On this page you will find discussion and analysis of some of the fundamental ideas that underpin discussions about the constitution in the UK. The content here is specifically designed for A level politics and early undergraduate level students looking to deepen their understanding of the topic. At A level specifically, the component 1 topics on ‘political ideas’ looks at conservatism and liberalism and how these two ideologies have impacted our different national views about the constitution.
Click on any of the questions below to be taken to the answer.
How do conservatives approach the constitution?
Conservative political thinking typically emphasises the value of tradition and the nation. It is resistant to big reforms: government should only intervene sparingly, when it is really necessary and considerable caution should be exercised.
A conservative approach to the constitution reflects this way of thinking. Conservatives tend to be opposed to far-reaching constitutional changes done all at once, preferring instead smaller changes that modify the constitutional system when there is a particular issue that needs addressing. In the UK, conservative political ideas have often meant an endorsement of the uncodified constitution. Conservatives might defend the UK’s unwritten constitutional arrangements by arguing that it allows for the development of the political system based on practical experience and the demands of the moment. Unsurprisingly, conservatives usually want to ‘conserve’ the traditional elements of the constitution, which they might believe embody national values and a history we should celebrate. For example, conservatives tend to defend the monarchy and would not want to see it abolished, or the monarch’s traditional powers changed.
The conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) described some of these ideas in his essay ‘On Being Conservative’, written in 1956. He wrote that to be conservative ‘is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.’ He went on to say that the conservative ‘will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden; and he will value highly every appearance of continuity.’
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an early well-known articulator of conservative ideas and a defender of a conservative approach to the constitution. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he compared the British constitutional model with that of the new constitution of revolutionary France. He argued that the British constitution had evolved over time and represented an accumulation of good ideas and ways of doing things from previous generations. Burke accepted that it was sometimes necessary to change aspects of the constitution, but he objected to what had happened in France after the French Revolution, where previous practices were totally replaced. In Reflections on the Revolution in France he wrote that the French ‘are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature.’ What he meant by this was that the constitution should be based on how people actually are – which was often flawed – rather than abstract theories and ideals about how they might be.
How do liberals approach the constitution?
A liberal approach to the constitution, on the other hand, often focuses on values that are seen as rational and universal, rather than those that have been passed down from the past. Liberals typically believe that we can identify the best political system through reasoning, and that we shouldn’t preserve traditional ways of doing things if they don’t work or aren’t right.
Many liberal political thinkers have argued that there are a set of universal rights, or human rights, that should be at the heart of any constitution. They are inclined to support far-reaching reform in order to establish a liberal, rights-based constitution. In the past, liberal theorists have often advocated a radical approach, where the old constitution is replaced by a totally new one, based on liberal principles. Although not a classical liberal, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, argued that the legitimacy of the constitution comes from a contract with the people, that there are natural rights – such as freedom and equality – and that society’s ‘general will’ should be orientated towards the common good. His thinking is often cited as having influenced the French Revolution, which did away with the old French way of government. It was abstract and idealistic ways of thinking about the constitution such as this that Edmund Burke was criticising in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Liberal thinking does not always advocate total change, but liberal ideas are more likely than conservative ones to lead to an argument for a codified constitution. Liberals typically emphasise individual freedoms over traditional values, hierarchies and sources of authority. They therefore believe it is necessary to have a constitution that protects these freedoms and limits the power of government to intervene in the lives of citizens. They often believe, because of this, that power should be spread out, rather than centralised. They might object that the conservative approach to the constitution is too reliant on the good character and restraint of those in charge. Instead, laws are necessary to stop them abusing this power. The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) falls into this category. Mill argued from principles such as freedom and equality that there should be an extension to the franchise and, in his work On Liberty (1859), he proposed a system of political rights and constitutional checks to ensure that the powerful were not able to oppress the less powerful.
When it came to power in 1997, the new Labour government enacted a series of constitutional reforms. This did not amount to a total overhaul of the UK’s constitutional system, and the Labour government did not introduce a codified constitution. Nevertheless, it was said these changes reflected liberal thinking and were taking the UK constitution in a more liberal, less conservative, direction. These changes included the Human Rights Act 1998, the devolution settlements, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords, the establishment of the UK Supreme Court, and the Equality Act 2010. The Conservative Party has been critical of some of these changes and the Conservative government under Boris Johnson is reviewing or reconsidering some of them. It has been suggested that the present government would like to return to the more conservative constitutional model that existed before new Labour came to power.