number of advanced countries elsewhere in the world at this time – is to produce the full and agreed text of the British constitution. The Americans in the newly independent United States of America began drafting written constitutions from 1776. The French Revolution led to similar developments in France in the 1790s and many other European states began to follow suit. Britain, however, never abandoned its unwritten, prescriptive constitution – at this time or at any period since. The British constitution of the later eighteenth century was already an ‘ancient constitution’ that was the product of traditions and customs developed over centuries. It was also the result of many hundreds of political actions and legislative acts that had become accepted by the ruling elite and by the people at large. Some limits to royal power had been achieved long ago by the Magna Carta of 1215, and these restrictions had been made more effective by civil war and the Glorious Revolution in the seventeenth century. A parliament had existed since the thirteenth century and it had steadily increased its powers and privileges since the sixteenth century. Parliament was summoned to meet every single year (right to the present day) after 1689 in order to provide the executive with much needed revenue. The executive had become steadily more accountable to the legislature and parliament passed an increasing number of statutes to benefit powerful interests in the nation as the eighteenth century progressed. The right to vote for the members of the House of Commons had been established over centuries by act of parliament and by the terms of hundreds of borough charters granted by the crown. Trial by jury was an ancient custom, while the right to a trial after arrest was enshrined by the act of habeas corpus of 1679. Some major aspects of the constitution, however, could not be traced to any particular political event, act of parliament or constitutional doctrine. The monarch’s right to veto bills passed by both houses of parliament was never used again after 1708, but there was no law to enforce what had simply become a constitutional practice. In the same way, there was no law to state that parliament must meet every year; it was simply summoned because the king’s government needed the substantial revenue granted by parliament. There was no constitutional law creating a cabinet of ministers or the position of Prime Minister, though both institutions were clearly in being by 1776. By the later eighteenth century the British also regularly boasted of possessing a free press, but no constitutional law enshrined such a privilege; rather the law establishing a system of censorship had lapsed in 1695 and was never renewed. Indeed, it might be argued that most British civil liberties existed not because a constitutional law had created them, but because no laws existed to say such liberties could not be exercised.

The British constitution is unwritten and is prescriptive, and it has evolved organically over many centuries. It is therefore not possible to produce a text of it below in the way that it is possible to produce the texts of many American and European constitutions that were produced in the period from 1776 to 1849. What has been substituted here is a selection of the most important constitutional measures that can be safely regarded as legitimate constitutional documents because they were formally passed by act of the sovereign legislature of King, Lords and Commons and were enshrined in law.

The first two texts below (Crewe’s Act and Clerke’s Act of 1782) reflect the constitutional beliefs of those politicians who had opposed the government’s disastrous policies towards the rebellious American colonies. These critics believed that the authoritarian stance of the government was only possible because crown influence had brought too many conservative men into parliament. Both acts sought to reduce crown influence over the composition of the House of Commons by preventing government contractors being elected as MPs and taking the right to vote away from revenue officers who were very likely to support government candidates in elections. Both acts are indicative of the strength of support for economical reform, as a means of making parliament more independent of the crown, but neither had much practical effect. It was the efforts of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and of later Prime Ministers – over many decades – to make financial savings by cutting down on government waste and on money spent on government pensions and sinecures that steadily weakened the number of reliable ‘king’s men’ in parliament.

Texts 4 to 7 are examples of government repression during the 1790s, when William Pitt and a clear majority of the propertied classes sought to curb the political activities of radical reformers who were sympathetic to French revolutionary principles. These acts certainly restricted the civil liberties of radical political activists, but it is also true that they were passed in a constitutional manner by substantial majorities in both houses of parliament. It is also possible to claim that they had significant support in the country at large. These acts established due legal processes in order to curb radical activities, and historians have shown that few men were prosecuted under the terms of these acts and these acts soon lapsed as the fear of revolution at home receded. Text 3 (Fox’s Libel Act of 1792) shows that, on occasion, more liberal voices could still be heard in parliament. This act made it harder to convict those prosecuted for libel, because it allowed the jury, not the judge as formerly, to decide what was libellous. Several leading radicals accused of treason in 1794 undoubtedly benefited from the fact that juries in England were still not readily controlled by judges or the agents of government.

The eighth text (the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland) is of crucial importance because it created the constitutional entity of the United Kingdom by establishing for the first time a single imperial legislature for the whole of the British Isles. The principality of Wales had never had a separate legislature and it was fully incorporated under the English parliament at Westminster by acts passed in 1534 and 1536. Scotland’s separate parliament in Edinburgh ceased to exist in 1707 when the act of union united it with the Westminster parliament as the sole legislature for Great Britain. Ireland retained its separate parliament in Dublin throughout the eighteenth-century, but it failed to produce stable government because it excluded all representatives of the large Catholic majority in the country (even after propertied Catholics had received the vote in 1793). The terrible Irish rebellion in 1798 convinced William Pitt that a union of the legislatures of Ireland and Great Britain might end sectarian bitterness in Ireland. To make it effective, he planned to allow Catholics to sit in the enlarged Westminster parliament and to hold high office in the state. He believed it was possible to make this concession to the Catholic majority in Ireland because they would form only a minority of the voters in the whole British Isles. Unfortunately, the king, George III, believed it was against his coronation oath under a Protestant constitution to make this concession to Catholics. Many in the cabinet and a majority in parliament and the nation undoubtedly agreed with him. The failure to grant Catholic emancipation severely undermined the benefits of the Act of Union from the outset – and it also provoked Pitt’s resignation.

