Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the UK constitution
A constitution is a set of rules relating to how a state is to be governed and organised. The primary function of a constitution is to provide legitimacy to those in power; however it also defines the limits of government power, protects freedom and distributes power within the political system. In the case of the UK constitution, these rules can be either written or unwritten due to the uncodified nature of the constitution and only parts of it are entrenched. An uncodified constitution is one which the laws, rules, and principles specifying how a state is governed, are not gathered in a single document. Being partly entrenched means that some parts of the constitution are legally reinforced and are backed up by laws. Whilst many people feel that the UK constitution works well without it being entirely codified others feel that there are too many weaknesses within the constitution and therefore it is ineffective. One strength of the UK constitution is that it is highly flexible and adaptable due to its uncodified nature, which allows constitutional arrangements to be altered in line with social and political changes.
The rules of the constitution are not contained within a single document, unlike the United States’ constitution, which means that the ability to alter or remove statute laws, conventions or works of authority is far greater because no higher constitutional law is more difficult to change than ordinary law. It can evolve to meet the needs of the current times of the country and keep it from becoming dated. This is important since constitution can be changed quickly and efficiently if circumstances demand it. The relatively smooth transition of power from single part government to coalition government in 2010 shows that the constitution is flexible to cope with any form of government. The power of governments isn’t as tightly defined and limited as in countries with codified constitutions and, because there are fewer constraints, governments can get more done. Another strength is of the UK constitution is the democratic rule; this is where power is shared and distributed between the three types of government; the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. This reduces the chance of dictatorship and is also maintained by the fact that the influence of unelected judges are kept to a minimum. This creates overall fairness and general population are
The reason why the constitution has a democratic flavour is because of the importance of parliamentary sovereignty. In the UK’s uncodified constitution, supreme constitutional authority is vested, ultimately, in the elected House of Commons. Supporters of the UK constitution often argue that it helps to make the UK governments stronger and more effective. One reason for this is because of the UK’s system of parliamentary government, usually means that the governments get their way in parliament. Another reason for why it is seen to be more effective is due to the absence of a ‘written’ constitution, government decisions that are backed by parliament cannot be overturned by the judiciary. One last point of discussion of assessing the strengths of the UK constitution is the history and tradition. Even though this is an argument most commonly associated with conservative thinkers, they would argue that a key strength of the constitution is that, being based on traditions and custom, it links present generations to past generations. Constitutional rules and principles have been tested by time and therefore been shown to work. This can be seen can be seen clearly in relation to some aspects of the constitution, such as the monarchy and the House of Lords.
On the other hand critics of the UK constitution point out that it is sometimes difficult to know what the constitution says. Confusion surrounds many constitutional rules because; quite simply they are not hard and fast. This applies especially to the constitution’s unwritten elements. It is difficult in some cases to escape the conclusion that constitution is made up as we go along. Another criticism of the UK’s constitution is that, in practice, it gives rise to the problem of ‘elective dictatorship’. This draws our attention to the fact that once elected, UK governments can more or less act as they please until they come up for re-election. This can occur through a combination of two factors; one because sovereign power is vested in the hands of parliament, secondly because parliament is routinely controlled, even dominated, by the government of the day.
The problem of elective dictatorship is that, in concentrating power in the hands of the executive, it allows the government of the time to shape and reshape the constitution however it wishes. This creates the impression that, in effect the UK doesn’t have a constitution. The other concern is that, in widening the powers of government, it creates the possibility that government may become oppressive and tyrannical. Another weakness of the constitution is that the UK has an over centralised system of government with weak or ineffective checks and balances. One of the key features of liberal democracy is that government power is limited through internal tensions between and amongst government bodies. However the UK government is centralised more by the concentration of power than its fragmentation. This can be seen in many ways: The Prime Minister tends to dominate the cabinet.
The House of Commons is more powerful than the House of Lords. The executive usually controls parliament. Central government controls local government.
A final criticism is that the UK constitution provides weak protection for individual rights and civil liberties. In part, this is a consequence of elective dictatorship and the fact that, except form elections, there is nothing that forces the government to respect individual freedom and basic rights. Elections indeed, can only do this inadequately as they tend to empower majorities rather than minorities or individuals. However this concern also arises from a traditional unwillingness to write down individual rights and freedoms, to give them legal substance. The passage of the Human Rights Act (1998) has defined rights more clearly making it easier for them to be defined in the courts.
After assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the UK constitution, there are some very strong arguments for both sides. Evidence suggests that, it is hard to judge whether the UK constitution is a strong one however, it is clear that it has its many faults and will constantly be debated in relation to politics.