The most famous constitutional document in England’s history, the Magna Carta, has its 800th Anniversary next year, but the Committee has been looking forwards by working on a major project with King’s College London to develop several different visions of what a democratic settlement for the UK could look like. The King’s College research lays out three different models – including one fully fleshed out, complete constitution – and sets out some of the arguments for and against codifying the constitution in this way.
The King’s research points to the fact that the UK has a “sprawling mass” of common law, Acts of Parliament, and European treaty obligations, and a number of important but uncertain and unwritten “conventions” that govern administration, but the full picture is unclear and uncertain to electors in our democracy. They point to concerns about an “elective dictatorship”, and argue that it has “become too easy for governments to implement political and constitutional reforms to suit their own political convenience”. A written constitution would entrench requirements for popular and parliamentary consent. The present unwritten constitution is “an anachronism riddled with references to our ancient past, unsuited to the social and political democracy of the 21st century and future aspirations of its people. It fails to give primacy to the sovereignty of the people and discourages popular participation in the political process.”
Conversely, the case against a written constitution is that it is unnecessary, undesirable and un-British. The UK’s unwritten constitution is evolutionary and flexible in nature, enabling practical problems to be resolved as they arise and individual reforms made. The research points to concerns that a written constitution would create more litigation in the courts and politicise the judiciary, requiring them to pass judgement on the constitutionality of government legislation (which currently happens only in some contexts, such as compatibility with the Human Rights Act), when the final word on legal matters should lie with elected politicians in Parliament, not unelected judges. There is the simple argument that there are so many practical problems in preparing and enacting a written constitution, there is little point in even considering it. There is no real popular support or demand and, especially given the massive amount of time and destabilising effect such a reform would entail, it is a very low priority even for those who support the idea.
The research the Select Committee commissioned from King’s College London sets out three different models for a codified constitution for the UK:
- Constitutional Code – a document that doesn’t have legal force, but which would set out the existing principles of the constitution and the workings of government.
- Constitutional Consolidation Act – a document which would consolidate existing constitutional laws in one place.
- Written Constitution – a document of basic law by which the UK would be governed, setting out the relationship between the state and its citizens.
Each of these options is itself open to debate and variation. They are for you to consider. The Select Committee is initiating a national debate, and is deliberately not supporting a position for or against a codified constitution, believing it is for the people ultimately to decide that question.
Submit your views
The Select Committee will consult widely and asks anyone who is interested in the future of the UK’s constitution to send in their views on the questions below:
- Does the UK need a codified constitution?
- If so, which of the three options offers the best way forward?
- What changes would you like to be made to your favoured option if you have one?
The consultation closes on 1 January 2015. The Committee will report on the responses from the public in time for them to be taken into account ahead of the general election.
The Committee’s report and the research are available at: www.parliament.uk/pcrc-constitution