The Regency Act of 1811 (Text 9) was passed because George III, after earlier short-term bouts of mental illness, was finally entirely unable to exercise his royal duties. An act of parliament was required to invest his eldest son, George Prince of Wales, with regal powers. The act enshrined the notion that the British monarch was a parliamentary monarchy and it reinforced the fact that parliament was jealous of its power in relation to the crown. The Prince of Wales served as regent until 1820, when the death of his father allowed him to ascend the throne as George IV.

The succeeding texts printed below show how the British constitution that had largely been created or refashioned by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 was finally subjected to significant reform. These reforms came largely as a result of those political, social and economic changes that made Britain a very different society by the 1830s. Protestant nonconformists in England had long resented the special privileges conferred on the majority who conformed to the established Church of England. They had campaigned for many decades for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, passed in the 1660s and 1670s, that sought to restrict office at national and local level to those who conformed to the Church of England. These acts were finally repealed in 1828 (Text 10). The next year, after a prolonged campaign by Catholics in Ireland led by Daniel O’Connell, Catholics through­out the British Isles were finally admitted to parliament and to high office in the state by the Catholic Emancipation Act (Text 11).

Political radicals had been campaigning for parliamentary reform ever since the later 1760s. Some wanted a fully democratic House of Commons, with equal sized constituencies, the franchise for all adult males, the secret ballot and annual general elections. Others, a majority of reformers at least until after 1815, would have been satisfied with more moderate reform that would have given the urban middle classes in particular a greater representation in the House of Commons. They wanted the abolition of small constituencies, the transfer of these seats in parliament to the populous counties and large unrepresented towns such as Birming­ham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. Severe divisions within the conservative Tory party and the coming to power of a reform-minded Whig government in 1830, finally led to the achievement of the great reform bills of 1832. It is often forgotten that these extended to the whole British Isles (Texts 12 to 14). These acts did not create a fully democratic electoral system, and they certainly disappointed the more advanced reformers who had wanted much more. None the less, they undoubtedly opened a door to reform that could never again be closed and they proved that parliament could reform itself when a liberal-minded government in power had the backing of substantial support in the country at large. The parliamentary reform acts of 1832 were to show the way to a whole series of later reforms of the system of representation in Britain from the later nineteenth century to recent times. Long before that they served as a prelude to the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 (Text 15) which sought to reform local legislatures along similar lines to that achieved for the imperial parliament at Westminster. Town corporations were spread to urban areas that had not previously possessed them and these ceased to be narrow oligarchies but were opened to greater representation of the propertied middle classes.

The Source of the Texts

The parliamentary statutes printed below have been taken from the relevant official volumes which over the period 1782 to 1835 published these selected statutes. As will be seen, the titles of these works changed over time. The texts below are reproduced as printed, retaining the original spelling and capitalization. The texts are headed with the brief title by which each act is usually known, the correct title given to the act by its framers, the exact date when it was passed (if this is known), and its official reference (This reference gives the number of the annual parliamentary session of the reign, the name of the monarch, and then the number of the act of that year (given as a capitulum or chapter number).

The sovereign authority of parliament (that is, of the whole legislature of crown, Lords and Commons) was such that any constitutional act could be amended, extended, superseded or repealed by a subsequent act of parliament. These acts had no special status and there was therefore no need for a special process of the kind needed to amend the United States constitution. The subsequent repeal or develop­ment of the acts printed below can be found in any modern issue of the Chronological Table of Statutes, published regularly by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in London. Brief details of these changes are noted below for each act that is printed here.

Select Bibliography

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Costin, W. C. and Watson, J. Steven (eds.), The Law and Working of the Constitution 1660-1914, 2 vols., London: Adam and Charles Black, 1952.

De Lolme, Jean Louis, The Constitution of England, London: T. Spilsbury, 1775.

Dickinson, H. T., Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Dickinson, H. T., “The Eighteenth-Century Debate on the Sovereignty of Parliament”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 26 (1976), 189-210.

Dickinson, H. T., “The British Constitution”, in: A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. H.T. Dickinson, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Dickinson, H. T., “The Ideological Debate on the British constitution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth cen­turies”, in: Il Modello Costituzionale Ing­lese e la sua recezione nell’area Medi­terra­nea tra la fine del 700 e la prime metà dell ‘800, ed. Andrea Romano, Milan: Giuffrè, 1998, 145-192.

Dippel, Horst, “The Theory and Practice of the British Constitution in the Late Eighteenth Century”, in: ibid., 193-208.

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Goldsworthy, Jeffrey, The Sovereignty of Parliament: History and Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

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Hanham, H. J. (ed.), The Nineteenth-Century Constitution 1815-1914: Documents and Commentary, Cambridge: Cam­bridge University Press, 1969.

Harling, Philip, The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’: The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

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