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Arguments against an uncodified constitution
The supporters of the current arrangements say that the flexibility of the constitution is a
positive quality. The constitution can, they say, adapt to a changing world without major
upheavals. It is said that Britain's constitution is organic. This means that it is rooted in
society, not separate from society. Thus, when society and its needs and values change, the
constitution can do so automatically without undue delay or confusion. Parliament can pass a
new Act relatively quickly and new unwritten conventions can simply develop to take account
of social and political change.
Because constitutional safe guards in Britain are weak or absent, government can be more
powerful. Clearly this can be viewed positively or negatively. Supporters of the current
uncodified constitution argue that, on balance, it is better to have a government that can
deal with problems or crises without too much inhabitation. They point to the USA where
government and congress are frequently prevented from acting decisively by the fear that
the constitution will prevent them doing so. The constant battle against crime in the USA, for
instance, has been compromised by such constraints. Conversely, the constitutional
weakness of the congress in controlling the military powers of the president has also created
much tension. In the UK, the relationship between government and parliament is flexible; in
countries with codified constitutions it tends to be fixed and can inhibit effective governance.
The typical conservative attitude to the British constitution suggests that it has served Britain
well for centuries. There have been no violent revolutions and no major political unrest.
Change has occurred naturally and when it has been necessary rather than when reformers
have campaigned for it. Furthermore, they say, it would be an extremely difficult exercise
and the meagre benefits would not be worth the problems incurred.
Arguments for introducing a codified constitution
Perhaps at the top of the reformers shopping list is the need for stronger safeguards for
individual and minority rights. Britain has adopted the European Convention on Human Rights,
but this remains weak in that it can be overridden by parliament. Parliament remains
sovereign and no constitutional legislation can remove that sovereignty. In a codified
constitution Parliament could not pass any legislation which offended human rights
The conservatives have wished to retain the powerful position of government in the UK.
Liberals and other reformers, however, argue that executive, governmental power is
excessive in Britain. They say over-powerful governmental power threatens individual
rights, the position of minorities and the influence of public opinion. A clear, codified
constitution would, they assert, inhibit the apparently irreversible drift towards greater
executive power. In particular supporters of a codified constitution suggest that there are
no real checks and balances - a principle upon which the American constitution is based. In
particular, it is argued, Parliament needs to have more codified powers to enable it to
control government on behalf of the people.
Most British citizens do not understand the concept of a constitution. This is hardly surprising
as there is no such thing as the `British constitution' in any concrete form. There is, therefore
an argument for creating a real constitution so that public awareness and support can grow.
If people know their rights and understand better how government works, it is suggested,
this might cure the problem of political ignorance and apathy that prevails today.
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As we have seen, Britain is unusual in not having a codified constitution. For many this is seen
as an indication that Britain is backward in a political sense and has not entered the modern
world. This has become more pressing since Britain joined the European Community. The
lack of a constitution makes political relations with the EU difficult and it has been frustrating
both for British governments and for their European partners when attempts have been
made to create coherent relations with Europe.…read more