Could a written constitution save the United Kingdom?


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Parliament’s Street’s Clare Ambrosino debates whether the time has come for Great Britain to codify its constitution to save the union from being broken up by nationalist parties.

There are now only two days to go to the general election and the heat is now well and truly on. David Cameron continues to be the only credible leader and it is to be hoped that this, along with his ability to turn the economy around and get the country back on track, will be enough to ensure a majority. The alternative to a Conservative Government, this time around, looks even bleaker than usual and unprecedented changes to political fabric of the United Kingdom are giving rise to new vistas which are very far from reassuring.

For British people, regardless even of political leaning, the very worst scenario on the morning of May 8th would be a coalition government made up of Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP). That such a situation can even be contemplated, where a party might be enticed into sharing power with another party, whose stated aim is to destroy the very country it is invited to govern, is a situation which could not have been foreseen by many. However, the fact that such a coalition could, even theoretically, come into being, has made us all sit up and look around. What we see is that the SNP represents only one of several dangers to our union. Suddenly the implicit gentleman’s agreement that all elected governments will strive to build, not destroy our United Kingdom, appears to be fragile and, as we find ourselves sailing in uncharted waters, the peril we are in is becoming clearer. “Here be dragons!”

Now while there is very little chance of Labour winning the election outright, the danger of our being federalised is one that cannot be ignored. What can we do to protect the UK from further attack? How can the historic unity be safeguarded?  Is it finally time to review one of the characteristics which has set our nation aside from nearly all other democratic countries- the lack of a codified constitution?

Traditionally of course, Britain has been one of a very small number of countries, including New Zealand and Israel, which do not have a written constitution. The Advantages are greater flexibility and resilience but a big disadvantage is that it leaves scope for, at the very least, misinterpretation. Naturally, the absence of a single written constitutional document does not mean that Britain has no rules or that we make them up as we go along. Our constitution is encompassed in such documents  as the Magna Carta, drawn up by King John in 1215,  the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the Parliament Acts, all of which  effectively contain  the British Constitution. Today however, the current political climate is such, and the stability of the union is so fragile, that many are calling for a more concrete codification, a written constitutional document. .

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at King’s College London, one of whose better known students was David Cameron, recently presented a paper entitled “The Crisis of the Constitution” to the Constitutional Society of London. In it he says that he believes there may soon be a need for a British written constitution. In his opinion this is largely due to the changing dynamics within the United Kingdom and in particular, the impact that the incomplete and “asymmetrical” devolution of Scotland will have on Westminster after the coming election.


Professor Vernon Bogdanor has called for a UK constitution in response to ever changing dynamics

As we all know, the failure of Scottish referendum to secure independence for the Scots,’ has  resulted in a more concerted focus on achieving it hereafter and the impetus it generated is almost certain to result in the SNP taking a spectacular number of seats in the forthcoming election. This renewed political thrust is likely to complicate the promised negotiations with the British Government, to implement further devolutionary measures and give more power to the Edinburgh Parliament, as they will almost certainly feel to be in a stronger negotiating position.

Worryingly, the idea that a coalition government, which includes the SNP, might use its votes to the detriment of the United Kingdom is only the tip of the iceberg, and potentially, there are other dangers lurking. The fact is that the SNP is not the only potential game changer on the scene and many believe that by creating imbalance devolutionary powers, we are setting ourselves up for a constitutional fall. Since 1998, when the nationalist parties were given their own parliaments, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliamentarians have continued to vote in Westminster, not only on UK matters, but on English ones too. This has long been a cause of discontent among English MPs, who believe that competencies should be more clearly divided and each country should vote for its own legislation and only come together to vote on common interests such as foreign policy, defence and the budget.

A surge in SNP support threatens the union despite the recent 'No Vote' in the Scottish referendum

A surge in SNP support could threaten the make up of the United Kingdom

Naturally, a written constitution carries risks and although it has been discussed for more than two hundred years, the fear of getting it wrong, as well as our native reticence and resistance to written rules have so far dissuaded  leaders form  from actually putting pen to paper. However, sometimes the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action and Professor Bogdanor’s paper highlights the extent to which Westminster’s legislative capacities have been slowed down since the beginning of this century and the push for independence seems to indicate an inevitable journey along the path of full devolution, away from a historic, centralised state towards a federal reality.

So has the time has come to draw up a codified British Constitution?  Personally I am with Professor Bognador if it would help keep Britain united. It would of course need to be a very British Constitution and embody the flexibility, adaptability and aperture which is our cultural identity and Bognador talks of it being an on line document rather than a traditional written Constitution.  The important thing is that we must do whatever we need to do to safeguard the union which has achieved so much and done so because of the shared ideals, standards and social rules. The union is worth fighting for and who better than a Conservative Government to do that?

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