10

Does the UK have a written constitution?

I didn’t think it did, but then I found the following:

3
  • 8
    The organization that produced the document doesn't make it very clear who they are, but the original project was a bunch of US academics who for whatever reason decided to collect as many constitutions as they could find - including inventing them when they didn't exist, apparently. BTW Magna Carta was never a "constitution" in any shape or form. It was simply a document draw up by the Barons with the intention of getting the King off their backs so they could ignore any nation-wide "rule of law", and they were powerful enough to force a weak king to agree to it!
    – alephzero
    Jun 23 '19 at 0:42
  • 4
    The linked document isn’t a constitution, it’s a compilation of laws with constitutional significance. It omits the considerable proportion of the constitution that has no statutory basis. For example, it says very little about the responsibilities and powers of the Prime Minister, and nothing about how they are appointed, because that’s never been enshrined in statute.
    – Mike Scott
    Jun 23 '19 at 6:52
  • The answer probably depends on how the word 'constitution' is defined. I.e. does the particular definition you are using define it is as being codified, or a single document? I think your question would be stronger if you clarified what definition you are using (and this might be why you currently have two contradicting answers that are both highly voted).
    – Time4Tea
    Jun 24 '19 at 16:03
30

Yes, the UK has a written constitution. All the parts of it are written down somewhere. What it doesn’t have is a codified constitution. There’s no one document entitled “Constitution of the United Kingdom”. Instead, there’s a bunch of laws, precedents and traditions dating back at least 800 years, which are often ambiguous or conflicting. But they’re written. Even the traditions with no basis in written law are found written down in places like Erskine May.

4
  • 5
    Voted down because having no constitution written down can not magically be converted into having one. Precedent and laws can be overturned in much easier ways than a formal constitution normally can. Traditions are just habit dressed up and to suggest they form part of a constitution is ridiculous.
    – StephenG
    Jun 23 '19 at 8:52
  • 24
    @StephenG Once again you’re observing that the UK constitution is not codified, not that it’s not written. If I write down a tradition, it’s now written. It may not be legally enforceable, but that’s not what the question asked.
    – Mike Scott
    Jun 23 '19 at 8:59
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about the semantic differences between "written" and "codified" has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Jun 24 '19 at 9:09
  • Further comments deleted. If you would like to participate in the discussion, please do so in the provided chatroom.
    – Philipp
    Jun 24 '19 at 11:18
27

No. Quoting the first argument against from The Arguments For and Against a Written Constitution for the United Kingdom on parliament.co.uk:

The British system of government and its unwritten constitution works well in its present form and 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. It is impossible to codify the constitution without changing it, and change is not wanted.

As for the Magna Carta cited in your question. Wikipedia has the following (relevant) to say about it (emphasis mine):

Although rarely invoked in court in the modern era, in 2012 the Occupy London protestors attempted to use Magna Carta in resisting their eviction from St. Paul's Churchyard by the City of London. In his judgment the Master of the Rolls gave this short shrift, noting somewhat drily that although clause 29 was considered by many the foundation of the rule of law in England, he did not consider it directly relevant to the case, and the two other surviving clauses actually concerned the rights of the Church and the City of London.

Given the limited scope of the Magna Carta today, I don't think it constitutes a constitution, which per Wikipedia, is:

an aggregate of fundamental principles or established precedents that constitute the legal basis of a polity, organisation or other type of entity, and commonly determine how that entity is to be governed.

Indeed, the UK does not have one codified document covering all of that.

13
  • 10
    It's rather amusing they use a slang American-style term to explain why they don't need an American-style document about their government
    – Machavity
    Jun 22 '19 at 22:44
  • 6
    @Machavity “ain’t”? I wouldn’t consider that American; it’s widely used in various British English dialects. I’d probably associate it most closely with Cockney English, but is used across the country, mostly by those of a lower class.
    – Tim
    Jun 23 '19 at 11:44
  • 1
    @Mast : There are many ambiguous laws, the interpretation of which heavily rely on the circumstances, precedents, culture and tradition. It would be nigh impossible to codify them all, and take absolutely all possible future circumstances into account. Trying to get all of them into the same document will either make that document excessively long, or would change and limit some laws and customs, likely in an unforeseen way. Think about it like implementation-defined behavior in programming. If you tried to force one of them into the spec, you might make many existing programs non-conforming.
    – vsz
    Jun 24 '19 at 6:21
  • 2
    @JJJ I think we can safely assume that the cited paragraph wasn't being so pedantic as to be referring to the codification itself as the unwanted change, but rather some kind of change to the content of the constitution is implied by the codification process, which is what mast's comment is asking about.
    – JBentley
    Jun 24 '19 at 10:44
  • 1
    @ChrisClayton note that the bottom of that page reads 'Prepared 10 July 2014'. ;)
    – JJJ
    Jun 24 '19 at 11:29
11

The UK does not have a written constitution in the same sense as most other countries do.

