The Constitution in Flux

The Constitution in Flux. The absence of a written constitution, allied to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, enables constitutional change to be brought about within the United Kingdom with the minimum of constitutional formality. The constitution has evolved in a pragmatic and gradual manner over the centuries. At the current time, however, the constitution is undergoing more major change than in previous decades.

The last and greatest constitutional change occurred in 1973 when the United Kingdom joined the European Communities. Joining the Community, which has now evolved as but one part of the wider European Union, involved not only entering into an agreement which affected the economic life of the country, but also joining a unique legal order under which rights and obligations in matters regulated by the treaties are ultimately defined and enforced by the European Court of Justice.

Moreover, the Treaties on European Union mark new and significant developments within the European Union in relation to economic, monetary and political union and the evolution of common policies in relation to co-operation in judicial and policing matters, home affairs and security and foreign affairs policies.

It was the general election of 1997 which presaged further significant constitutional change. The incoming Labour government had committed itself to several constitutional reforms. Devolution of limited, but nonetheless wide ranging, law making powers to Scotland and Wales was the first issue to be addressed by the government.

An elected strategic authority for London was also on the agenda, as was regional devolution in England. Reform of the membership of the House of Lords, the upper House of the United Kingdom’s bicameral parliament, has already been effected, although the ultimate role and powers of the Lords remains to be determined. The settlement reached in April 1998 with regard to Northern Ireland culminated in devolved powers to a new Northern Ireland Assembly.

The government was also committed to the better protection of rights and freedoms, and in order to achieve this objective, the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, thereby for the first time providing a code of human rights which is enforceable in the domestic courts, The Human Rights Act marks a change in perception about freedoms and rights among the British people who, by contrast with citizens living under written constitutions and Bills of Rights, have hitherto been largely unaware of their rights and freedoms.

Further reform was effected by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which reformed the office of Lord Chancellor, established a new Supreme Court physically separated from parliament and provided for the House of Lords to elect its own speaker, an office formerly held by the Lord Chancellor. The Act is discussed further in Chapters 2 and 4.