The constitution of a company is simply a list of the rules by which it is governed and, similarly, the constitution of a nation state is a list of rules by which it is governed. In the case of a company, these rules can be found in the Acts of Parliament governing companies which are in force for the time being added to the documents filed at Companies House when the company was incorporated. In the case of many nation states, they are found in a written constitution. The national written constitution has usually been put together after independence has been gained from an imperial power, regained after a period of occupation or after a division or coming together of previous nation states.
The only country without a recognisable written constitution is the UK. This does not mean that there are not rules by which we are governed – simply that they are not collected together in one place and not all of them are written down.
The rules by which the UK is governed are an elaborate tapestry of Acts of Parliament, secondary legislation made thereunder, decisions of the senior courts, conventions and the Royal Prerogative. The Royal Prerogative is the total of the powers of the Crown not given by legislation to some other body since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 in which the incoming monarchs agreed to share power with Parliament. But, over the years, Parliament has become in practice the dominant force in this arrangement. There are two parts in effect to the Royal Prerogative –those exercised personally by the sovereign and those exercised on her behalf by her Ministers –the latter being by far the most significant.
2. Why doesn’t the UK have a written constitution?
Why do we have such a strange, maybe old fashioned arrangement? One of the reasons is that in 1688, no one thought about writing constitutions and, since then, we have not been affected by imperial overlords, occupation, or dividing up the state. We are quite capable of writing written constitutions – most of the former British Empire got a written constitution as a ‘leaving present’ when it became independent. Some used and still use it; others quietly put it in the bin like the unwanted birthday present from an elderly aunt.
3. Why is the UK not having a written constitution significant now?
The elections and referendum of May 2011 make two things apparent. First, there is no great appetite for reforming the method of voting in Westminster Parliamentary elections. But, second, in a system where a form of proportional representation is used, the voting for the Scottish Parliament – the system which is maligned because it supposedly never produces an outright winner – a party which advocates breaking up the union of the UK has won an overall majority.
Whether that is the way of the future or not, it is clear that the rules by which the UK is governed are getting more complex and difficult to manage. Maybe now would be a good time for the Government and other parties to sit down and produce a clear written statement of what they are, so we know with certainty what to do if we do want to change them in the future?