A written constitution for the UK: Why and how?

Last week former MP Graham Allen visited Unlock Democracy to talk about all things relating to written constitutions - what are they, why doesn’t the UK have one, how we would benefit from having a codified constitution, and how we would get there.

If you missed the Facebook Live discussion you can watch it here, but we’ve summarised some of the most important points from the conversation with him below.

What is a written constitution?

A constitution is a set of basic rules that set out how a country is governed. Every country has some form of constitution, which will be codified (‘written) or uncodified (‘unwritten’). More often than not constitutions are written down in a single document, as is the case of countries like the USA, South Africa, and Ireland.

What kind of constitution does the UK have?

The UK’s constitution differs from most others in the world. While some of our rules are technically written down in law, the UK’s constitution isn’t codified, so you can’t find all these rules clearly written down in one place. The rules that govern us are either written down in different documents, or are conventions - so aren’t written down anywhere.

Many of the rules are unwritten and exist only as understandings between different parts of government. Right now, the Magna Carta is 800 years old. Whilst it was a brilliant document for its time, is no longer fit for purpose. It does not address key features of our current system, like Prime Ministers, devolution, the second chamber, or any electoral system. Unlock Democracy thinks it’s about time there is a process that creates a written constitution for a modern UK that is shaped by and for the people.

What’s the problem with having an uncodified constitution?

The fact that our rules are not written down creates many problems. It leaves key questions about our democracy, rights, and freedoms largely in the hands of the government. Conservative and Labour governments have exploited loopholes created by a lack of a written constitution to avoid the scrutiny of the representatives of the people in Parliament. We the people should be able to set out clear rules of what the government can and cannot do in our name.

Tony Blair’s government, for example, just laid out the question of sending British troops to Iraq in Parliament under the threat of the BBC broadcasting an ‘alternative’ parliamentary session. The current Conservative government tried to undermine the role of elected representatives in parliament by arguing that it should be able to use the ancient Royal Prerogative power to trigger article 50. It’s now trying to avoid parliamentary scrutiny by using archaic delegated powers in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill and seems to be planning the same for the future Trade Bill, as it was shown in their white paper about trade.

A key problem with our current system is that power is largely concentrated in the hands of the government. Some parliamentarians, if they’re clever enough, can be able to set issues in the agenda, but what is discussed in Parliament should not be depending on the smartness of a politician but a democratic right.  A written constitution would give the opportunity to set out clear rules about how Parliament sets an agenda.

How would we get to having a written constitution?

There are several possibilities for writing constitution. One way of moving forward is to initiate a very broad consultation. Unlock Democracy strives for a Constitutional Convention that would be able to let the people decide what do they wanted from their constitution. 

A Constitutional Convention involving a representative sample of citizens would be vitally important to making sure a wide range of views were heard in the process of shaping a written constitution.

The people of the UK should be in the frontline of creating a written constitution. However, politicians should commit to kick it off so that the recommendations made by citizens would have to be taken on board by politicians.

Using the possibilities that social media and new technologies gives us, the UK could be the first country in the world to include millions of people in the process of creating a constitution.

What you can do

Having a democracy that works for everyone can be achieved through a Constitutional Convention, in which the people are able to set clear limits on the government’s power, and codify what rights and freedoms all should be entitled to.

What’s clearer than ever is how broken the UK’s democracy is, and now is the time to tell our MPs that we want change for the better.

We can only win by convincing enough MPs its time to change. Get involved today by joining or setting up an Unlock Team in your area.

Further information