This year is the 800 year anniversary of the Magna Carta, a document which agreed how England was to be ruled. But what has this got to do with modern politics?
It’s a document written in 1215 which recorded “the liberties of England”. Basically a posh word for the laws of the land.
Most importantly the Magna Carta stated that the ruler of England (at that point King John) had to obey the law just like anyone else. At that point the laws were agreed by the King and his barons so this didn’t exactly affect ordinary people. Who needs fairness anyway?
Nonetheless the Magna Carta document is still regarded as an important step to creating the constitution of the United Kingdom.
A Constitution is a set of principles and rules which determine how a country is governed. It is the supreme law; which means how the country is run and outlines the rights and freedoms of the citizens of that country. No biggie.
One of the most famous examples is the Constitution of the United States of America. This lays down how the power lies in the USA and outlines the civil rights belonging to citizens of the US. Woo, freedom!
That’s right. The UK is one of a very small number of modern countries which doesn’t have a written constitution.
Before you panic; things like your human rights and the laws of the country are set down in different treaties, documents and traditions which have existed for centuries. What we don’t have is one single document which brings all these different parts together.
The “Unwritten Constitution” is a group of traditions and practices for how the UK is run. For example, the idea of having a Prime Minister and how they are appointed (by gaining a majority in the House of Commons) is a convention. Whereas in America the Presidency is written in law by the constitution.
Last year the government held a committee exploring the idea of creating a constitution for Great Britain. They found that people liked the idea of having a constitution or a “second Magna Carta”, but couldn’t agree what should go in it. Go figure.
A written Constitution would make it clear who governs and how they are appointed. At the moment the UK head of state is the Queen. One of the options explored by the committee was having an elected head of state (like the Presidency in the USA) rather than a monarch. Bye-bye Queenie?
A new Magna Carta or Constitution would mean the UK would also have constitutional laws. These would ensure citizens cool stuff like “all men and women are equal” and the right to a private life in a widely acknowledged way, which could be referred to. So if a new law was proposed which could threaten those civil liberties the court can throw it out for being “unconstitutional”. Would this protect the rights of the people, or do you think it would slow the work of government?
Magna Cartas and Constitutions can lead to a LOT of legal headaches. In some cases it just makes things more complex. US Lawyers constantly find loopholes within the writings of their constitution.
Example: The US Supreme Court is currently deciding if there is a constitutional right for Gay Marriage. Supporters of Same Sex Marriage say that banning it is discriminatory which is against the constitution of the United States. Time to get lawyered up.
Once the Constitution is put into law it is extremely difficult to get rid of it or even change it. The American constitution has had only 27 amendments added since its creation in 1787. Realise a few years down the line that you missed something major? Tough Cookies.
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