Term relates to the way in which power in the state derives from one single source or place. UK all powers of political institutions at national and sub national level derive from authority of parliament because parliament is sovereign. Any political institution can be abolished if parliament wants it.
Unitary constitution is likely to be centralised with lots of power with the party that controls parliament. Local and devolved government have no intrinsic right to exist except because parliament wants it. In 1986 the greater London council and other metropolitan authorities were abolished by the Thatcher government. A future government could use parliamentary majority to abolish the devolved assemblies. The fact the uk don’t have a CC and its unitary nature means lots of power is vested in a strong government.
Some Countries that have CC also have unitary constitutions.
Type of constitution based on principle that political power is not in one central place. US ties in with separation of powers. A federal constitutional structure ensures that power and authority in US there are 50 states and each has its own legislature and ability to determine much of the law within its own jurisdiction. Any visitor in us see the variation that exists between states on matters from speed limits to taxation and law enforcement.
Federal structures often assume that powers reside at local level except where constitution declares otherwise. The federal structure is normally maintained by a cofidied constitution.
Debate about codified and uncodified constitutions
Politicians in uk such as liberal democrats have said that the country should have codified constitutions such as those in us and member states of EU.
Features of uk constitution
Constitution is uncodified, from a number of different sources both written and unwritten.
Constitution may be said to be flexible because its easy to amend and meet changing circumstances. Constitution is unitary, all power derives from a single central authority.
Case for an uncodified constitution
It is flexible, constitution is easy to change compared to cc. act of parliament is all it needs to change constitution. Enables political system to change quickly and give good response to situations. UK govmnt able to change with ease the scope of human right act with terrorist offences so uncodified can be kept up to date more.
UC provides strong government in UK and government able to carry out their legislative programme without interference from other institutions. Citizens can see government implement its manifesto pledges between elections unlike in US where president and congress can find themselves stuck over issues. Such as Clinton being at loggerheads with the House of Representatives. The inability to agree over federal budget issues prevented progress for weeks.
UK has clear accountability of government if mistakes are made it is clear to blame govmnt codified constitution is more likely to blur whose fault it is.
Case for an uncodified constitution - continued
Can be argued uncodified also establishes conventions and traditions which are hard to change. Although there have been changes to the certain parliamentary procedures such as timing and frequency of PM’s question time many of the procedures of parliament continue untouched because of tradition.
Case for codified constitution
This gives a clear statement of the distribution of political power within a country. A CC clearly shows citizens which people and institutions are responsible for particular actions. In the US and France the electorate vote for their presidents separately from their national assemblies. It is said that ordinary MPs don’t share the blame for mistakes that may be made by political leaders. Voters can make sophisticated decisions about who they wish to vote for in their various elections and support different parties in different elections. Eg, may vote for democratic presidential candidate but vote for a republican congressional candidate.
CC can limit power of the executive. Lord Hailsham “elective dictatorship – the idea that UK government with parliamentary majority can do what it wants as there are few restrictions on government”. A CC would determine limits of executive powers and having US style statute of limitations which restrict office of prime minister may lead to more responsive politics.
Case for codified constitution - Continued
CC would protect citizens from government changing fundamental laws for sake of political expediency. Changes to human rights act after 11th September could be seen as government wanting control not countering terrorism.
CC doesn’t prevent controversial alterations being made. 18th amendment to USconstitution outlawed production of alcohol. This was because of effective lobbying by pressure groups.
CC has a set of rights which cant be changed without big support. US, bill of rights is effectively first 10 amendments of constitution. These rights cant be changed easily and citizens know exactly what their rights are. Unlike the UK where they are often altered, this doesn’t provide citizen with protection from nasty foul government.
It is the ultimate power that may be exercised within a state. May be determined by some form of constitutional settlement or history. Sovereignty also sets apart the jurisdiction between different states.
There are two types of sovereignty, political and legal. Political is when the people at the time of the general election exercise the ultimate decision making power by electing a new house of commons which legitimises the parting government, this occurs every 4 or 5 years. Legal sovereignty is the body that effectively makes all key political decisions for the state. In the UK, it is parliament because there all decisions are legitimised.
The UK constitution in the EU context
1973, UK joined the EEC. There was big debate about it, both left and right. They thought joining it would reduce sovereignty of the UK. UK parliament could be overruled by Brussels. National parliaments of member states can’t overrule EU law. The Factorame case illustrates this point – the European Court of Justice struck down UK fisheries legislation that ran contrary to EU law.
European Union law is presently confined to a limited number of areas. Key policy areas are not covered by EU law and it is unlikely that any government, regardless of its political persuasion, would want to give control of these matters.
UK can leave EU whenever it wishes (UKIP thinks this should happen because threat to UK sovereignty is too great). Main political parties think the benefits outweigh the costs and trying to reform from within is the best way to safeguard the interests of the UK.
Sovereignty can be measured by the capacity of the UK to lead the EU by ripping up the treaties and repealing all European legislation. However, doing this would leave the UK with major economic difficulty so would be difficult to happen, therefore the critics say the sovereignty has been permanently eroded/lost.
Sovereignty and devolution
1997 general election, Blair introduced devolution. Devolution is self government and directly elected national assemblies. With devolution, sovereignty is in central authority but some powers are given to sub-national bodies. WP keeps the rights to change/remove the powers from the sub-national bodies and devolution doesn’t have any fixed amount of power transferred to each constituent nation. Each nation has different levels of power.
Although the unitary nature of UK constitution means devolved assemblies can be demolition by WP, it is difficult for this to happen.
Labour’s post 1997 reforms
When labour came into power in ’97, a number of reforms were put in place, devolution, HR legislation and electoral reform.
Devolution – introduced in Scotland and Wales after successful referendums. Scotland voted for parliament with tax varying and primary legislative powers. Wales got administrative devolution NI got new devolved assembly in province and arguable only way to achieve peace because gives minority a voice. From 2000 London had its first city wide selected authority.
HR legislation – 1998 European convention on human rights was brought into UK law with HRA. For the first time, rights such as freedom of speech and fair trial were written into law. Citizens no longer have to go to the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in order to have their rights protected.
Praise for labour’s reforms
Devolution - Scots and Welsh governed by devolved bodies closer to people therefore know more about their needs. Greater political participation and Scotland can tailor make policies for its people.
HR legislation – sets out rights of UK citizens and brought UK into line with other European countries. It prevents people being subject to whim of parliament and the gradual erosion of citizen’s rights.
Electoral reform – smaller parties such as the green party have won election to European parliament because relationship between votes and seats has been more proportional than before. Proportional writing system used for Scottish parliament saw conservatives gain fairer representation for their supporters.