The British Constitution

I consider I’m pretty well-versed in British constitutional history. It was the only compulsory course we had to follow at my university (this was sixty years ago). It was a bit of a bore, and of course very exclusive, in the sense of concentrating on ‘high’ domestic politics, and finding no place in it for the proles (‘social’ history came in only later); or – believe it or not – for the British empire and imperialism. (There was a second-year option on what was called ‘The Expansion of Europe’; but – as I’ve written before – that was only taken by dum-dums who couldn’t cope cerebrally with the history of political philosophy, which was the alternative. I took the latter, not wishing to be classed as a dum-dum; so my Cambridge undergraduate course was not where I was introduced to my later specialism. That came through my interest in political philosophy: in this case ‘anti-imperialism’. But I digress…)

My point is that I consider that my education in constitutional history, much as it bored me initially, has served me pretty well over time. There was a broad theme running through the course in Cambridge, a ‘Whiggish’ one; which taught that England’s (and later Britain’s) political development was one of steady progress via various reforms and one revolution (two if you count the ‘Glorious’ one), towards the happy quasi-democracy that we enjoyed in the 1960s. If this syllabus had a hidden function, it was a ‘patriotic’ one. Britain deserved our loyalty because of this liberal progression, achieved with very little violence, because we were, as a nation, so smart and moderate. Not, note, because of the Empire; which only came into this picture at the stage of ‘decolonisation’, which was supposed to fit the general pattern of democratic ‘progress’.

That aside, the point I want to make here with regard to our present political situation is that my early grounding in the history of the (unwritten) British constitution is probably what has alerted me to the violence that is being done to some of our fundamental national traditions by the government today; especially to the principles of the separation of powers, checks and balances, the primacy of parliament, probity, the independence of the civil service, and many others. This was highlighted the other day by Peter Hennessy, probably our leading present-day constitutional historian, in his castigation of Boris Johnson as ‘the great debaser in modern times of decency and public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions – our very system of government’.

I imagine that Boris and his pals, not having been brought up on Tanner and Elton as I was in the ’sixties – maybe not having studied British history at all, only ‘Classical’ – may not be fully aware of this. If they are, they may want simply to dismiss Hennessy as one of Michael Gove’s derided ‘experts’. In either case, they are clearly departing from the form of ‘patriotism’, and even ‘conservatism’, that was inculcated in those of us reading History at Cambridge in the 1960s.

Recent events have clearly shown how flimsy and inadequate our constitutional conventions are proving today, in the face of these ignorant Borisian assaults. This has left us poorly protected by our ‘constitution’. What this situation requires now, I should like to suggest, is a major public enquiry into all aspects of Britain’s government; embracing the relations between the three classical pillars of the constitution (executive, legislature, judiciary); our electoral system; the funding of parties; the civil service; devolution; the power of the media; class and gender, insofar as they relate to politics; the ‘Public’ schools (of course)…. and so on. It might take many years; but if so, then so much the better. It would require long and deep thought. Perhaps Lord Hennessy could be its Chair. – On the other hand, this wouldn’t suit those who are exploiting the weaknesses and vagaries of the present ramshackle system, to their own undemocratic advantage. So it’s probably a no-no; certainly under the present government.


PS. Another thought – rather more trivial. It relates to Boris Johnson personally. We all know about his vaunting ambition; and that he only ever wanted to ‘be’ prime minister, not to ‘do’ anything in the job. Well, he’s managed that, by playing the crooked game that our tattered constitution has left us with; but is now well on track to become Britain’s worst and most reviled prime minister ever. Does this matter to him, I wonder? After all, he’s cemented his place in the history books. Is that good enough; to feature prominently as a failure and a rogue in the main texts of our future histories – perhaps even have a chapter devoted to him – rather than appearing as merely a footnote? Would he prefer notoriety to marginalisation? At least now he is noticed. That may be all he ever wanted. It fits with his own personal history, right back to Eton and before. But that’s not for us – least of all constitutional historians – to know.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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10 Responses to The British Constitution

  1. Mickc: I was writing about the British constitution, such as it is. I don’t think that ‘we the people’ ever appears in that. It does in the American constitution, which you may be confusing it with. Even there it’s hedged about with practical qualifications – division of powers, etc – designed, not always effectively, to prevent the ‘will of the people’ getting through into legislation without being tested – in order to check that it really is ‘the (considered) will of the people’, for example. In Britain’s case we are supposed to have very similar ‘checks and balances’; which of course the present government have ridden roughshod over. (Elevating the status of the referendum from ‘advisory’ to ‘mandatory’ was just one example.) That’s what makes it ‘unconstitutional’. If you prefer a more ‘direct’ democracy, without these checks and balances, OK; but first of all you need to mend the flaws in our present one. That demonstrably DOES NOT necessarily involve reducing the electorate to a privileged élite, as you say. I’ve suggested several ways in previous posts: including electoral reform, press regulation, reducing the power of ‘money’, neutralizing foreign influence, and political education in schools. (Starting perhaps with ‘constitutional history’!) But in the absence of these I prefer the ‘constitutional’ way that our present system is supposed to deliver, and would, I submit, have avoided the populist (not truly populAR) mess we’re in today.


