Thursday, August 16, 2007

Does the UK have a Constition?

There are two main approaches to defining a constitution – the concrete definition and the abstract definition. The concrete definition approach refers to a written set of rules a state adopts which defines the roles and functions of government, the rights of the people against the power of the state, among others. This type includes the Constitution of the United States of America, which was ratified by the end of the 18th century. Many states of the world adopted this form of written constitution to articulate the powers of their governments and the rights of their people, such as the present Iraqi government and the Republic of the Philippines. On the other hand, the abstract definition approach recognizes states such as the United Kingdom to possess its own constitution even if no written type exists, as it has rules which ‘establish and regulate or govern the government’ and deal with the relationship between the State and citizens, such as the Representation of the Peoples Act 2000. However, there are vehement objections from the likes of intellectuals such as Paine and Ridley that the UK has no constitution. Ridley asserts that a constitution is established by the people themselves and not presumed to exist, thus, the UK only possesses only a system of government with a set of rules and never a constitution. On the other hand, Paine views the existence of the British government without a constitution as power without a right as no limit on governmental power exists.

Nonetheless, a way out of this debate is to focus more on the purposes of a constitution rather than on its form. Jefferson best articulated these purposes, which includes the allocation and limitation of powers of government, the articulation of moral democratic principles of society and the accordance of government to democratic principles. As such, if these are the benchmarks that we shall use in determining as to whether or not the UK has a constitution, sources of constitutional exist that would show that a constitution does exist in UK such as statutes, common law, conventions, treaties, and even the Royal Prerogative. Concretely, these include Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, Race Relations Act 1976, the landmark case of M v Home Office ([1994] 1 AC 377), among many other laws and cases which subscribe to the Jeffersonian notion of the purposes of constitution.

However, there is still a debate as to whether the sum of all these statutes and sources of constitutional rules taken together can be considered as conclusive enough to say that a constitution exists in UK, especially when one of the fundamental requisites of a constitution is the consent of the people and the establishment of the people of a constitutional government. Prima facie, though, especially with all the statutes that seemingly conform to the Jeffersonian purposes of a constitution, it can somehow be said that the UK does possess a constitution. However, if the question is related to Paine’s assertion that a government without a constitution operates without a right, the answer would be in the negative. For as long as the UK does not possess a written constitution that clearly delineates the powers of government and the rights of the people, no constitution exists in UK as the existence of a constitution requires a positive act on the part of the people and never presumed to exist on the basis of the presence of laws and cases that seem to pertain to its existence.

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