By Robert S Culbard
Question: What does the United Kingdom have in common with Saudi Arabia? Answer: The United Kingdom, as with Saudi Arabia, does not have a written constitution. These two countries are to be numbered amongst the very few countries in the world which do not have a written constitution.
The officially named Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the second-largest state in the Arab world, was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been an absolute monarchy, effectively a hereditary dictatorship governed along Islamic lines and within the Sunni tradition. This is strange given that the Sunni strand within Islam believes in a more political and meritocratic choice of successor – albeit against a backcloth of cultural, ethnic and tribal differences.
Saudi Arabia is sometimes called “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” – located in Mecca and Medina. The country’s global spreading is largely financed by vast deposits of oil (it has the world’s second largest oil reserves) and gas (sixth largest reserves in the world). As a monarchical autocracy, Saudi Arabia is an active member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
In 2010-14, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that Saudi Arabia, being regarded as a regional and middle power, had the fourth highest military expenditure in the world and was the world’s second largest arms importer. One of Saudi Arabia’s major arms suppliers is the UK.
Founded in October, 1941, Freedom House is a non-partisan, non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the United States of America. The organisation conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights. It describes itself as a “clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world”. Freedom House publishes an annual report called Freedom in the World. This document “assesses each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties”. It is frequently cited by political scientists, journalists and policy-makers.
Freedom in the World has critically commented on “the extent of censorship, intimidation and violence against journalists, and public access to information in Saudi Arabia”. Further, the country has attracted criticism and a “Not Free” ranking by Freedom House for its lack of democratic freedoms, the status of women in Saudi society and its usage of capital punishment. This, then, is a country with which the UK shares the questionable characteristic of not having a written constitution. This permits Saudi Arabia to unquestioningly have its sacred cows.
The UK does have a constitution – of sorts. It is “the sum of the laws and principles that make up the political composition and practice of the UK”. These laws and principles “concern both the relationship between the individual and the state, and the functioning of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary”. In short, the constitution is concerned with the relationship that the government, and especially its various ministries and governmental institutions, relates to and works for the people of the UK.
However, unlike many other countries, for examples, the United States of America, but like another small group, including Saudi Arabia, the UK has no single constitutional document. The UK constitution is uncodified, that is, it is an “unwritten” constitution. Much of the British constitution “is embodied in written documents, within statutes, court judgements, works of authority and treaties. The constitution has other unwritten sources, including parliamentary constitutional conventions”.
In other words, the British constitution is camouflaged, if not buried, in a myriad of documents which is particularly accessible and peculiarly relative only to a privileged coterie of the governing establishment and its acolytes, constitutional lawyers and the appropriate courts and judges, as well as interested academics. It could be said that it is an aspect of the “dark matter” of the British political and social universe. It could hardly be said that the British constitution is a document that enables democracy to move forward.
Since the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, “the foundation of the legislative British constitution has been described as the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, according to which the statutes passed by Parliament are the UK’s supreme and final source of law”. It follows from this that the British constitution can be changed by Parliament simply passing news Acts of Parliament.
Herein lies one reason for the conflict for the UK within the EU – is the UK’s constitutional sovereignty maintained when it is required to follow the diktats of the parliament of the European Union? Where does the British rule of law end and European law begin? And who has access to this information? Where do the people of the UK stand in this situation?
However, the above is not only a matter for a resolution within the debate about EU membership; it has important implications for the UK per se. Perhaps of most importance is the necessity of enabling the British constitution to become accessible to a wider public than just those involved with government and the process of law-making. This is the view of Professor Stephen Haseler, the Emeritus Professor of Government and Director of the Global Policy Institute in the City of London (at the London Metropolitan University).
Professor Haseler is a persistent critic of the British political system. His perspectives on the matter of the British constitution are contained in his latest book, Broken Kingdom: Replacing the Westminster Establishment with a Federal Constitution.
In the view of Professor Haseler, the Scottish referendum presented “a wake-up call for the whole Westminster political class and its antiquated ‘Ancien Regime’ of a constitution”. In his book, Stephen Haseler looks at the deep historical origins of the political crisis – the Scottish question, an English parliament, what role for the rest of the UK, including London, and, of course, membership of the EU. This crisis is one about which he argues “our ruling class has been ‘auditioning for’ for decades”. He accuses the whole of the Westminster class and system of government of being “remote and arrogant”. With its unwritten constitution, it is a failed system.
Professor Haseler argues that “Britain cannot remain, like Saudi Arabia, one of the very few countries in the world without a written constitution. In a new federal constitutional settlement there should be no sacred cows. All our ‘ancien regime’ institutions need to be re-examined and, if necessary, radically reformed or abolished altogether”.
His own programme of modernisation would include “abolishing the unelected House of Lords, reducing the bloated House of Commons, dis-establishing the Monarchy (before Charles III takes over), abolishing the Privy Council and removing the Bishops from the Upper House”. To the latter could be added the dis-establishment of the Church of England. He would also introduce “re-call and term limits for Members of the new Parliament”.
Stephen Haseler’s basic premise is that “if we avoid fundamental constitutional change the union will break-up within the next few years”. He suggests that a “new written constitution will allow us to finally break with our dismal past and start again. It would be an act of renewal”.
The provision of a new written constitution for the United Kingdom would negate any comparisons of the UK with an anachronistic kingdom like Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it would place the UK in the forefront of modern, democratic states that took seriously the situation and circumstances of the contemporary world and the welfare of its own peoples.
Freedomithout such a new written constitution, the UK as we know it may be in its final years.
30 March, 2016