Does the UK have a written constitution?
I didn’t think it did, but then I found the following:
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Does the UK have a written constitution?
I didn’t think it did, but then I found the following:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.