The UK Constitution is no longer fit for purpose. Discuss
Úna Richards 27/03/2013
‘The UK Constitution is no longer fit for purpose.’ Discuss.
Constitutions organise, distribute and regulate the power of the state. They set out its structure, the major state institutions, and the principles governing their relations with each other and with the state’s citizens. Britain is unusual in that it has an ‘unwritten’ constitution: unlike the great majority of countries. Whether the British Constiution is able to fulfil each of its purposes is a matter that needs to be explored. Evidence shows us that the UK Constitution is still fit for purpose, as the state has suffered no major political unrest or violent revolutions, unlike many other countries, many of which have had to install a constitution as a result.
One way in which the UK constitution is no longer fit for purpose is that it lacks restraint on the powers of government and Parliament due to parliamentary sovereignty; this may be dangerous, especially to individual and minority rights. This is a particularly good example of how the UK constitution is no longer fit for purpose, as one of a constitution’s key functions is to distribute power equally, before 2005, the Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer had influence in all areas of government: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. This meant that the possibility of corruption within the UK government was to a high degree, as he/she had had a say in every aspect of governing. However the Constituitional Reform Act in 2005 solved this issue; the Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer retained his title but no longer presided over the House of Lords or was head of the Courts system. Despite the possibility of power-related corruption, throughout the years the Constitution has served us well and acted funcionally, as no British government has ever reached a state of corrupt governing such as dictatorship or kleptocracy. In this sense the UK Constitution has proven itself fit for purpose. Some countries have had to establish a constitution, following a crisis or an extreme governmental change, for example, in 1975, a constitution was established in Spain, following Francisco Franco’s long-running dictatorship, and marked Spain’s transition to democracy. The UK’s Constitution has meant that the state’s government is clear and consistent, in contrast to the changing natures of other countries’ governments. Futhermore, our Constitution is, arguably, still fit for purpose in the sense that, with it, we have maintained functional, efficient and generally credible governments.
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Another argument against the UK Constitution’s fitness for purpose is that it was ‘written’ centuries ago, and consequently was written to represent institutions that are now largely outdated, for example the monarchy and the House of Lords. Both are considered ‘politcally irrelevant’, as they go against the UK’s system of democracy. The argument against the UK Constitution’s efficiency is strengthened as these bodies were, and still are, unable to represent the people, as the British people did not democratically elect them. However, as the UK Constitution is uncodified and not completely entrenched, the British government can be flexible when dealing with or implementing new legislature. As the world modernises, the flexibility of the UK Constitution allows our unwritten conventions and laws to slowly evolve with the world’s development. Throughout the 20th century when the world saw massive political, social and economic changes, the UK was able to exercise a pragmatic approach and therefore adapt due to their unconstrainted constitution. Due to the codified nature of many constitutions in other countries, adapting to the changing times and various dilemmas has been a tricky process. For example, following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the USA and many European countries had problems dealing with terrorism because of their fixed constitutions, whilst the UK Parliament could do as it wished because of a lack of constitutional constraints.
As the UK operates under a large number of unwritten conventions, especially in relation to the monarchy and prerogative powers, it would be very difficult to transfer them into written form. Indeed, over the centuries, the PM has adopted the traditional powers of the monarch; he/she can exercise these powers on behalf of the queen or king, e.g. declaring a war, calling an election. As an individual who has actually been elected by the people, the PM, is making decisions on behalf of the public, the state has arguably become more democratic. Indeed, this particular unwritten convention has strengthend the UK’s system of democracy in one way, although at the same time, the growing and excessive power of the executive has meant that there is a growing concern among the people. The power held by the executive threatens individual rights, the position of minorities and the influence of public opinion, as the UK Constitution does not provide sufficient controls on what the Prime Minister does, and there are no real ‘checks and balances’, unlike the US Constitution. Despite the worryingly large amount of executive power, the PM has never visibly, negatively and drastically exploited his/her powers. Therefore, the UK Constitution is largely fit for purpose, as although the executive has a lot of power there have never been attempts at futher, tyranical or dictatorial control.
Overall, although it can be argued that the constitution is no longer relevant and is outdated, it still holds major advantages. It has developed with the country to adapt to changing times, it has never been a major point of issue in the UK in that it has caused problems or prevented good things from happening. Although it may lack democracy in particular areas, it is still fit for purpose as there is no significant issue with it currently, and it is generally fuctional and effective.