For hundreds of years, the UK has been functioning without a codified constitution. For the majority of that time, that was not raised as a problem, as the first constitution was created in 1787. Recently however, the question whether the UK should have a single document titled “The constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” has been receiving more and more attention, as the UK is one of few countries that function without a codified constitution. The fact that the UK does not have a codified constitution by no means implies that it has no constitution whatsoever – it does have a complex constitution, developed over hundreds of years by Acts of Parliament, common law and constitutional conventions. And that constitution is functioning very well, so there seems to be no reason to change.
One of the arguments of the supporters of codifying the constitution is that at its current state, the constitution is confusing, and that a single document would solve this problem. Codification, they argue, will increase knowledge both about the constitutional rules and where to find those rules. However, further codification is unlikely to increase transparency about the UK’s constitution, as the language and style would be still the same – only all in one place. Moreover, in practice, that key knowledge is already accessible.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) argues for consolidating all provisions of constitutional importance from dozens of existing texts into a single document on the grounds that “the public is entitled to know the processes by which it is governed and the fundamental rules on which the constitution is based” and that such knowledge “will contribute greatly to more informed public debate”. That argument fails to realise that the British constitution is already available to the public. The Constitute website, for example, allows one to access a consolidation of the UK’s constitutionally relevant statutes and to search those statutes by topic, which means that the UK’s constitutional text already is accessible.
A major advantage of the present constitution is its flexibility – the British constitution can easily adapt to the changes in circumstances, something that is difficult to achieve with a codified constitution, as those usually can only be amended via lengthy legal processes. Higher law is more difficult to change than statute law and if the British constitution were to be codified, it is highly likely that the constitution would no longer be able to serve the society as well as it does nowadays.
Moreover, a codified constitution would likely not be able to preserve all elements that are now considered of constitutional importance for the UK. For example, Parliamentary sovereignty, one of the most important constitutional principles of the UK that states that Parliament can make and unmake any laws, would no longer be in place. Therefore, a codified constitution would undermine one of the key principles of the UK’s democracy.
In sum, the idea of a codified constitution for the UK is not only pointless but also potentially harmful. The benefits that, supporters argue, a single document would bring, are already there. More importantly however, a codified constitution will probably be unable to reflect all the beneficial subtleties that today govern the UK.