Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Writing a constitution

I guess Washington Post London bureau chief Griff Witte was finally cornered by Jeremy Purvis and convinced to persuade his editors to publish this story on a Monday morning.

It raises interesting and long-standing questions about constitutional government and the UK's version of it. But it's not news. The question has been asked since at least the late 18th century.

After 800 years, Britain finally asks: Do we need a written constitution?
The words of the Magna Carta have inspired democratic movements the world over and formed a basis for countless constitutions…

Yet somehow, despite birthing the principles of due process and equal rights under law, Britain never got around to codifying a constitution of its own…

Britain is one of just three major democracies that lack formal, written constitutions...  [Israel and New Zealand are the others.]

Advocates of a written constitution say none of the big problems are likely to be solved unless Britain does what others accomplished long ago and goes through the difficult process of writing down some basic rules.

“We’ve got a long tradition of helping other countries do it, without recognizing that we need to do it ourselves,” said Jeremy Purvis, a member of the House of Lords who introduced a bill last week that, if passed, would trigger a constitutional convention. “But this is the moment.”…

In truth, Britain does have a constitution… Instead of one document that can be stuffed into a breast pocket or waved about by politicians for dramatic effect, the British constitution lies scattered across centuries’ worth of common law, acts of Parliament, treaty obligations and historical conventions…

The constitution issue has gained more prominence lately… The threat of Scottish independence is felt most acutely. The United Kingdom is not one nation, but four — Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For centuries, power has been monopolized in London, but demands are rising for control closer to home…

[Purvis'] bill may clear the House of Lords, but it is unlikely to pass the all-important House of Commons…

Britain’s system is sometimes referred to as an elected dictatorship because it lacks a true separation of powers…

Defenders of Britain’s traditional ways say there is good reason not to change what has worked for this country for ages. Philip Norton, a member of the House of Lords and a constitutional scholar, said that codifying the constitution would amount to fitting the country with “a straitjacket” when it needs to be flexible enough to evolve with changing times…

Anthony King, a University of Essex political scientist, said… “If you look at the people who drew up the American constitution, here was a group with outstanding intellectual capacity — James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, George Mason,” he said. “You couldn’t replicate that in Britain in 2015 — probably not in most countries in 2015.”…

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