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Constitutional convention

Alternate meaning: Constitutional Convention

A Constitutional convention is an informal and uncodified procedural agreement that is followed by the institutions of a state. In some states, notably those Commonwealth of Nations states which follow the Westminister system and whose political systems are derived from British constitutional law, most of the functions of government are guided by constitutional convention rather than by a formal written constitution. In these states, the actual distribution of power may be markedly different from those which are described in the formal constitutional documents. In particular, the formal constitution often confers wide discretationary powers to the head of state which in practice are used only on the advice of the head of government.

Some constitutional conventions operate separate from or alongside, written constitutions, others, notably in Britain which has no written constitution, have a form of constitutional status. Many older conventions have been replaced or superseded by laws.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Unenforceability
3 Constitutional Conventions in the United Kingdom
4 Examples of Constitutional Conventions


Constitutional conventions generally arise from precedent. For example, the constitutional convention that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom must govern with the a majority in Parliament derived from the very unsuccessful attempt of Robert Peel to govern without one in the mid-nineteenth century.

Constitutional conventions differ from formal constitutional amendments in that they are created over time, and it may be difficult or impossible to identify when a constitutional convention has come into effect or sometimes even what the constitutional conventions are.


Constitutional conventions are not obligatory, but are in effect procedural agreements which all sides adhere to. Some conventions evolve or change over time; for example, before 1918 the British cabinet requested a parliamentary dissolution from the monarch, with the Prime Minister conveying the request. Since 1918, prime ministers on their own initiative request dissolutions, and need not consult members of the cabinet. However conventions are rarely ever broken. Unless there is general agreement on the breach, the person who breaches a convention is often heavily criticised, on occasions leading to a loss of respect or popular support. It is often said that "conventions are not worth the paper they are written on", ie, they are unenforcable in law because they are not written down. Whatever enforceability they have comes from history, tradition, symbolism and their cross-party support.

Constitutional Conventions in the United Kingdom

While Britain does not have a written constitution that is a single document, the collection of legal instruments that have developed into a body of law known as constitutional law having existed for hundreds of years. An example of such a convention in Great Britain is the requirement that all money bills must originate in the House of Commons. Such conventions also exist in other Commonwealth parliamentary democracies such as Canada under the British North America Act of 1867 (also known as the Canadian Constitution) which was an act of the British Parliament which created the nasceant Canadian Parliament even though by convention it was agreed to by the Fathers of Confederation who were representatives of the various colonies of British North America. So while it had been signed by these individuals on March 29, 1867 it did not enter into force of law until it was signed by the British monarch as an Act of Parliament.

As part of this unwritten British constitution, constitutional conventions of British constitutional law play a key role. They are rules that are observed by the various constituted parts though they are not written in any document having legal authority; there are often underlying enforcing principles that are themselves not formal and codified. None the less it is very unlikely that there would be a departure of such conventions without good reason, even if an underlying enforcing principle has been overtaken by history, as these conventions also acquire the force of custom. For instance, the convention about money bills mentioned above was once enforced by the Catch-22 fact that a government could not apply enough force to get the taxes it needed without cooperation, unless it first had even more funds to pay for that force; it is now merely customary, but it underlay much of British constitutional development in the 17th century. See royal prerogative.

Examples of Constitutional Conventions



United States