We Need a Constitution

July 14, 2016 at 10:10 am (Politics)

Through the last few weeks when asked my political opinion on what is happening in the UK I have really struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer to most people.  When asked what I think of May/Boris/Corbyn/Gove/Crabb (whooooooooo?) etc. I do not really have an opinion because I am much more preoccupied with the nitty gritty of it all.  The political system as it operates in the UK.  This is not really suprising since I’ve spent the last eight years of my life teaching A-Level Politics. So for those of you who do not have an A-Level in politics here is a quick recap of Unit 2: (feel free to skip ahead)

The UK has what is known by A-Level teachers as an “unwritten constitution”.  Meaning that the rules that govern how this country is governed are not in one single document as they are in nearly every other democracy in the world (New Zealand and Israel being the only two other places that do not have one).  What we have is a series of conventions and precedents established over the last 500 years or so, examples of which you have seen in the last 24 hours (kissing hands, forming a cabinet etc.) and one overriding principle.  That is parliamentary sovereignty i.e. parliament can do whatever it likes whenever it likes as long as a majority of them vote for it.

The gist of your average A-Level essay ends up saying that the unwritten constitution is good because we don’t get lumbered with out of date ideas that are hard to change and then they turn to the second amendment of the US constitution which gives all US citizens the right to bear arms and is the reason it is almost impossible to pass gun control laws.  You see changing constitutional law is much harder than changing everyday laws.  In the US to change the constitution a two thirds majority is required in both houses of congress and three quarters of state legislatures have to approve the amendment as well.  And by and large I’ve always subscribed to this idea.  “Hey isn’t it awesome we live in a country where we aren’t bound by history and we can do whatever we like”.  Well no.  It’s not anymore frankly.

Constitutional reforms of the last 30 years have led to some of the most important changes in this countries history – devolution, the Human Rights Act, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – all with the aim of decentralising power from our overly strong executive branch but I suspect in a years time we will have seen a serious reversal in a lot of these areas, the key one being the Human Rights Act.

Theresa May has repeatedly over the years committed herself to scrapping the Human Rights Act which would remove our commitment to subscribe to the European Convention on Human Rights. As I have said a lot of time ECHR and EU are separate.  Brexit does not mean no longer being signed up to ECHR.  We still have strong protection of our human rights.  However like everything in this country it could be overturned in the blink of an eye by a simple majority in parliament.

The uproar by remain voters over Brexit is largely that it is happening on such a flimsy majority and so quickly.  This is exactly why we need a true and real constitution.  Membership of the EU, Human Rights, and how we choose a government should not be changed on a whim by whoever holds a majority at the time.  There are some decisions that have irrevocable results and should be considered on a higher level than everyday law making.

One of the arguments the A-Level textbooks puts forward against having a “written constitution” is that it would be complex and time consuming to put together a constitution.  Well indeed.  That’s the point. It should be complex and time consuming deciding on a binding set of rules the country is run by but until we do we will continue to be a nation divided by the whims of an electorate easily swayed both ways by a controlling media.

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