“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.
- Saudi Arabia
- New Zealand
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”.
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.