Why Doesn’t the UK Have a Constitution?
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Published: Mon, 13 Aug 2018
Does the UK need a Republican Constitution?
There is a long and a short answer to this question. The short answer is “No”. The long answer is “Definitely not.” This may seem a flippant response, but this commentator predicts that it is precisely the kind of reaction that this question would engender in the majority of United Kingdom lawyers, commentators and politicians. Moreover, justification of this negative response is likely to be equally pithy: If it ’aint broke, don’t fix it.
The United Kingdom is a stable, peaceful and wealthy constitutional monarchy. It is very far indeed from “broke”. Human rights are protected, the power of the state and its agencies are subject to the rule of law, corruption is relatively minimal and our legal system, welfare state and national health service are envied the world over. Democracy functions well, or at least relatively well in comparison with examples overseas. The Queen is generally respected and in many quarters cherished as a national figurehead. UK armed forces police the world and we have a seat at the highest global tables exercising far more influence over world affairs than our size and population merit. There is little in the way of civil strife or serious unrest – no state of emergency or sense of impending doom. Our system, with all its typically British foibles and idiosyncrasies, undeniably works, and has done for the greater part of one thousand years. It may seem like a prosaic claim but it is a blunt fact that almost no other country in the world can lay claim to a history the like of which graces these islands. The question as to whether the United Kingdom needs a Republican constitution is therefore unarguably flawed. Of course it doesn’t need a Republican constitution.
The Status Quo
The United Kingdom operates as a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral (two house) parliament comprised of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Supreme executive power is technically invested in the Crown, but in practice this power is discharged in the name of the Crown by ministers of state led by the Prime Minister. The House of Lords acts as essentially as a consulting chamber and while it can delay the enactment of legislation even the fact that it is comprised of appointed rather than elected members has proved advantageous, because it leaves the authority of the House of Commons unchallenged. The system works and there is no sign of imminent frailty or jeopardy to the status quo.
There is no formal separation of powers between the executive and the legislature and while the Sovereign in Parliament stands as the supreme legislative authority, ministers carry out the agenda and work of the government. In the House of Lords, Law Lords sit as judges in the Appellate Committee and they also play a full part in the legislative work of the House.
All that said it must be conceded that the United Kingdom does not actually possess a formal constitution at all. The United Kingdom is one of a tiny minority of countries that lack a single comprehensive document laying down the legal system of the state, the roles and functions of the apparatus of government and the procedural rules by which it should operate. It is submitted that such documents have proved useful in other countries as the ultimate statement of a nation’s supreme law with the sovereign legal authority to empower a nominated constitutional court to rule acts of the legislature illegal if they are found to contravene the rights entailed within.
However, that revelation aside, it does not appear to matter that the United Kingdom lacks a single constitutional document. Our constitutional basis is found in piecemeal form shot through our entire system of government. Aspects of the United Kingdom’s constitutional system can be found in a multiplicity of rules that establish and govern the very practice of governance. It is a time-honoured system founded on a combination of Acts of Parliament conventions, judicial decisions and political practice. Perhaps it could not work in every state, but it appears to work here.
A New Republican Horizon?
Need it be said, a Republican Constitution would demand the abolition of the monarchy or more realistically a dramatic reduction in the power of the monarchy and a transfer of authority to, for example a Presidential executive. None of the mainstream political parties subscribe to such an ambition and one must descend to the third tier of political activity before the issue attracts even a modicum of fringe support. This commentator could identify only one Republican pressure group with a significant presence on the Internet, and even this group professes to have no political ambitions of its own.
This suggests that the issue of a new Republican Constitution for the United Kingdom, while titillating for students of politics and law, is simply not on the agenda. One could easily infer that the reason it is not on the agenda is that there is no perception of current need or even of current advantage, inherent in such a move. This view, which is as stated is held by the overwhelming majority of political actors and commentators, speaks for itself. It is a view that may well change over time as future events are unpredictable, and the succession to the throne of Charles may weaken the prestige of the Crown. However, with the popular Prince William waiting in the wings that may only be a temporary blip in the history of the British monarchy.
It is submitted that there can be only one reasonable response to this question and that is, as stated in the introduction to this paper “No”. The fault lies in the question itself and in particular with the use of the word need. The United Kingdom has developed into one of the most successful countries in the world. This commentator can see no imperative demanding immediate constitutional reform. It would have made for a more interesting intellectual exercise if the question had asked if the United Kingdom would benefit from a Republican constitution? Does it need a Republican constitution? From the perspective of 2006, the answer is manifestly and unequivocally No. Indeed, this commentator would go further: it is argued that the United Kingdom seems to operate quite satisfactorily without any formal constitution at all.
Brazier, R., Constitutional Reform: Re-Shaping the British Political System. (1998) Oxford University Press
Dicey, A.V., Introduction to the study of the law of the constitution. (1959) London, Macmillan
Republic: The Campaign for an Elected Head of State: http://www.republic.org.uk/faqs.htm
Oliver, D., Constitutional Reform in the UK, (2003) Oxford University Press
 See: http://www.republic.org.uk/faqs.htm.
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