Advantages of the Unwritten Constitution (and Disadvantages)

The advantages of the unwritten constitution include its greater flexibility, quick decision making, improved government efficiency, currency, prevention of conflicts, ease of understanding and lower cost of creation and amendment.

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On the other hand, the major disadvantages of an unwritten constitution are the possibility of frequent changes, inadequate protection of minorities, ease of manipulation and abuse, its indefinite nature and lack of clarity regarding the separation of the powers of government.

In this senior high school Government tutorial, we shall first discuss the advantages of the unwritten constitution. This will be followed by criticisms against unwritten constitutions.

Here comes a typical WAEC/WASSCE past question on the advantages and disadvantages of the unwritten constitution.

 A) What is meant by an unwritten constitution?

B) Identify two advantages and two disadvantages of an unwritten constitution.

Definition of Unwritten Constitution

So, before I give you all the points for writing an essay on the pros and cons of an unwritten constitution, I would like us to begin with a brief definition of the unwritten constitution. You will also find out examples of countries and societies that operate the unwritten constitution.

So what is an unwritten constitution?

An unwritten constitution is one where the laws or rules and regulations establishing the institutions of government have not been formally written in a single document. An example is the British constitution. It consists of an accumulation of hundreds of years of traditions, customs, conventions, precedents and acts of parliament which serve as a point of reference or framework within which public office holders are expected to act.

For example, it is an unwritten rule in Britain that the leader of the party with majority seats in parliament be appointed Prime Minister.

Constitutions of pre-colonial African states were unwritten.

Written Constitution vs Unwritten Constitution

We are now going to identify the major advantages of unwritten constitutions. These advantages of the unwritten constitution are the direct opposite of the disadvantages of a written constitution.

In other words, the reason why an unwritten constitution may be considered more desirable than the written one stems from the merits that the written constitution lacks. The reverse is also true.

Advantages of the Unwritten Constitution

Here come the advantages of the unwritten constitution. They are what make it more suitable for homogeneous societies with political traditions dating far back into their history.

1. Unwritten Constitutions are Flexible

This means that compared to the unwritten one, the written constitution is easier to amend. The reason for this is that in many cases, all parties involved only need to come to a consensus to change a certain procedure or convention.

The requirement for lengthy and complicated procedures to precede the amendment of a written constitution does not arise here.

2. Quick Decision Making

Secondly, an unwritten constitution allows for quick decision-making. This is important during an emergency when quick decisive action is needed.

For instance, in a national emergency, the government can act quickly without having to satisfy the demands of complex provisions as may be found in a written constitution.

Thus, an unwritten constitution is more likely to speed up the work of government

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3. Improved Efficiency in Government

The easier it is for government officials to quickly make decisions and implement them, the more efficient government machinery becomes.

With less waste of time on constitutional wrangling and more effective consensus building, the government will be better placed to carry out its mandate.

This, therefore, constitutes one more of the advantages that an unwritten constitution has over the written one.

4 . Relevance to Current Needs

Among the advantages of the unwritten constitution is its ability to remain relevant to the needs of the people. If conventions are allowed to evolve with the passage of time, the unwritten constitution can hardly become outmoded.

Fortunately, this is possible because no difficult amendment procedures are needed to update unwritten practices that are no longer serving the interest of society.

It is more relevant to the aspirations of the people and can stand the test of time since it develops from their actual experiences.

5. Avoidance of Conflict Situations

Minimizing conflict situations in both the government and society as a whole is one of the major advantages of the unwritten constitution. One reason for this is that unwritten constitutions generally develop from the common social and political experiences of the people.

Thus it tends to bind them together. This is unlike written constitutions which often become necessary to cater for the interests of disparate ethnic groups that have been brought together under one artificially-created state.

Again, the relative ease of compromise and consensus building associated with the unwritten constitution allows it to avoid the frequent tensions in governments that operate under a written constitution.

6. It Is Less Expensive to Operate

An unwritten constitution is less expensive to operate because ordinary acts of parliament rather than expensive special procedures are enough to amend it.

The very high costs involved in drafting and promulgating into law a written constitution do not come into play here.

The money which would have otherwise been spent on writing a constitution is saved. It can be used for implementing programmes that will improve the living standards of the citizenry.

Also, easier amendment procedures associated with the unwritten constitution mean a lesser waste of money, time and other resources.

7. It is Easy to Understand

We cannot end our discussion of the advantages of the unwritten constitution without mentioning the ease with which it can be understood.

Unwritten constitutions are easier to understand because they are in the form of unwritten customs, norms and practices. Long-held traditions are a part and parcel of the people’s culture.

Therefore, even illiterates do not need anyone to explain or interpret a good number of their constitutional conventions to them.

The result is that the people feel much closer to their government and are more willing to participate in the political process.

The Cons of Unwritten Constitutions

The above are the key advantages of the unwritten constitution over the written one. Notwithstanding these advantages of the unwritten constitution, there still remain serious drawbacks to such a constitution.

In the next section of this post, we will highlight the disadvantages of the unwritten constitution. Note, again, that it is these demerits of the unwritten constitution that make some modern constitutional monarchies adopt a written constitution instead.

Disadvantages of the Unwritten Constitution

It is now time to dive into the shortcomings of the unwritten constitution.

1. Easy to Manipulate

An unwritten constitution can be easily manipulated because it is not codified. Neither is it definite. This leaves ample room for officials with sinister motives to bend the customs and traditions to their will. There is therefore a real danger of the emergence of dictatorship and abuse of human rights.

2. Inadequate Protection of Minorities

Compared to a written constitution, the unwritten constitution is unable to adequately cater for the special needs of minority groups. This becomes a problem in multi-ethnic or multi-racial societies like Nigeria, India, South Africa and the United States of America where such needs have to be entrenched in written clauses.

Clearly, it is the reason why most heterogeneous societies prefer a written constitution with a federal form of government.

3. Too Frequent Constitutional Changes

Similarly, the relative ease with which unwritten rules and procedures can be changed could result in too many unnecessary changes. Under such circumstances, the unwritten constitution stands the danger of losing its credibility and power.

Also, the smooth running of government may suffer if the unwritten rules are changed too frequently.

4. It Is Difficult to Consult an Unwritten Constitution

Since there is no single document containing all constitutional provisions, it is almost impossible to refer to such a constitution. This may make the peaceful resolution of disagreements difficult.

5. Unwritten Constitutions Lack Certainty

Further, the lack of certainty is one of the most cited disadvantages of the unwritten constitution. In states operating the unwritten constitution, the rules governing the conduct of government business remain largely in the minds of the people.

There is no single document to refer to when one is in doubt.

Thus, the possibility of people interpreting differently what a convention says about a particular procedure is very high.

This can further increase the likelihood of disagreements and conflicts.

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6. No Clear Separation of Powers

Last among the disadvantages of the unwritten constitution I want you to know is the hazy nature of the separation of powers in such a constitutional arrangement.

The chief factor accounting for this is that the functions of the various organs of government have not been spelt out in black and white.

This creates room for anyone to assume powers that do not belong to them under the constitution. Such a situation is yet another route to avoidable conflicts within the government.

In Conclusion

We have been diving deep into the major advantages and disadvantages of the unwritten constitution. While the advantages of an unwritten constitution make it look more desirable than the written one, there are equally many weaknesses of unwritten constitutions. These disadvantages of the unwritten constitution make most modern states choose the written one over it.

Final Thoughts

Do you think unwritten constitutions are better than written ones? Let me know what you think in a brief comment below.

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