Chapter 12 Guidance to answering the end-of-chapter questions

The Role of Constitutional Conventions

1. How can one define constitutional conventions? Why is it difficult to provide such a definition?

  • This is a difficult question because there are many differing opinions about constitutional conventions and little agreement about their precise content.
  • Start by reviewing the distinction between legal and non-legal rules. Which of these would you say best describes constitutional conventions?
  • How did Dicey describe constitutional conventions and how have Dicey’s views been challenged by other commentators?
  • Are conventions merely advisory practices? Or are conventions considered to be binding on those to whom they apply?

2. When are constitutional conventions ‘created’? What is Jennings’ identification test?

  • Jennings sets out three criteria for the existence of a constitutional convention. Can you name them? See the extract on p. 360.
  • Has Jennings’ test been universally accepted or have other commentators criticised it?
  • How have the courts treated Jennings’ test? Has the test been recognised in UK courts?

3. List some of today’s most important constitutional conventions. What are the consequences of non-compliance?

  • Remember that conventions usually operate to limit the powers granted to institutions of government by unwritten rules or sources.
  • Conventions affect different constitutional actors. For example, it is a constitutional convention that dictates that the King or Queen must appoint the leader of the political party with a majority in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister. Can you think of other conventions affecting the monarch?
  • It is a constitutional convention that the Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Commons, as opposed to the House of Lords. What other conventions affect the political executive?
  • Can you recall any conventions affecting Parliament and the Judiciary?
  • Tables 12.1-12.3 on p. 365 should help you to remember examples of constitutional conventions.
  • Are constitutional conventions enforced by the courts?

4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using constitutional conventions as mechanisms for limiting the use of executive power? Why does the executive respect constitutional conventions if the sanctions are non-legal in nature?

  • It might be easier to think first about whether constitutional conventions should be given the force of law. What would be the possible weaknesses or strengths of codifying constitutional conventions? pp. 370–373 should help.
  • How important is flexibility in the UK constitutional system? Is it easier to reflect changes in the political and wider community if conventions are codified or uncodified? Reflect on Munro’s explanations on p. 372.
  • What is the influence of political pressure in relation to the executive respect for constitutional conventions?
  • What could be the political sanctions for breaching constitutional conventions? For example, how might the electorate respond? Review pp. 368–370 if you are struggling.

5. How do conventions contained under the umbrella term of ministerial responsibility help to ensure a responsible government (if at all)?

  • Begin by defining ‘ministerial responsibility’.
  • What does ‘individual responsibility’ mean and how does this differ from ‘collective ministerial responsibility’ (sometimes known as ‘collective cabinet responsibility’)?
  • Can you explain the difference between ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’? 
  • What types of things are required by the convention of individual ministerial responsibility? Look back at the explanation of the Public Service Committee on p. 374.
  • It is a convention that ministers cannot openly criticise government decisions. Is this an aspect of individual or collective ministerial accountability?
  • Are there hard-and-fast rules relating to when a minister will be expected to resign for breaching a convention?
  • The summary points on p. 379 and p. 382 should help jog your memory on these points.