English Constitution in 1700

The English Constitution
The Magna Carta
The Magna Carta, British Library

1 The unchanged constitution

In comparison to others the English constitution has changed the least since 1700. This shows clearly how far ahead the United Kingdom was at the time. Even though all people have the right to vote nowadays, and the queen does not have much to decide anymore, the basics of the English constitution are still the same now as they were in 1700.

2 Cornerstones of the English constitution

2.1 Limits on taxation by the king

Up till the reign of Charles I the English constitution still relied on medieval tradition. A written document like the Magna Charta describes only some topics of this tradition. In essence the constitution provided that the powers of the king were limited to those he held by tradition. These were the income from customs (In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) half of the regular income of the crown still came from custom duties1).) and the aid he was entitled to in certain circumstances (e.g. a war).

The Stuarts that came to power in 1603 seriously tried to change this. James I was careful, but Charles I tried to break this tradition by lifting new taxes without the consent of parliament. This conflict led to the Petition of Right coming into force in 1628, which again affirmed the Commons' authority over taxation.

2.2 Limits on judicial power of the king

The conflict between crown and parliament did not end with the petition of right. In 1640 the Law to dissolve the Star Chamber, also known as '1640 Habeas Corpus act', was passed and effectively took judicial power out of the King's hands. The moves by Charles I ultimately led to the English Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration. Under king Charles II the Habeas Corpus act came into force in 1679. His successor James II made another attempt to supersede parliament and in reaction the population dismissed him with the help of William III.

2.3 Establishment of parliamentary sovereignty

King William III thoroughly understood and probably even intended that his powers would be limited. The declaration of rights and the Bill of Rights were mainly presented as once again listing the constitutional relations in the kingdom. They were followed by the Act of Settlement. All this was presented as a restoration of the rights of parliament and free Englishmen, but in fact established parliamentary sovereignty.

3 Separation of lawmaking, executive and judicial powers

3.1 Modern separation of powers

The essence of any modern constitution, like the English constitution is that lawmaking, executive and judicial powers are rather separated. Roughly put; Laws are made by parliament (House of Commons and House of Lords). Laws are executed by the government (king + secretaries). In individual cases the proper execution of the law is checked by the judiciary. In the theory of the separation of powers the budget law it the biggest law of them all. E.g. parliament allows a budget for war, the government spent the money by paying soldiers etc.

3.2 Separation of powers in 1700

While the theory of the separation of powers kind of fits the situation in 1700, this is also a bit of a coincidence. Montesquieu himself described the three powers as: the legislative, the judiciary, and the executive. But he described the executive as: the power that made war and peace, handled foreign affairs, provided internal security and prevented invasions. For a more thorough look at this cf House of Commons.

4 Notes

1) Revolutionary Empire, page 49 about half of the rgular income of the crown coming from customs.