When I was at university the only British history we read was ‘constitutional history’, based (if I remember rightly) on JR Tanner’s books of British Constitutional Documents. It was legalistic, parliamentary, and meant to illustrate the formal progress of Britain from a monarchy to a (nominal) democracy. So it made us feel good about ourselves. Still, it was boring, and missed out vast aspects of history that I was far more interested in: social history; cultural history; foreign policy; and even (you may be surprised to learn) British imperial history. There was an optional course on that, entitled – tellingly – ‘The Expansion of Europe’; but that was only there for the dumber students, who couldn’t cope with the alternative ‘History of Political Philosophy’ option. Otherwise British Constitutional history was our basic, porridge course. I never imagined I’d find any use for it after my second undergraduate year.
All this current talk of ‘proroguing Parliament’ however, involving the Queen, creating new peers, legal challenges and the like, has suddenly given it a modern relevance. I’m now quite grateful for my early grounding in this dull fare. I know, vaguely but still better than most people, what the British ‘constitution’ consists of. Being ‘unwritten’, of course, it rests on precedents. Which means constitutional history. I don’t remember all of that, after 50-plus years; so I must look out my Tanner’s Constitutional Documents again. In any brought-up-to-date future edition the years 2016-19 will figure large. We are living through a key moment in our constitutional history.