Is the UK constitution fit for purpose?

The United Kingdom is quite unique in that it has an uncodified constitution that is not entrenched. It is criticised for being outdated, undemocratic and lacking clarity. However, it has provided stability for many years and has a number of benefits such as its flexibility.The constitution is fit for purpose as it is adaptable in times of crisis. It is uncodified – not clearly written as an accessible, single document. Therefore, it is open to amendments, particularly when a government needs it. For example, following the 2011 riots, the Conservative government under Cameron were able to change the right to bail – as there was a huge number of perpetrators of crime at this time – which was a breach of the rule of law and the Human Rights Act. This demonstrates that in times of need a government is not limited by a codified constitution.

Furthermore, the UK constitution is beneficial in that it produces strong governments with clear majorities, unlike other nations such as the USA where the distribution of power between institutions is clearly outlined, with rigorous checks and balances. Despite the Scotland Act of 1998 devolving power to other bodies in the UK, and creating a Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, Parliament has the ability to amend this and recentralise power to Westminster. The UK constitution can be changed by an act of Parliament, which makes the government in power stronger and have greater legitimacy and allows it to pursue its programme of government.

Additionally, the UK constitution has provided hundreds of years of stability; no one desires constitutional change despite it being viewed as lacking clarity. This is a clear indication of the benefits of the UK constitution – it is functioning well and has allowed the UK’s democratic system to flourish.

However, one of the main criticisms of the UK constitution is the idea that it is too open to exploitation in its interpretation. With the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998, it brought in laws from the ECHR into British legislation. The main issue is that as the UK constitution is not entrenched, governments can simply make amendments based on ideology; the last two Conservative Party manifestos have clearly outlined a desire to remove the HRA and they are entirely capable of doing so with a Parliamentary majority. This shows that the UK constitution is flawed in certain ways as it is open to exploitation by governments.

Another point of contention with the UK constitution is that prerogative power has been transferred into the executive power of the Prime Minister. For example, in 2003 intervention into the Iraq War went ahead regardless of the opposition of a large proportion of the general public and a number of MPs too. Theresa May governs as Prime Minister despite not actually being elected, decreasing her mandate, however this is facilitated and not at all prevented by the UK constitution. Most recently there has been the Supreme Court ruling regarding Article 50, which has significantly curtailed the executive powers of the Prime Minister; she is unable to trigger Article 50 on her own without renegotiating the terms with Parliament and holding a Parliamentary vote.

The UK constitution is also viewed as being unfit for purpose as it remains quite undemocratic. There still remains too many unelected institutions in our political system, such as the House of Lords and the monarchy. Notwithstanding, the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005 separated the judiciary from Parliament – making law lords part of the Supreme Court, which was established in 2009. There has been other constitutional reform in recent years, notably by the Blair and Brown governments, but it is not believed by some that these have been effective and wide-ranging enough. They passed the House of Lords Act in 1999, which removed new hereditary peers and significantly reduced the number of existing ones in the House of Lords. This is one of the main criticisms of the UK constitution – that it is outdated and obsolete, and undemocratic as a result of that, therefore, it is viewed as lacking relevance in modern society and being no longer fit for purpose.

One more disputed element with the UK constitution is its lack of clarity – it is too complex to understand, which furthers the idea of it being undemocratic. When there is confusion regarding the constitution, authoritative works from authors such as Bagehot and Dicey are still referenced. This shows how in some ways the constitution is flawed.

In conclusion, the UK constitution has strengths and weaknesses, but what it lacks in clarity and being undemocratic, it makes up for by acting as a foundation for strong decisive governments and providing stability in the political system. It has functioned in a beneficial way for many years and there has been some constitutional reform in recent years, which makes it still have relevance in our political system – making it fit for purpose.

Susanna Allam 

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