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The British Constitution before the 1832 Reform Act

The British constitution is a mixture of tradition, custom and practice and never has been written down. There are no statutes (laws) for the constitution although the positive theory of government balances two principles:

John Locke defended this theory of mixed government in his book, On Civil Government (1689). There are three elements to the constitution:

  1. The Monarch, who had to call and dismiss parliament. Parliament could not meet without being summoned by the monarch. S/he also had to consent to all pieces of legislation passed by parliament before they could become law (Acts). The monarch had the right to reject legislation. The monarch appointed the Prime Minister and had the absolute right to appoint whomsoever s/he wished. This could lead to problems, as evidenced in the Decade of Ministerial Instability, 1760-70.
  2. Parliament was elected by landowners and was deemed to be independent of the Crown. Parliament initiated, discussed and passed laws which then had to be approved by the monarch.
  3. The Judicature or law courts. These are independent of both Crown and parliament and enforce the laws made by parliament, custom and tradition.

The struggle between Crown and parliament had been going on since Tudor times but the balance tipped in favour of parliament with the 1688 Glorious Revolution. A group of seven Whigs invited William of Orange and his English wife, Mary Stuart, to become joint rulers in place of James II. Part of the agreement was that the joint monarchs should consent to the Bill of Rights, which put some restrictions on the powers of the Crown.

The Civil List deliberately kept the monarch short of money, which could be obtained only from parliament. The monarch paid for the expenses of the armed forces and government by submitting estimates. Consequently, parliament controlled Royal policy.

The 1689 Toleration Act granted freedom of worship to all those who accepted 36 of the 39 Articles. This had to be passed because William III was a Calvinist and under the previous law could be prosecuted for not attending services in the Church of England. As a result of this Act, toleration was secured for all but Catholics and Unitarians. However, the Test Act (1673) and Corporation Act (1661) were still in force, so no non-Anglican could hold public office.

The 'party system'

In the Eighteenth Century, and for quite a long time in the Nineteenth Century there were no political parties as would be recognised today. The term 'party' referred to a group of men who followed the ideas of another man. Peers would have placemen in the House of Commons: that is, MPs representing constituencies owned by the Peers. These MPs were expected to vote the way their patron told them. There were also independent MPs in the House of Commons, known as 'independent gentlemen'. These men either owned constituencies outright or had been elected freely and they voted independently of party links. County MPs were the most democratically elected representatives because the number of voters in the counties was relatively high. The 'independent gentlemen' were the MPs that any government had to win over in order to continue in power.

To become Prime Minister, a man needed some ability, more influence and sufficient personality to carry the House. It was useful if he was a good speaker (although not necessary - the Duke of Portland was PM for 2½ years and did not make a single speech). The most essential element was for the PM to have royal support. Without that, he could be dismissed. An advantage was for the PM to have a seat in the House of Commons although that was not necessary.

The Whigs stood for reform, the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy and for the limiting of royal powers

The Tories upheld 'Crown, Church and Constitution':

The terms 'Whig' and 'Tory' actually meant little in the Eighteenth Century but as time went on, they came to represent different ideas.

Negotiations between groups in the House of Lords and the House of Commons took place regularly. The monarch chose the Prime Minister, but if s/he wanted a government to last, s/he chose the man with the more support in Parliament. George III chose men whom he wanted to be PM and consequently there were seven different ministries between 1760-70. This period is known as the Decade of Ministerial Instability.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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