Today’s article was originally written as an opening speech for a debate I was due to attend tonight, but which I no longer can because it would be seen as “uncouth” and “so very, very wrong” to have to pause ever other paragraph to vomit into a bucket (post-Conference ‘flu is awful, I don’t know why we put ourselves through this every year).
Anyway, I thought you would enjoy this discussion of why the UK needs to codify its constitution; so I’m sharing my opening remarks with you here. I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear your views on it.
The UK Needs A Written Constitution
A constitution is not there to rule the country in the good times, it is there to protect it in the bad times. It’s the guiding hand that ensures the principles upon which a nation has been built cannot simply be tossed aside whenever they no longer suit the demagogues who have temporarily taken control.
Britain already has a written constitution, we just do not have a codified constitution. There are many constitutions around the world that are based on our Magna Carta; the document (and its subsequent re-drafts through the centuries) that represents the foundation of the British Constitution. We have the Bill of Rights (all of them) – and it’s this part of our Constitution that has become the most recent example of why we need to codify our Constitution into one document.
The Bill of Rights states that the Courts do not have jurisdiction over matters of Parliament; which used to include prorogation. The Supreme Court decided that it did have jurisdiction over prorogation. How did it do this? Because prorogation is a proceeding of Parliament only if acts of the Queen in Parliament are considered a part of the matters of parliament covered by the Bill of Rights.
This was long seen as something taken as a rule; in other words, it was a convention. Conventions are things taken as steadfast rules by those who adhere to them, but which has no weight in law. They are not in an Act, they are just something that is done because they were always done. My friends, that is no way to run a country.
Moreover, part of our Constitution doesn’t even have the quasi-legal status of a convention – parts of our Constitution come from books written by lawyers and civil servants who weren’t even in Parliament! A.V. Dicey’s Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, written in 1885, has been taught to lawyers for over a century because it has been so well received by lawyers and parliamentarians that it has come to hold the same weight as a parliamentary convention; yet it’s just a book. A book published by a judge. A book that was never law; but it is nevertheless considered to be part of our Constitution.
So we now have the terrible position where major, fundamental parts of the British Constitution have no weight in law whatsoever. They can be overwritten by any Act of Parliament, requiring a majority of only 1 vote to do it. They can be ignored by judges, politicians and the Speaker of the House (who seems to gain some perverse kind of delight in defying convention these days). Their weight in our legal and judicial system has been exposed as a mere mirage in the face of those who will pervert our nation for their own selfish gains.
This is no way to run a country. This is a shambolic situation that is bringing the oldest democracy in the world to its knees. It must change. We need a fully written, properly codified Constitution; and we need it now.
Oh, and as one last thing: in 2005 the Labour Government passed an Act of Parliament called the Constitutional Reform Act. You might remember this as the Act that created the Supreme Court (and thus stopped the Prime Minister from being able to prorogue the highest court in the land along with Parliament a few weeks ago). If we didn’t already have a written Constitution, why would we need an Act to reform it?
So in conclusion, the UK does need a written Constitution – which it already has – but it also needs to codify that Constitution. It should not be possible to drag out arguments over weeks simply because someone has gone to the trouble of digging up an ancient law or convention that they can use to wreak havoc on our nation.
We need to know what our Constitution says, what our rights are under that Constitution and, most importantly, what our responsibilities are under that Constitution; and we need everyone to be able to refer to the same document in order to do it. This is how we protect our country from the constitutional vandals who are attempting to destroy it for their own gain. I started this speech by saying a Constitution protects a nation in the bad times.
My friends, we are in one of those bad times right now; and the only way out of it is a proper written, codified Constitution to protect us all.