The UK Constitution: Time for a Change?

It is fair to say that there is a lot of disillusionment with our Parliament and with certain aspects of the UK constitution at the moment. There are many who feel that our system is weak, and that this has been proven over recent months as so many elected representatives to our Parliament have used their position for their own financial gain and, in some circumstances, to help out members of their own families.

One thing is clear and that is the fact that UK citizens have clearly had enough! Nothing could have demonstrated this any more plainly than the shocking results that emerged from the European Parliamentary elections. Not only was Labour relegated to third place, in terms of the number of votes received, but also clear and, in some cases, extreme opinions were communicated by way of the parties who won seats to the new EU Parliament.

In some ways, when you actually study law, you gain an appreciation of the fact that the UK is proud to be one of the only Western countries that has held on to an unwritten constitution. With so much history at our disposal and conventions that have dictated the way in which things have been done for centuries, this appeared to be sufficient for us and a written constitution had always been deemed as unnecessary.

This is all well and good when such a system works. However, recent events have placed a lot of doubt in many people’s minds, including that of the Prime Minister himself. Gordon Brown has suggested some changes with regard to Parliament and other aspects of the UK constitution, and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the fact that he is inviting discussions related to an official written constitution for the country.

Although there is no official written constitution for the UK at the moment, one certainly does exist. This can be found in a number of Acts of Parliament; which range from as far back as the Magna Carta (1215) right up to the more recent Human Rights Act 1998.

Because the 1688 revolution in this country failed to substantially change the constitutional machinery to any great extent, at that time a written constitution did not emerge. The subsequent Bill of Rights 1689 did materialise after this event, but it just became another statute to contribute towards the overall makeup of our constitution. In contrast, most other countries that are similar to the UK experienced historical events which fundamentally amended their constitutional systems. A couple of good examples being found in the French Revolution, where France became a republic, and in the American civil war.

In addition to the statutes, which help to make up the UK constitution, conventions are another fundamental aspect. You may be surprised to learn that conventions actually represent a substantial proportion of how elements of the present constitution function within this country. For example, it is through a convention that we have a Prime Minister in the first place. There is nothing written down that specifically dictates this.

The people who are responsible for the running of this country do appreciate the importance of respecting such conventions. However, there is nothing that really stipulates exactly what consequences would follow if they failed to do so. Conventions have existed on a basis of trust and a desire to not “rock the boat” for many centuries now, but is this going to be enough to guarantee the effective governance of such crucial constitutional elements in the future? Furthermore, why are so many people who are a part of this system so vehemently opposed to things being written down in a more official capacity?

It is most probably through a fear of change or a great sense of pride in what we already have that people would prefer to keep our constitution as it is. After all, we are pretty unique when compared with other Westernised societies.

It would seem that the only way forward here would be to allow the people of this country to express their democratic views over this issue. As the people of the United Kingdom were denied the right to have a referendum over the Constitution for Europe, despite the fact they were promised beforehand, surely it is now time to permit them to reveal their preference over the way in which their own country is run in the future? Perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath here though, as the word “democracy” appears to have less and less meaning in our modern society. 

If this article has whet your appetite to discover more about the way in which the UK constitution has come about and functions today, the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs has a Unit in the Legal Secretaries Diploma course titled “The English Legal System” which will provide you with a wider appreciation of the way in which our legal system operates generally. There are also a wide range of other subjects covered that will teach you about the procedures involved in undertaking legal work.