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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Existance of a written constitution in the UK
In this essay I am going to question whether it is correct to say that the United Kingdom does not have a constitution. To establish whether the United Kingdom (UK) does have a constitution or not, I must firstly define the meaning of the term ‘constitution’. On oxforddictionaries.com the term constitution is defined as being ‘. a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organisation is acknowledged to be governed.’ . However, to question whether the UK has a constitution, perhaps its best to ask what a constitution is? Typically it would be said that there are two meanings, first that the constitution of a state is the ‘written document which outlines the powers of its important national institution’ and secondly that there is no textual document, but existing legislation that has somewhat constitutional character.
The majority of developed countries have written constitutions such as the United States of America who have the ‘United States Constitution 1787’. However, countries such as New Zealand, Israel and the UK do not have such a document which is one of the factors leading to the belief that the UK does not have a constitution. Yet the constitution of the UK can be found, for example it exists in various acts of parliament such as the Bill of Rights Act 1688 which ‘established the illegality of levying taxation without the consent of parliament and curtailed the powers of the crown’ , this bill ties together the institutions of the government and individual citizens by defining the relationship between parliament and the crown. This links in with the definition of a constitution as the bill is textual legislation which could suggest that perhaps the UK’s constitution is made up of written and unwritten sources, the unwritten convention being the royal assent having to being given on legislation proposed by parliament.
The principles and rules of the British Constitution are contained in ‘unrelated acts of Parliament such as the Act of Settlement 1700; the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 and also the Crown Proceedings Act 1947’ . In my opinion this all supports the argument that the UK does have a constitution, unwritten it may be, yet it embodies the same rules and principles as a state which does have a written document as a constitution.
Furthermore, article 16 of the (French) Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789 states that ‘a society where rights are not secured or the separation of powers established has no constitution’ , this infers that the UK does have a constitution as it has the separation of powers between the Houses of Parliament, the Monarch and the Judiciary. Additionally, this links in with the definition of a constitution as these separations of powers are acknowledged principles as to how the state is to be governed.
The rule of law is further support to suggest that the UK does have a constitution. Historically it was phrase used with reference to ‘a belief in the existence of law possessing higher authority ‘ whether divine or natural ‘ than that of the law promulgated by human rulers which imposed limits on their powers.’ To me this implies similar meaning as that of the definition of a constitution as it is implicitly stating that everyone is bound by the same laws, government and civilians alike, thus being acknowledgement of being governed. My opinion too, can be backed up by the rule of law as ‘expounded by Dicey which has significantly influenced the UK constitution whom also said that government and citizen alike should be restricted by the same definite rules of law.’
Nevertheless, countries such as the United States need a special procedure to change any of their constitutional laws meaning it is hard for this to happen, whereas the UK does not need any special procedure to change its ‘constitutional’ laws. This can be done by judicial decisions and changing conventional practices which already exist. In my opinion this clouds the judgement on establishing whether the UK does have a constitution, as a constitution is defined as having set principles and bearing this in mind, the UK appears to have changing principles over time. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows flexibility and seeing as we are in the 21st century and views and customs are changing surely it is a good thing for the principles of the constitution to adjust with the times in order for the citizen/government relationship to continue to work together.
All this in mind, I feel that in the future the UK may have a stronger, more apparent constitution. Or perhaps a less apparent constitution than it already seems to be, based on the assumption that the UK does currently have an existing constitution. My reasoning as to this is that the constitution is slowly changing overtime, for example the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill 2010-2011 which was given the Royal Assent on the 16th of February 2011. This bill proposes the changes in the voting system and also reduces the size of the House of Commons. Furthermore, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 also slightly changed the constitution by ‘creating provisions relating to the ratification of treaties.’
To conclude, in my opinion the UK does have a constitution. Although it may not be in a written document, it is apparent through many forms of legislation that contain constitutional characteristics. This, along with the many conventions that the constitution of the UK clearly embodies, such as if a minister were to lose the confidence of the House of Commons, they would resign. Another example is the Queen giving royal assent on bills produced by Parliament. All these points together I feel clarify that the UK is a state which has set rules and principles. These are very much acknowledged and exercised by the government and state, which ultimately is what a constitution is.
Total word count; 986 words.
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