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Wednesday, June 3, 1998 Published at 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK

UK Politics: Talking Politics

Conventions of the constitution

At one time the Home Secretary was required to be present at all Royal births - not any more

By BBC Constitutional Affairs Correspondent Joshua Rozenberg.

All accounts of the British constitution start with Professor Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922).

As Vernon Bogdanor acknowledges, it was Dicey who first analysed the British constitution and emphasised its historic nature.

It was also Dicey who explained that much of our constitution is based on conventions.

These conventions are customs or rules that are respected as a fundamental part of our constitution even though they are not enforceable as rules of law.

Constitutional conventions

Here are some of the examples quoted by Dicey in 1885:

  • Ministers resign office when they have ceased to command the confidence of the House of Commons.

  • The sovereign must assent to any bill passed by the two houses of parliament.

  • When the House of Lords acts as a court of appeal, peers who are not law lords take no part in the proceedings.

    These conventions remain part of our constitution. Others have developed since Dicey's time. Indeed, the whole system of cabinet government depends on constitutional conventions.

    Gradual evolution

    Take the Prime Minister, for example. Britain has had one since the eighteenth century, but not because parliament sat down one afternoon and said so.

    [ image: Walpole: first among equals]
    Walpole: first among equals
    Indeed, it was not until 1917 that a statute first noticed we had such a person, when the official 'now popularly known as Prime Minister' was allowed to live at Chequers.

    By the same reckoning the cabinet was first spotted in 1937 when parliament decided its members would receive salaries; likewise the Leader of the Opposition.

    The Ministers of the Crown Act 1937 did mention in passing that there were such things as political parties, but it was not until 1969 that MPs came out of the closet and allowed party descriptions to be printed on ballot papers.

    Constitutional conventions do not last for ever.

    As they have not been created by law they do not need formal repeal: people simply stop observing them.

    There was apparently once a convention that the Home Secretary should be present at a royal birth. Times change - and so do constitutional conventions.

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