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Major consultation by Parliament on "A new Magna Carta?"

10 July 2014

Parliament is launching a major consultation into the shape of our democracy today, Thursday 10 July, through its Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.


The most famous constitutional document in England’s history, the Magna Carta, has its 800th Anniversary next year, but  the Committee has been looking forwards by working on a major project with King’s College London to develop several different visions of what a democratic settlement for the UK could look like. The King’s College research lays out three different models – including one fully fleshed out, complete constitution – and sets out some of the arguments for and against codifying the constitution in this way.

Arguments for

The King’s research points to the fact that the UK has a "sprawling mass" of common law, Acts of Parliament, and European treaty obligations, and a number of important but uncertain and unwritten "conventions" that govern administration, but the full picture is unclear and uncertain to electors in our democracy. They point to concerns about an "elective dictatorship", and argue that it has "become too easy for governments to implement political and constitutional reforms to suit their own political convenience". A written constitution would entrench requirements for popular and parliamentary consent.  The present unwritten constitution is "an anachronism riddled with references to our ancient past, unsuited to the social and political democracy of the 21st century and future aspirations of its people. It fails to give primacy to the sovereignty of the people and discourages popular participation in the political process."

Arguments against

Conversely, the case against a written constitution is that it is unnecessary, undesirable and un-British. The UK’s unwritten constitution is evolutionary and flexible in nature, enabling practical problems to be resolved as they arise and individual reforms made. The research points to concerns that a written constitution would create more litigation in the courts and politicise the judiciary, requiring them to pass judgement on the constitutionality of government legislation (which currently happens only in some contexts, such as compatibility with the Human Rights Act), when the final word on legal matters should lie with elected politicians in Parliament, not unelected judges. There is the simple argument that there are so many practical problems in preparing and enacting a written constitution, there is little point in even considering it. There is no real popular support or demand and, especially given the massive amount of time and destabilising effect such a reform would entail, it is a very low priority even for those who support the idea.

Given these polarised views, the Committee is launching the consultation to get input from all quarters on the possibilities.

Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"We are living through a period of considerable democratic change and upheaval.  During the last two decades, under Governments of various stripes, we have had devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, putting human rights into UK law, freedom of information legislation, the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords, the establishment of the Supreme Court, and the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments.

At the same time, attempts have been made to write down some of our existing democratic arrangements which are not actually part of law in documents such as the Ministerial Code, the Civil Service Code, and the Cabinet Manual.

These changes, and attempts to write down existing arrangements, have, however, been piecemeal.  At the beginning of the 2010 Parliament, we felt that the time was right to engage the public in a comprehensive evaluation of the United Kingdom’s democratic arrangements, culminating in this consultation which runs into the year that we will celebrate 800 years since Magna Carta. We are looking for views on the three suggested alternatives we are putting forward, but also on the idea itself of the UK having a written constitution. The question is, do we need a new Magna Carta to shape Britain’s relationship with its people, Europe and the world for the next 800 years."

The consultation runs until January 2015. See the Committee’s inquiry page for more detail on how to participate: 

Video: Parliamentary copyright

Further information