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How to Address a Broken System: Starting with the Constitution

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The term “constitution” often elicits a yawn from both politicians and everyday citizens alike. However, these two words hold the key to understanding many of the problems plaguing Westminster today.

The absence of a formal written constitution in the United Kingdom renders it akin to a prehistoric relic in modern times. Unlike most other nations, such as New Zealand and Israel, Britain lacks a clear foundational document outlining the rights and obligations of its citizens. While the unwritten constitution has been a point of pride for English common lawyers and the ruling elite for centuries, it’s time to acknowledge that it is sorely in need of an overhaul.

One major issue is the lack of coherence. Instead of being consolidated into a single authoritative document, the British constitution is scattered across numerous Acts of Parliament, legal precedents, court judgments, and traditions spanning centuries. This fragmented landscape leads to confusion, leaving even fundamental questions about the government’s ability to withdraw from international treaties open to debate, as exemplified by the Brexit saga. This lack of clarity fosters political opportunism, as seen in Prime Minister Johnson’s controversial prorogation of Parliament and First Minister Sturgeon’s unilateral push for a second Independence Referendum.

This lack of coherence is compounded by an over-reliance on conventions. While the British constitution assumes the good sense and good faith of those who operate within it, these virtues seem sorely lacking in today’s political climate. Allegations of government corruption and misconduct abound, eroding public trust in the system.

Another critical issue lies in the inherently unstable relationship between the electorate and the executive. Unlike presidential systems where the government is insulated from public opinion between elections, the UK’s parliamentary system leaves the government vulnerable to constant scrutiny. With no fixed terms for Parliament and executive power vested primarily in the majority party rather than its leader, the government’s stability is constantly in question. This perpetual instability hampers effective policymaking both domestically and internationally.

Addressing the decline in British politics requires fundamental constitutional reform. While some propose abolishing the House of Lords and devolving power to local governments, such piecemeal changes are insufficient. The British constitution is outdated and in dire need of comprehensive reform to restore trust and effectiveness in governance.

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