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Frequently people think that there are only two ways address flexibility in a constitution: to legally entrench an entire document and to protect it with strong judicial oversight, or to have a political constitution and a sovereign parliament, which, in the words of A.V. Dicey, ‘has … the right to make or unmake any law whatever….’ One aspect of this sovereignty is that parliament cannot bind itself: ‘That Parliaments have more than once intended and endeavoured to pass Acts which should tie the hands of their successors is certain, but the endeavour has always ended in failure.’

Parliament has regularly used language limiting its future options. The Bill of Rights (1688) says that the rights declared there ‘shall be declared, enacted, and established by Authority of this present Parliament, and shall stand, remain, and be the Law of this Realm for ever’. More recently, Parliament promised in the European Union Act 2011 to hold a referendum on any law that increased the competencies of the EU and put in place mechanics for holding itself accountable through judicial review. Are these attempts really as pointless as Dicey claims?

The intention of the convention parliament in 1689 was to put an end to the conflicts of the preceding seventy years (interrupted by the reign of Charles II). The more recent act, too, was a product of what preceded it. Originally the Labour government had ruled out a referendum on the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe (2004), which among other things introduced new shared competencies with member states. When the press speculated about Labour’s prospects before the 2004 European Parliament Elections (June 2004), Tony Blair announced that there would be a referendum on the treaty. After the treaty collapsed (because it was rejected in France and the Netherlands), the member states entered into the Lisbon Treaty, which had many of the same characteristics as the proposed constitution. Conservatives accused Labour of inconsistency in being unwilling to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and in their manifesto promised a referendum lock on any future transfers of competencies, so that politicians would not be able to waver for short-term, political purposes. That promise became part of the coalition agreement in 2010 and was enacted into law.

The language used by parliament in both of these cases is a commitment device. It need not even be judicially enforceable to constrain (impose additional costs on) future choices by the legislature. Public embarrassment, through a newspaper’s exposure of inconsistency, is a practical means of ensuring accountability, so long as the newspapers do their job. And, as under the Human Rights Act 1998, the legislature may permit the courts to point out, but not to correct, inconsistency with entrenched law. An overly simplistic distinction between codification and a political constitution eliminates complex differences between these tools, and wastes resources that should be available to policy makers.

This post originally appeared on the website of the UK Constitutional Law Association. 

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