CONSTITUTION UK

The UK Survives as a Country without a Constitution.

“What that doesn’t make sense. Isn’t it the UK that practically defined the whole concept of a Constitutional Monarchy?” is the most common response to this info.

Odd as it might sound, it is true that the UK is one of the very few nations on Earth that lacks a formal Constitution as a basis for its powers of governance. This fact often confuses visitors and students, and for those who wish to do business in the UK this is another strange cultural quirk that colors their expectations on the law and bureaucracy.

The UK is clearly a modern, developed country that until recently was pivotally located within the European federal framework, possessing far disproportionate power and influence to its geographic size and population. At no point in the past century has the lack of a formalized constitution been a hindrance to their governance, so how is it that they can do without this strongly defined legal foundation for their national identity?

Other Countries without a Constitution

But before we discuss how this works out in practice, here are the other nations that do not possess a formal constitution.

  • Israel
  • Saudi Arabia
  • New Zealand
  • Canada

There are literally only a handful of nations without a codified constitution. None of them can really be considered governmentally unstable states either. Israel has its Basic Laws as a general substitute for the spread of government activities, while Saudi Arabia’s monarchy bases their laws on Sharia Laws derived from the Quran. New Zealand and Canada have Constitution Acts that comprise a portion of their uncodified constitution and Acts of Parliament, treaties, orders, and court decisions to make up the difference. Of course, the interesting part of the latter two is how they define their constitutions as “similar in principle to the United Kingdom”.

But Why?

Unlike other nations that founded themselves based on principles laid out in their Constitution or overthrew their previous monarchs to set up a Republic, the UK’s constitutional powers evolved over centuries of compromise between the powers of the Monarchy and the House of Lords. Eventually this transitioned into the parliamentary system we use today.

There was never a drastic need to set out one big formal document detailing the powers, privileges and limits of the government because it was laid out across several other bodies of laws and customs.

The whole concept of a constitution, a charter, detailing the rights and obligations of a government was pioneered in these isles by the historic Magna Carta. However as times passed most of its provisions were repealed or its rights secured by other statutes, and the document holds little legal weight today. This is reflective of the fluid way the UK approaches the bonds of legalism from which is derived the protection of its citizens and the power of its government.

In certain ways, this approach makes it far easier to change the laws to be more responsive to the needs of the people. There is sometimes a distressing tendency not to treat constitutions as living documents that can be amended as the times change, but almost enshrined as unchanging holy writ from which derives all authority to act.

Flexibility of Bits and Pieces

So if not a Constitution where then does the UK derive its rule of state? The UK is simultaneously a monarchy and a representative democracy.

Though the Monarchy largely serves a ceremonial role at present, by law the executive power is vested from them to the Parliament. The 1689 Bill of Rights subordinates the authority of the Crown to the Parliament, one of the documents that among several others form the uncodified constitution of the UK, and an inspiration for the formation of other nations’ Constitutions later on.

Due to the evolutionary nature of British Law, the UK has something called the Parliamentary Supremacy, which grants it the certain qualities:

  • Parliament can make laws concerning anything,
  • No Parliament can bind a future parliament (that is, it cannot pass a law that cannot be changed or reversed by a future Parliament),
  • A valid Act of Parliament cannot be questioned by the court. Parliament is the supreme lawmaker.

“So the Parliament can’t be stopped by the courts? Isn’t that dangerous?” is the most common response from other nations that rely on the checks and balances between the judiciary, legislative and executive branches of government.

A common way to visualize the Parliament as the equal powers of the Crown, the House of the Commons and the House of Lords. In practice the bi-cameral (dual chamber) parliament plus the requisite monarchical ratification works out a comprehensive set of checks and balances that would otherwise have to be provided by a written constitution.

From Bill to Law and Partisan Bickering in Between

A major characteristic of the UK’s uncodified constitution is the meticulous process that a bill must go through before legal enactment.

Any bill must start at the House of Commons, the elected body of representatives whose Members of Parliament are empowered with legislative initiative. Known as the First Chamber, her legislation is proposed and debated before the final draft is submitted to the Second Chamber, the House of Lords.

This body is largely formed of appointees, and membership may pass from generations or new members proposed by the House of Commons. They no longer have the right to veto (since Parliamentary act of 1911) but only delay enactment of a bill or send back to the first chamber proposed changes to their bills.

While the unelected nature of a sizable legislative body may be disconcerting to someone not used to the parliamentary system, it is the function of the Upper Chamber made of appointees to consider public policies before they become Acts of Parliament and become law and to hold the government to account. They can take a longer view rather than the election-focused perspective of Members of Parliament. While the monarch has not used the power of veto for a very long time now, there still exists an important constitutional safeguard for the passing of laws.

This is in contrast to the sometimes acrimonious relationship between lawmaking bodies in other systems. It is true that there is still a lot of horrid politicking going on, and sometimes there are missteps in the direct way that the Parliament can propose binding conventions on national policy (the whole Brexit debacle), but rarely so how different branches can oppose each other based on partisan divisions.

Laws and the execution of laws are often challenged using being unconstitutional or not exactly forbidden by the constitution as a bludgeon. The Parliament is supposed to be a self-policing body, in a way that the Judiciary tends to serve in other systems. Because of this power to create and overturn any law that itself has made, the United Kingdom unlike most other European nations has been relatively inured to major (and sometimes bloody) social revolutions ever since the late 1600s.

