Does the UK have a written constitution?

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

  • 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

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    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
  • 22
    @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

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 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'. ;) – JJ for Transparency and Monica Jun 24 '19 at 11:29

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 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

You must log in to answer this question.

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