Is it time for the UK constitution to become codified?

Table of Contents

Codified vs Uncodified Constitution

The UK constitution is fairly unique in that it is uncodified. This has many effects on how the government can change the law and the extent to which they are held to account. The principles on which the government and parliament are based are also affected by this. This article will discuss whether the uncodified nature of the UK constitution is outdated, and what the alternative is.

What is a codified constitution?

There are many significant differences between a codified and uncodified constitution. An uncodified one, like the UK constitution, means that the constitution is written down but in different documents. The UK constitution is made up of Acts of Parliament, conventions, treaties and more. In addition, uncodified constitutions are unentrenched, meaning that constitutional law is no different from statute law, and Parliament can change the constitution as it is sovereign. It is non-judiciable, and judges cannot challenge Parliament’s ability to make or unmake any law.

A codified constitution, such as the United States’, is written down in a single document, and you can even view copies of the US Constitution online. It is rigid, meaning it is difficult to change, and it is entreched. This means that Constitutional law usually stands above law made by legislatures, in this case, Congress. They are also different to an uncodified constitution as they are usually revolutionary, coming about after an intense change of power or revolution, whereas the UK constitution is evolutionary, meaning it has evolved and changed over many years.

You can find out more about the differences in the table below.

Table showing comparison of codified and uncodified constitutions

There have been many arguments in recent years over whether the UK should adopt a codified constitution. As part of the A Level course, you may also have to answer a question on codification. So, should it happen?

Arguments for and against codifying the UK Constitution

YES: Protection of Human Rights
The constitution protects and safeguards individual and minority rights to a limited extent. Laws including the Human Rights Act and Equality Act have extended human rights within the UK. However, since these laws lack entrenchment, they can be removed by a future government. Under a codified constitution, parliament would not be able to pass any laws that offend human rights protection.

YES: Executive Power & Judiciability
Codification would prevent an over-powerful executive by constraining the power in a rigid, entrenched document. In the example of the 2019 Supreme Court case between Gina Miller and the UK Government, there would be clear guidelines as to whether an executive had acted unlawfully. Furthermore, since the constitution would be judicible, judges would be able to rule over the constitutionality of laws passed by the government, thus providing more clear and effective checks and balances.

NO: Flexibility
Westminster is known as the ‘mother of all parliaments’, and it is known across the world for its procedure and traditions. The UK constitution is able to adapt to conditions of the day, such as rapid legislation being passed in early 2020 to give emergency powers to the executive to fight coronavirus. In the context of conservatism, Edmund Burke’s theory of change to conserve plays here, with quick and small Acts of law having a greater degree of power than large constitutional reforms that can take months or years to come to fruition. Constitutional laws are no different to statute laws in the UK.

NO: A large reform for little benefit
The UK constitution has proved to be effective for many generations previously. For the above points, human rights are already protected by Acts of Parliament, the power of the executive is already limited by parliamentary scrutiny and free and fair elections, and the judiciary is (in theory) neutral and independent meaning it should not influence government decisions.

Exam Questions

AQA: ‘The UK would be better served with a codified constitution.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. [25]
Edexcel: Evaluate the view that the UK constitution should move to a codified model. [30]

Further Reading about reforming the constitution

King’s College London report into whether codification should occur
Student report on codification
Study Politics’ UK Government YouTube Playlist

In addition, our UK government course includes content for A Level Politics students about how the UK constitution and reforms impact other aspects of UK governance.