    • mickc says:

      Yes, I know “we the people” wasn’t part of the British Constitution; neither were referenda. But referenda having been introduced by Parliament the Constitution has clearly changed.
      The effect, even without a promise by all political parties, is that the result, as with an election, is binding, and that “we the people” is now part of the British Constitution. That is the only rational conclusion which can be drawn and is supported by previous practice. The result of the referendum called by Wilson was followed by Parliament as have the few others. There is obviously now a “convention” that the result is binding, whether traditional constitutional lawyers accept it (yet) or not. It is not the present government which has made the result of referenda mandatory, but all previous Parliaments which resorted to them. And no, Parliament saying the result is merely advisory doesn’t cut it at all…saying a camel is a horse doesn’t make it one.
      In reality, it would be very unwise for a Parliament not to abide by the result of a referendum for it is then destroying the basis of its own legitimacy ie the result of a popular vote ( even if that vote is also at the same time populist).


  2. mickc says:

    It was surely Blair who started the real demolition of the British Constitution, and having successfully started, others have followed.
    But I consider that Parliament lost all authority when all Parties, having agreed to abide by the result of the Referendum on continued membership of the EU, then tried to ignore it and reverse it.
    Despite the “pure” Constitutional Law saying otherwise, Power rests with, and emanates from “we, the people” and is merely delegated to Parliament at General Elections. When the power of decision is incapable of being exercised by Parliament, a Referendum is necessary, as indeed it was. That result must be binding, because Parliament then has no primacy.
    Personally I would prefer a system of direct democracy like Switzerland.


    • Your Blair point needs to be elaborated, I think. – On the substance of your reply: how did Parliament ‘try to ignore and reverse’ the result of the referendum? You could say that our problems have arisen because it (i.e. a majority) went along with it unthinkingly.


      • mickc says:

        My problem with Blair is his reforms were entirely piecemeal and not consistent. Yes get rid of hereditary Lords…but then pack the place with your appointees? That is just as bad. The answer was surely a Second Chamber elected by Proportional Representation but unable to overrule the Commons.
        Of course my attitude may be pure disappointment with the man…so much opportunity to actually achieve things, damn all achieved…which probably just means damn all that I wanted achieved.
        On the Referendum, so far as I recall, the Government leaflet delivered to all households particularly set out what leaving the EU would entail eg leaving the Single Market. There were serious attempts by Remain MPs to try to use the “Primacy of Parliament” (it certainly isn’t against a Referendum result) to stay in. Personally I think the UK should have stayed in the Single Market…but that wasn’t the result of the Referendum. And of course “Runaway Dave” Cameron hadn’t even allowed planning for a Leave vote so chaos was inevitable. So a perfect example of a useless Eton product… (in counterpoint Macmillan wasn’t useless, understanding “the wind of change” for Britain and seeking entry to the Common Market…too late)
        Your point about an unthinking majority is the key point about democracy. There is always the argument that “the voters were misled”. But the only answer to that is that of voter qualifications, so back to a property qualification…an education qualification…a gender qualification (women are too emotional…) or the Edwardian “government of the people, for the people, by the best of the people” (self selected of course)? No thanks to any of that lot!
        Short of outright fraudulent voting (not misrepresentation in the campaign) the result of a democratic vote must stand.


  3. john evans says:

    “……with little violence” you say…….maybe a run through of some events… Henry VIII’s beheadings, the Putney discourses and the beheading of a king, the Dutch/German invasion of 1688, the Battle of the Boyne, Culloden, Peterloo, the Slave Trade, innumerable colliery disasters and thousands of “worker” deaths, the Seven Year’s War and the American Revolution, the Indian massacres, and Indian partition, along with Mau-Mau and other rebellions…….we are actually a very violent nation…..our football crowds attest to that!
    It has been the aristocracy’s and industrialists greratest success to have kept a “constitutional” document off the record for ever….it might however, be also suggested that the lack of a written document has saved us from the surfeit of lawyers that the US has suffered from for 200 years or more….it is the “common law” that is what attracts the absurdly rich to our tax dodging havens and impoverishes the rest of us.


    • Of course. I was describing the myth here, not the reality.


    • mickc says:

      I do not think “we”, as a people, nation or whatever we are, are any more violent than other nations, although our rulers, like others can be.
      In modern times, there was great opposition to the Suez adventure, which was planned in secret anyway, Wilson effectively resisted pressure to get into Vietnam, the Falklands and First Gulf War were not “of choice” but necessity. Blair’s Iraq catastrophe was opposed by a huge number of the population (possibly a majority, in my view) as shown by the biggest demonstration in Britain ever. Football violence was certainly not confined to Britain.
      And I don’t follow why you believe the Common Law should attract the absurdly rich. It is the actual enacted law which benefits the rich eg non dom status, not the law as decided in a court. Indeed courts frequently decide against actions taken by British governments.


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