Is the UK constitution no longer fit for its purpose?

The constitution is a set of rules by which a country is run, it establishes the distribution of power within a political system, relationships between political institutions, the limits of government jurisdiction and the rights of citizens. However, these functions have been criticised and it could now be said that the UK constitution specifically is no longer fit for its purpose.

Firstly, the lack of codification and the need for special procedures to amend the constitution make it too easy to change. There has been a raft of major alterations to the UK’s relations with the EU without referendums; Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice were approved without asking the electorate, and the government ignored public demand for a vote on the Lisbon Treaty. This leads to the executive holding far too much power and parliament is unable to effectively hold government to account. The Commons could therefore force through anything it wishes by implementing the Parliament Act, as it did with hunting with hounds. Thus, there is no effective legal restraints against a party with a majority in the Commons between elections. This means that the UK is not fulfilling its purpose of limiting the government and distributing power within a political system.

Furthermore, since most of the constitution is unwritten it is unknowable. This means that citizens rely on government to play by largely unwritten rules. Unlike citizens in the USA, who are able to buy a copy of the US constitution from almost any bookshop, since the UK citizens lack a constitution which can be read and understood, they are less likely to claim their rights. This makes it undemocratic because our constitutional arrangements and procedures are not defined and limited by law. If it was, then this would have an educative benefit, enhance trust by the electorate and help to protect democracy. Therefore, it could be seen as no longer fit for its purpose because it does not effectively protect the rights of citizens since they are not entirely educated and aware of them.

On the other hand, the UK’s uncodified and un entrenched nature means it can adapt to circumstances. Governments with a mandate are not limited in their ability to change governing arrangements by having to go through lengthy and complex procedures. As a result, the Labour government were able to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law via a simple Act of Parliament in 1998. It’s also very useful in case of a coalition government, like the one in 2010, since there are no rules for a situation like that, the leaders were able to negotiate and come to terms that suited them both.

Additionally, the UK constitution provides a strong government which clearly shows where the power lies. Given the absence of a written constitution, government decisions that are backed by Parliament cannot be overturned by the judiciary and the UK’s system of parliamentary government, based on the Westminster model, usually means that governments get their way in Parliament. This allows UK governments to take strong and decisive action, for example Atlee governments of 1945-51 set up the NHS, introduced comprehensive national insurance and nationalized a wide range of industries; and the Thatcher governments 1979-90, introduced privatization, deregulated the economy and started to reform the welfare state.

Also, the UK’s long period of unbroken democratic rule is often seen as evidence of the strength of its constitutional system. The reason why the constitution has a democratic flavour is because of the importance of parliamentary sovereignty. In the UK’s constitution, supreme constitutional authority is vested, ultimately, in the elected House of Commons. Changes to the constitution therefore often come about because of democratic pressure. For instance, social and economic changes in the 19th century led to the extension of the franchise through a series of reform acts. Similarly, the powers of the House of Lords were reduced through the Parliaments Acts, because of the growing belief that an unelected second chamber should no longer have the right to block the policies of elected governments. This protects the rights of the citizens and therefore fulfils its purpose.

To conclude, the UK constitution is still fit for purpose because it adapts successfully to society’s circumstances in order to protect the rights of the citizens, it provides a strong government which runs the country and this clearly shows where the power lies and how it is distributed.

Sofiya Agaeva

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