The UK is one of the few developed countries in the world without a written constitution. Despite this, its economy is prospering as it strengthens its position as one of the richest nations in the world. On top of that, it is pivotally located within the European federal framework in spite of its comparatively small geographic land mass and population. This raises an obvious question as to the mechanisms of governance: if there isn’t a constitution, how has the UK survived in this form, and how can it continue to prosper in a modern era without any distinct definitively specified legal order?
The United Kingdom is unlike most other nations in the world in that it has not suffered any major constitutional change since the Middle Ages. Since that time, it has been predominantly governed by a monarch in conjunction with his or her parliament. That said, it has proven to be of continuing success throughout the ages without the strict written form that many countries have adopted. From this has sprung an unprecedented flexibility, and the UK has effectively developed its own (non-binding) constitutional conventions to keep the country running smoothly. Additionally, the bi-cameral (or dual chamber) parliament plus the necessary monarchical ratification serves to provide a comprehensive set of checks and balances which would otherwise be provided through a written constitution.
The statement that the UK is lacking a constitution is misleading. Of course there is no written document, but the UK has a rich and diverse legal tapestry that works fluidly and has so for centuries. This fluidity has allowed for adaptation when necessary, and has allowed the UK to flourish and develop where others didn’t have the chance. Behind the scenes is an equally strict and wrought-iron code of conduct, which can partially be derived from codes of practices, Acts of Parliament and other ‘bits and pieces’. Although there may not be a constitution present in the sense of a single definitive document, the UK most certainly operates on the foundation of a constitution that keeps the country running smoothly on a daily basis.
A major aspect of the UK constitution is the thorough legislative process required for legal enactment. Any bill must firstly be proposed to the House of Commons, an elected body of representatives empowered with the power of legislative initiative. The first chamber proposes legislation and debates the provisions in depth, before agreeing on a final draft to pass to the second chamber, known as the House of Lords. The House of Lords are largely un-elected, with ‘membership’ passed down from generation to generation, or new members proposed by the House of Commons. They then have the right of veto, and an ability to refer back to the first chamber their proposed changes to any bills. This ensures no rushed legislation passes, and in theory should cover all eventualities. After passing both Houses, it is referred to the monarch, who has a personal responsibility to ensure any legislation is in accordance with the will of the people, and is morally justified. Although the monarch hasn’t used her power of veto since the 17th century, it is still an important constitutional safeguard in the UK.
The UK constitution might not seem obvious initially, but there is most certainly an intricate web of governance and practice lying underneath its blank exterior. It has been described as the most successful constitution in the world, and this is bolstered by its perpetual success and lack of problems since its early evolution.