With the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in 2015, a document widely considered the basis for our constitution, many MP’s have began calling for a review of these foundations on which our government is built. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, in cahoots with Kings College London, have spent four years researching the democratic value of our uncodified constitution, with a summarising report due to coincide with the anniversary. Complaints as to the suspected undemocratic nature of our Constitution are nothing new; a US style codified document has been suggested by political scientists and MPs alike for years. Yet with controversy constantly surrounding the inflexibility of the US constitution, most notably regarding the Second Amendment granting the right to keep and bear arms, is a revision of world’s most steadfast constitution necessary?
It is undeniable that the format of Britain’s constitution is hectic. Having developed over time to involve all manner of Parliamentary customs, intellectual works, treaties and court judgements, it exists more as an entity than a document. Clearly this leads to the obvious problem of accessibility and interpretation, but also the need to embed certain principles into our constitution. Laws, for example, guaranteeing free speech and the right to a fair trial can easily become murky and misunderstood in a constitution with no single defining document.
Of course problems with can arise from codified constitutions which, like in the USA, often lead to outdated and dangerously unnecessary amendments being entrenched within national law forever. If the US constitution were an uncodified one, any liberal administration that wished to do so could effectively end the legality of firearms on the basis that the necessity to bear arms effectively became redundant at the end of the American Civil War. Britain thankfully has no problem with adapting to the modern era. Devolution, the Human Rights Act, the establishment of the Supreme Court, House of Lords Reform are allfine examples of how the UK has benefited from having the State underpinned by such constitutional flexibility.
For those who are wholeheartedly committed to the principles of pure democracy, an uncodified constitution presents yet another problem. In the UK, there are no definitive boundaries between the three branches of government consisting of the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. This allows the government to consolidate more power than it would in a state ruled under a codified constitution, with checks and balances on each branch being severely limited by the crossing of governmental self interest over these three branches.
But I find it hard to accept that a strong British government is a cause for concern, especially when once again; comparisons to the US are made. Once a majority government in Britain is formed, it holds the ability to react efficiently and decisively should it face a crisis alongside retaining the ability to create coordinated and thoroughly considered legislation. Across the Atlantic, governments are often paralysed by the endless barrage of upsets created by the opposition party (if the governing party is not in complete control of Congress). This was seen recently as the current administration attempted to pass Obamacare, a Bill which aimed to introduce a degree of universality and affordability into the otherwise cut-throat world of the US healthcare system. In protest, the Republicans refused to cooperate regarding agreeing upon the national debt ceiling, effectively strong-arming the Democrats into succumbing to their wishes.
Personally, I cannot help but view a codified constitution as providing nothing more than a legislative mess; juxtaposed between providing a clear outline of the rules for how a nation should be governed, yet leading to the manifestation of these powers resulting in an inability for governments to achieve anything at all. Yes our quaint constitution has some minor flaws, but I would much rather see the findings of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee support the continuation of an entity which has propped up the world’s most steadfast democracy for just over 799 years.