The document you've linked to is an attempt to reference to various events that have changed the way that the country is governed and run over the past 800 years. Perhaps it could form the basis of a written constitution if it was ever decided to go down that route, but at the moment, they hold no greater status than any other Act of Parliament.

5
  • 1
    Certain Acts of Parliament do in fact have a sort of "elevated status" due to their constitutional nature, compared with other Acts. Consider for example the European Communities Act 1972 and the multitude of judgements that that has spawned which have effectively overridden subsequent Acts by stretching rules of interpretation to the limit in order to read them in a EU-law compliant way. This is something that would never happen in judicial interpretation of a "normal" act.
    – JBentley
    Jun 24 '19 at 10:52
  • As another example, consider the Parliament Acts 1911/49 and the way in which they limited Parliament's sovereignty. If these were treated as "normal" Acts then they ought not to be possible given that Parliament in theory cannot bind its future self. As a more general point, constitutional Acts are treated differently by the courts and have different political implications (e.g. the political implication that typically compels a government to amend/repeal an Act that has been found to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998).
    – JBentley
    Jun 24 '19 at 10:53
  • @JBentley The parliament acts don't bind a future parliament any more than any other act as a future parliament could repeal them with a simple majority vote in the House
    – JGNI
    Jun 24 '19 at 11:31
  • 1
    @JGNI They bind future parliaments in the sense that the House of Lords is powerless to vote down future bills, whereas previously it was sovereign in this regard. Indeed, the Parliament Acts themselves demonstrate this, as the PA 1911 was used to deprive the Lords of its power to block the PA 1949. Under "true" sovereignty, the Lords would not have been self-bound by the earlier Act, and could have rejected the 1949 Act. The PA Acts are unique in that they modify the very rules by which Parliamentary sovereignty operates.
    – JBentley
    Jun 24 '19 at 12:02
  • @JGNI Or, to use your choice of phrasing, the position before was "a future parliament could repeal them with a simple majority vote in the houses [plural]" , whereas now the Commons could repeal them without a majority in the Lords - the Lords would be "bound" to allow the repeal to go through.
    – JBentley
    Jun 24 '19 at 12:05
1

Nobody has quoted UK Constitutional Law textbooks, thus I'll do it. Bradley, Ewing. Constitutional and Administrative Law (2018 17 ed). p 4.

What is a constitution?

Applied to the system of law and government by which the affairs of a modern state are administered, the word constitution has two main meanings. In its narrower meaning, a constitution means a document having a special legal status which sets out the framework and principal functions of the organs of government and declares the principles or rules by which those organs must operate. In countries in which the constitution has overriding legal force, there is often a high-ranking court which applies and interprets the text of the constitution in disputed cases. Such a court is the Supreme Court in the United States, or the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany. In these countries, legislative or executive acts may be held by the court to be without legal force where they conflict with the constitution.
      In this sense of the word, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has no constitution. There is no single document from which is derived the authority of the main organs of government, such as the Crown, the Cabinet, Parliament and the courts. No written text lays down the relationship of the primary organs of government one with another or with the people.2 But the word constitution has a wider meaning. As Bolingbroke stated in 1733:

By constitution we mean, whenever we speak with propriety and exactness, that assemblage of laws, institutions and customs, derived from certain fixed principles of reason, directed to certain fixed objects of public good, that compose the general system, according to which the community hath agreed to be governed.3

In 2001, the House of Lords committee on the constitution stated that the constitution means ‘the set of laws, rules and practices that create the basic institutions of the state, and its component and related parts, and stipulate the powers of those institutions and the relationship between the different institutions and between those institutions and the individual’.4 In this sense, the United Kingdom has a constitution since it has a complex and comprehensive system of government, which has been called ‘one of the most successful political structures ever devised’.5 The foundations for this system include Acts of Parliament, judicial decisions, political practice and also the procedures established by various organs of government for carrying out their own tasks, for example the law and custom of Parliament or the rules issued by the Prime Minister on the conduct of ministers.6
      The wider sense of the word constitution necessarily includes a constitution in the narrower sense. In Canada, Germany, India, the United States and many other states, the written constitution occupies the primary place among the ‘assemblage of laws, institutions and customs’ which make up the constitution in the wider sense. But no written document alone can ensure the smooth working of a system of government. Around a written constitution will evolve a wide variety of customary rules and practices which adjust its working to changing

p 5.

