Written constitution

Your opinion at the start - stage 1/6

Summary: The UK is unusual in that it does not have a written constitution. Should it create one?

Background: What we mean by a constitution is that there is always some set of fundamental principles on which a state is governed. The constitution also covers how these principles applied, for example through being made into laws.

The constitution defines the most important rules applying to how different official bodies operate. It explains the rules for government, Parliament and the legal system. It defines their relationship with individuals and the rights of citizens.

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Author: Paul Eustice; reviewer: Perry Walker; advisor: Andrew Blick

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What is a constitution?

What we mean by a constitution is that there is always some set of fundamental principles on which a state is governed. The constitution also covers how these principles applied, for example through being made into laws.

The constitution defines the most important rules applying to how different official bodies operate. It explains the rules for government, Parliament and the legal system. It defines their relationship with individuals and the rights of citizens.

What is a written constitution?

This is where those principles are written down formally in a systematic code, like the American Constitution. That written document states how they should work in practice. For example, The US Constitution starts by making it clear how the different elements of government relate:the legislature, the bicameral (two chamber) Congress; the executive led by the President and judiciary headed by the Supreme Court.A written constitution usually has a special legal status that makes it more important than other laws.

The position of the UK

The UK does not have a written constitution. This puts it in a small minority. The only other major democracies without one are New Zealand and Israel.

We use the term ‘written constitution’ because it is the one in general use. But it is inaccurate because it implies that the alternative is something not written down at all. In fact, large parts of the UK constitution are already written down, for example in statutes (laws passed by parliament) and treaties.A written constitution means something more codified, more systematic, than this.

Most people would agree that the key principles on which the UK is governed include:

  • Parliamentary supremacy (or ‘sovereignty’). That means that Parliament is the supreme law-making body. Parliament consists of: the monarch (the Queen); the House of Commons; and the House of Lords.
  • Representative democracy. That means all political authority is accountable to individuals and institutions, which are in turn answerable to the electorate. All citizens have a general right to vote in elections.
  • The rule of law. That means that everyone is equal before the law and no person is above the law. It includes principles such as being innocent until proved guilty.
  • The independence from political interference of the judiciary (which means the judges and the courts of law in which they sit)

It is worth spelling out one implication of the UK position. In a country with a written constitution, to say that something in unconstitutional means that it goes against that written constitution. In the UK, to say that something in unconstitutional also means saying what you think the constitution is, which is open to question.

Our sources

  1. Mapping the path to codifying - or not codifying - the UK's Constitution at

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/mapping-the-path-to-codifying---or-not-codifying---the-uks-constitution/

1b. Evidence submitted to the Inquiry

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpolcon/writev/cde/cde08.htm

2.Codifying – or not codifying – the United Kingdom constitution: The existing constitution. Centre for Political & Constitutional Studies, King’s College London. Download pdf from http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-commit...

3.The Wikipedia article on the UK constitution. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_the_United_Kingdom

4. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/whatis/uk-constitution

5. http://mapleleafweb.com/features/history-canadian-constitution

6. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-big-question-why-doesnt-the-uk-have-a-written-constitution-and-does-it-matter-781975.html

6a. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2561719.stm

7. http://www.consoc.org.uk/discover-the-facts/what-is-the-british-constitution

8. http://blogs.ft.com/david-allen-green/2013/11/12/does-the-united-kingdom-need-a-written-constitution/

9.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Lothian_question