It may not be readily apparent, but behind the scenes is often just as strict and detailed code of conduct that help to ensure the government runs smoothly day by day. Though there is not a single definitive document as a constitution to define the government, there are various codes and practices and layers of custom that help to curtail excesses of power.

Still Waters, Deep Currents

Though it is not so obvious on first glance, the UK constitution does exist in a very operative form. Centuries and a lot of blood was spilled to create this system that sharply restrained both the abusable powers of the monarchy and the temptation of narrow-minded populist desires.

Though lacking a single document, its different Bills and Acts of Parliament and other laws all combine to a system that has served to inspire the formation of many other democratic nations. It can be argued to have one of the oldest and most successful constitutions that has ever existed. One can be confident that it can continue to survive in this manner for quite a while longer using this irrepressible historical momentum of a tradition that demands an ability to change and adapt.

Law

The Concept Of Laws & Civilization

Without laws, civilization cannot exist.  Humans need laws and rulers to prevent the breakdown of civil actions.  Societies that live in some form of civility have always had governments and rulers in different forms.  Kings, Queens, Bishops, Priests, Dictators and even Pharaohs.

In most cases, these leaders or rulers can be seen as human beings just like the citizens they are overseeing.  In rare cases, such as the Ancient Egyptians, their Pharaohs were seen as gods and yet managed to exist for well over 4,000 years.

In most societies and nations, the structure rests on rule of law vs rule of individuals.  Laws are the guideposts by which Presidents and Prime Ministers are allowed to support and rule their nations.  The English historian and churchman, Thomas Fuller, articulated his philosophy in respect to the rule of law as: “Be you ever so high, the law is above you”.

Law is considered predominant because the written word is incorporated into law books and agreed upon by the ruling party of the nation.  Laws are created to bring an equality to the citizens.  This is true among nations that believe whether king or queen, prime minister or president, all people are equal in some form.  Unfortunately dictatorships usually create laws in order  to rule people but not their leaders.

Civilized people believe that laws are created in order to benefit the whole, while criminals choose to go against the written law in order to benefit their own desires.

If misused, laws can actually turn on a society, as a whole, imprisoning the very people they were meant to protect.  In some orders, laws can be so suffocating that even happiness and joy are either restricted or totally prevented.  Quite simply, if a citizen chooses to break the law, they will be punished for their actions.  The long arm of the law will remove these people from society for a given period of time.  Throughout history, people have suffered at the discretion of rulers simply for having an opposing belief or opinion on a given subject.

The greatest example:  Jesus was not crucified for claiming he was the son of God.  The High Priests of Rome did not truly believe in a singular God, only in themselves.  Instead, they felt he was a direct threat to their control over the citizens within the region.

How well laws are enforced and by whom, can dictate whether these laws are beneficial or destructive.  In reality, laws are not objects, remote of any human qualities or purposes.  Laws are, after all, written by people.  Staying within the boundaries, usually lies within a person’s understanding of these given laws.  Breaking this down, most people abide by the laws believing they are in place to protect most people and are considered friends to the majority.  Citizens within well developed nations find their laws a needed and a useful part of society; they believe without them there would be total chaos.

In general, people believe that if you abide by laws, your life and society will prosper and be a much happier environment.  Others regard laws as their enemy because they prevent these people from their own aspirations and beliefs.  Here is an excellent example of contradiction of law:

Known for his 1516 book “Utopia”, Thomas More was a very important counselor to King Henry VIII of England.  More refused to accept the king as head of the Church of England.  He was tried for treason and beheaded in 1535.  The irony, 400 years later, in 1935, he was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

In some countries, if you are poor, you are not considered the luxury of protection under the law. This is very common in dictatorships, socialism or fascism; due to their low position within society, citizens  are often breaking laws in order to survive.  Many will ignore the “so called” laws by doing as they will, such as stealing, in order to make a living.  At some point they will be arrested and imprisoned as criminals.

In most cases, laws are established as a guide for people to live by helping people understand the difference between right and wrong.  Those who follow the laws will usually be seen as good citizens while those who disagree will be perceived as the enemy.

Although there are probably thousands of laws, on many varying issues, there are common threads and philosophies.  Yes, laws do lean toward the philosophy of the people living within a particular country.  If you study the laws within a given country, you will discover the beliefs and philosophies of its citizens.  If a particular country uses capital punishment for murder, the citizens probably believe in this punishment vs those within a nation that do not believe it’s right.

Another philosophy of law lies in who or what control the laws.  Kings, politicians and the wealthy have an enormous control over the laws.  The biggest difference between a king and his subject is winner – loser, rich or poor.  Many who wield power are given the ability to use these laws for their own personal advantage.  Laws are not above the flaws of human beings; they can either become corrupt or stay above the fray in order to protect all. Understanding written laws will give you the insight into those who created them.  Throughout history there have been rulers who a tyrannical with their citizens, yet are loving caring fathers to their children.  Some would refer to this split in personality as an oxymoron.

If you possess the knowledge and understanding of the laws within your society, you will know how to use them to your advantage.  This could create a huge difference from becoming a master of given laws vs becoming a slave to the same laws.