New College of the Humanities

Writing It Down

Gordon Brown’s promised written constitution – if it happens – won’t be the first in British history, as Patrick Little reminds us.

Britain, famously, has no written constitution, relying instead on a hotchpotch of laws, customs and conventions. Many of them are clearly defined – and most, indeed, are in written form – but there is no single document that underlies the modern British state. This situation might be about to change. 

I want a new constitutional settlement for Britain. And the principles of my reforms are these: Government giving more power to Parliament; both Government and Parliament giving more power to the people; Parliament voting on all the major issues of our time including peace and war; civil liberties safeguarded and enhanced; devolution within a Union of Nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – a Union that I believe in and will defend; local government strengthened with new powers…
The inspiration for Brown’s ‘new constitutional settlement’ appears to come from abroad, especially the United States. David Hanson, minister of state in the Ministry of Justice, said in May 2007 that:
The notion of a traditional written constitution can be seen in such diverse countries as the United States, South Africa and Australia.  It would be a radical departure from our constitutional and historical arrangements.
This attitude seems to be shared across the government; but it ignores two examples of British written constitutions from 350 years before.

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