The British Constitution

The British Constitution

The British Constitution

The British Constitution

Synopsis

In the latter part of the nineteenth century Walter Bagehot wrote a classic account of the British constitution as it had developed during Queen Victoria's reign. He argued that the late Victorian constitution was not at all what people thought it was. Anthony King argues that the same is true at the beginning of this century. Most people are aware that a series of major constitutional changes has taken place, but few recognize that their cumulative effect has been to change entirely thenature of Britain's constitutional structure. The old constitution has gone. The author insists that the new constitution is a mess, but one that we should probably try to make the best of. The British Constitution is neither a reference book nor a textbook. Like Bagehot's classic, it is written with wit and mordant humour - by someone who is a journalist and political commentator as well as a distinguished academic. The author maintains that, although the new British constitution is a mess,there is no going back now. 'As always', he says, 'nostalgia is a good companion but a bad guide.' Highly charged issues that remain to be settled concern the relations between Scotland and England and the future of the House of Lords. A reformed House of Lords, the author fears, could wind up comprising 'a miscellaneous assemblage of party hacks, political careerists, clapped-out retired or defeated MPs, has-beens, never-were's and never-could-possibly-be's'. The book is a Bagehot for thetwenty-first century - the product of a lifetime's reflection on British politics and essential reading for anyone interested in how the British system has changed and how it is likely to change in future.

Excerpt

This book seeks to do for the British constitution at the beginning of the twenty-first century what Walter Bagehot did for what he insisted on calling the English constitution during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Bagehot thought the working constitution of his time was not altogether what people thought it was. This book seeks to demonstrate the same proposition. It sets out to describe the traditional British constitution and to show how it has changed and why. It also explores the implications and consequences of the changes that have taken place. They seem to me to have been, and to continue to be, profound.

A word is probably called for about the style in which the book is written. Most writing about the British constitution, especially most academic writing, is somewhat po-faced. The constitution is a serious matter, and people therefore seem to infer that it needs to be approached in a manner that is not only extremely serious but also exceedingly solemn. The style of most recent constitutional writing is that of Othello’s ‘most potent, grave and reverend seniors’. That style is certainly understandable, but it strikes me as inappropriate. British political life is as droll as anyone else’s, and some of that drollery, it seems to me, needs to be conveyed. And so does some of the irony inherent in the way in which the natives have latterly gone about amending their constitution, often without seeming to notice that that was what they were doing. The tone and style of this book is therefore more like Walter Bagehot’s than like that of most subsequent constitutional commentators. Bagehot’s credentials as a commentator on the constitution are unimpeachable (even if one does not always agree with him), but he is nevertheless the same man who, in The English Constitution, dismissed Queen Victoria and the future Edward VII as ‘a retired widow and an unemployed youth’ and quoted with approval a friend’s remark that ‘the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it’. Whatever else he was, Bagehot was never solemn. Bagehot’s few kindred spirits among present-day writers on the constitution include, most obviously, Peter Hennessy and Iain McLean.

There is one way in which the position of Bagehot and the position of latterday constitutional commentators are strikingly different. Bagehot did read a great deal, but he did not have to read a great deal. In his day, there was no such thing as ‘the academic literature’. Today there is an academic literature, and it is vast. If I had attempted to read all of it, this book would never have been finished—either because I was dead or because by the time I had read all of it the constitution would have moved on so far that I would have had to start . . .

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