Monday 22 October 2012

"There is no convincing case for a written constitution in Britain" - Discuss. An essay I did for Government and Politics AS.

"There is no convincing case for a written constitution in Britain" - Discuss. An essay I did for Government and Politics AS. Let me know what you think :)

There is increasing debate in the United Kingdom about whether it should adopt a written constitution or not. A written, or codified, constitution is one where the rules by which the government operates are written in a single document. It would give us a set of fundamental laws which are higher than standard UK statute law, the ordinary Act of Parliament, and, as such, would make the constitution much harder to alter. Currently Britain has an unwritten, or uncodified, constitution. This means that while the government does have a set of rules to operate by, it is not written in one document, and can be altered by any Act of Parliament. This situation gives Britain several advantages and disadvantages. I believe that the UK needs a government which is limited by law, and that these limits should be hard to change. So I disagree with the title statement, as the current system does not fulfil certain key goals of liberal democracy.

Many believe that the UK's current system is stable and that the country is strong, so they ask why the UK should bother to change it. Britain have never had the kind of internal strife that has forced most countries into adopting a codified constitution, such as France or the USA. This is a sign of strength in Britain's adaptive and flexible constitution. It can easily reflect the beliefs of the day, as the democratic government can mold the constitution to fit its mandate. Beyond that, Parliamentary scrutiny and electoral scrutiny can ensure that our nation is never altered to breaking point. A point in case being the attempt by Tony Blair's New Labour government to introduce the capability of the state to detain an individual for 90 days without charging them with a crime. That initiative was defeated by the House of Commons, despite a strong majority for Blair's government. Such, those who oppose a written constitution say, is the nature of our governmental system; governments needn't have to abide by some higher law, as they can't push the country further than it wishes Though we are moving in the direction of further codification, as evidenced by innovations such as the Human Rights Act. go, as our democratic Parliament won't allow it. Those who oppose a written constitution further argue that Britain needs the flexibility of its current system for the sake of emergency situations. For example, the outbreak of nuclear war. The UK would need a flexible constitution so that it could adapt and respond to the radically changed world. It's argued that if Britain had a cumbersome an difficult to change constitution in a situation such as that, it could make it harder for the government of the day to react to the radically altered global situation.

However, those who support a written constitution say that relying on democracy and Parliament to ensure that there are no overbearing changes isn't enough. They argue that Britain's government needs to be constrained and limited. That such large amounts of power shouldn't be vested in a few key individuals lucky enough to have reached high office. It's argued that Britain needs to keep the people who run the country constrained, if not they could easily accumulate and consolidate their power. They argue that it was only down to luck that 90 days detention was prevented, that had a slightly more authoritarian Parliament been elected, then it could easily have been voted through. Or any other liberty removing measure, for that matter. It is also suggested that the current constitutional situation could lead to general consolidation of powers, many suggesting that it is already doing so. They point to how a prime minister can make, more or less, unilateral decisions and carry them through to completion without much measure of scrutiny. There are examples of this, such as Margaret Thatcher imposing a poll tac, or Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq. Both suggest behind closed doors decision making and lack of proper consultation, however, both were perfectly simple to do under Britain's constitutional system. As such, many people argue for a written constitution on the basis of restraining the powers of the state, in order to restrict the ability of the government to use a large majority to impose ideas and policies upon the nation as a whole. They counter the argument of the need for flexibility by suggesting that, if you give a politician the flexibility to use large powers responsibly and only when needed, they they will simply end up using them whenever they feel like they can get away with it. This argument does appear to have some logic to it, when we look at examples such as MPs' expenses, it is reasonable to recognise this idea of elected officials manipulating the system to get what powers they can out of it, not what powers the system intended to give them. Those who support a written constitution say that all you need do is extract the sentiment from this that politicians want more power, and it can be dangerous to give it to them, linking it back to Blair and Iraq, for example.

Many of those who oppose a written constitution say that while it may be a good idea in principle, and it may work in other countries, that it can't happen in the UK in current circumstances. They argue that the revolutionary nature by which many other countries adopted their constitutions is a completely alien set of circumstances to the UK. It is suggested that in the UK, there would never be consensus (perhaps unless without a complete civil war or revolution, which most doubt would ever happen) over what to contain in a written constitution. It is rhetorically asked how can the three main parties come to an agreement over something so complex and far reaching as a full written constitution, when the government can't effectively a pass a bill for a mainly elected House of Lords, which was in the manifesto of all three parties. They expand to say that this is an area of extreme tension, over where you draw the lines of power within cabinet, how to effectively codify the royal prerogative, a definitive list of absolute human rights and the situations in which they can be denied, etc.

However those who support a written constitution assert that this is exactly why a written constitution is needed in the UK. They put forward the idea that what the UK needs is clarity over who had what power, what rights people have. The lack of clarity, they indicate, has led to many problems in the UK. For example the convention of what should happen in a hung Parliament is extremely vague due to the rarity of the situation. There were few precedents, and as such, the politicians made up the rules as they went along, following the 2010 UK general election. There are elements of truth to this. Theoretically, it is for the sitting Prime Minister to first attempt to form a majority, however, in the event of the 2010 election, the first set of coalition negotiations were between the sitting leader of the opposition, and the leader of the third party.  Whilst this was mostly harmless, the written constitution supporters attest, when it comes to an individuals human rights, the vagueness of our constitution can cause people damage. As such, the fact that no consensus can be achieved is why we need a written constitution, so that there is something central that everyone has agreed to and understands. Though this still doesn't demonstrate how it could be done in practise, and few say that implementing a written constitution is something a government is likely to do, or even be able to do. Though we are moving in the direction of further codification, as is exemplified by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011.

I believe that it is hard to argue that there is no convincing case for a written constitution in Britain, regardless of whether you are convinced by the case, it is a well put case. There is a demonstrable case for a more limited and constrained state, which ties in to the idea of flexibility being a potential bad thing due to the excessive power it can give governments, and the notion that the current situation in Britain is not adequately clear is a strong one. There is a good point to be made about the difficulty of bringing about a written constitution, and the lack of consensus, however it is not outlandish to say that the UK's system is becoming increasingly regulated, for example by fixed term Parliaments, or the Human Rights Act; so perhaps a move to a fully codified constitution won't be too outlandish before very long. Then there is the strong case that Britain doesn't need one, it is already a strong and stable nation. However, I believe that if the UK were to have a written constitution, it would only help guarantee that stability and general prosperity. As such I disagree with the statement, due to the evidence and reasoning demonstrated above.


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