conditions.7 These customary rules and practices may be more easily changed than the constitution itself: their continuing evolution will reduce the need for formal amendment of the written text. It has been said of the US constitution that ‘[the] governing Constitution is a synthesis of legal doctrines, institutional practices, and political norms’.8 A perceptive study of the same constitution begins with the declaration that we can understand how it actually operates ‘only by seeing it as a government fundamentally structured around . . . two nationally organised political parties’9 – yet the existence of those parties is nowhere mentioned in the constitution itself.
      In reality, a written constitution will often not contain all the rules upon which government depends. Thus, the scheme for electing the legislature may be found not in the constitution but in statutes enacted by the legislature. Such statutes can when necessary be amended by ordinary legislation, whereas amendments to the constitution may require a more elaborate process, such as a special majority in the legislature or approval by a referendum. Since the way in which the constitutional text operates is likely to depend on political practice, the process of constitutional change is not limited to the formal process of textual amendment.10 Moreover, the making of comparisons is not straightforward, as we can see in an unexpected comment by an expert on the US constitution: ‘Typically offered as a paradigm of a nation with a written constitution, the United States actually operates with a constitution that is more similar to than different from the paradigmatic unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom’.11

Public Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (2019, 4th edition), p 3.

CENTRAL ISSUES

  1. The question ‘What is a constitution?’ can be answered in different ways. In many countries, the constitution is a text of fundamental importance, setting out how the country is to be governed.
  1. The term ‘constitution’ is also used to describe the system of government. Modern democracies require a system that (a) has institutions carrying out executive, legislative, and judicial functions; (b) regulates relations between different state institutions; and (c) defines, protects, and encourages a culture of respect for fundamental freedoms.
  1. The United Kingdom does not have a codified, written constitutional text in the first sense; but clearly it has a constitutional system. A notable feature of the system is its extreme flexibility. Radical changes can be made by ordinary legislation without the need for a special process of constitutional amendment.
  1. An historical explanation for the United Kingdom’s exceptional situation of having no codified constitutional text is the country’s stability since the eighteenth century. Democracy was established by an evolutionary process rather than by revolution. A political explanation is the consensus between the two main UK-wide political parties (the Conservatives and Labour) that the ‘unwritten’ constitution serves the country’s needs well. Not everybody accepts this view.

p 12

3. British exceptionalism

The United Kingdom is one of a tiny number of countries that have not adopted a codified constitutional text of the sort described earlier in this Chapter. Sometimes it is described as having ‘an unwritten constitution’. In Chapter 2, we will see that in fact many of the significant constitutional rules are written down (for example, in Acts of Parliament and judgments of the UK courts). Some constitutionally important rules are also in the form of ‘constitutional conventions’, which are non- legal rules that (probably) cannot be enforced by the courts. But even these are mostly written down in official documents, for example The Cabinet Manual. A better description is therefore to say that the UK constitution is ‘uncodified’. But the United Kingdom clearly has a constitutional system (in the sense discussed earlier): it is a mature, relatively prosperous democracy with long- established state institutions.

Mark Elliott. Public Law (4 ed 2020). p 8.

      The UK has a completely different and perhaps unique tradition. Its constitution has grown, developed, and evolved over time. It is, famously, a flexible and unwritten constitution, which is always changing and developing. There has never been a fundamental constitutional moment or a ‘blank sheet of paper’ moment in which the people and politicians were compelled to design afresh the basic rules, principles, and institutions by which the country and the people would be governed.

p 11

4.1 Fundamentals

No written or codified constitution. In the UK, there is no written or codified constitution. It is often said that the UK has an unwritten or uncodified constitution because there is no single founding or constitutional document called ‘The UK Constitution’. Instead, there is an assemblage of various constitutional laws and practices. These are to be found scattered amongst pieces of legislation, court decisions, constitutional conventions, codes of conduct, and practices. Put together, these sources comprise the UK constitution.

p 17.

People often say that the United Kingdom does not have a constitution. They are wrong. It may not have a written constitution, in the sense of a single document entitled ‘The Constitution’. Nonetheless, the UK undoubtedly has a constitution. What, though, is a constitution? And what are constitutions for?

p 50

      Second, we examine the sources of the UK constitution. We have already said that the UK does not have a ‘written constitution’ in the sense of a constitutional text with superior legal status. Where, then, do we look if we wish to ascertain the

p 51

constitutional arrangements applicable in the UK? As we will see, the UK’s constitution is to be found in a range of sources—written and unwritten, legal and political.

p 56

      Except for the absence of a written constitution, the position in the UK is essentially the same as that which is set out in the preceding paragraphs. The sources of the UK’s constitutional arrangements are therefore to be found in a combination of ordinary law (including legislation, international treaties, and common law), judicial precedent (eg concerning the interpretation of legislation), and political precedent.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .