12–18 November 2018

What is a constitution? And why should you care?

10 Nov 2014

I’m the Chair of a Select Committee in the House of Commons. The work of my Committee – the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee – focuses on different aspects of our democracy.

In 2010 we started a project that became our report ‘A new Magna Carta?’ We wanted to look into the question of whether or not we should adopt a written constitution in the UK and, if so, what it should contain.GA Portrait - High Res

So, what is a constitution? And why should you care?

A constitution is the rule book of a democracy.

Constitutions are about power. They tell us about where the people agree that power lies in our system of government, and how that power is balanced between Parliament, Government and Judges, and authorised by the people.

Constitutions are about accountability. They are the rules that govern how we are governed. They tell governments what they can and – importantly – what they can’t do.

Constitutions are about people. They tell us – the people – about how we can elect the Government we choose, about our rights as citizens and as human beings and about how we can challenge governments if they take decisions that are contrary to those rights.

So constitutions are important. They allow us to hold governments to account, they protect our rights, and they set out the rules of the political game for all to see as a protection against tyranny.

Almost all constitutions around the world are written down in one, codified document. In fact, the only three countries where there is no written constitution are Israel, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

So why does it matter whether we have a written constitution or not?

Some people would argue that it doesn’t matter, that it’s a good thing that our rule book is not written down in one place.

They say that we live in a stable, modern democracy and that our law can be changed to reflect new circumstances and changed standards. Maybe writing things down would risk losing the core of what we have in the UK: flexibility.

But others think that it does matter. That it really matters.

Because if we don’t have a written constitution only governments, not the people, really know what the rules are. And if we can’t be certain about what the rules say – about what the government can and can’t do – then we can’t hold the government properly to account. And if we can’t do that, we, as citizens, have no power.

Join Graham to discuss a #ukconstitution live on 19th November from 4-5pm.