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The UK Constitution – An Oxymoron?

Suddenly, Constitutions are news.


Suddenly, Constitutions are news. The Supreme Court is presently struggling to interpret how the UK’s largely unwritten constitution affects Scotland and the other devolved administrations. It’s a hard task and the strong likelihood is that it will produce a judgement that will be roundly condemned by one side or the other. So, how did we end up here?

To paraphrase Louis D. Brandeis; if we desire respect for the constitution, we must first make the constitution respectable.” He was talking about the law, but we have to ask ourselves why we do not have a respectable constitution in these islands.

For those who thought the UK constitution was respectable, consider these facts. Only three developed countries in the world do not have a written constitution; Israel, New Zealand – and the UK. 

And only two countries specifically allow clerics to make laws; Iran – and the UK.  

Aside from the fact that voting clerics is a disgrace in any democracy, does this really matter? Well put simply, a written constitution is what results when a state expresses what it stands for and what it will not stand for. It places major constraints on politicians. For instance, some constitutions require a clear majority of citizens to agree before going to war. It is doubtful if British involvement in Iraq war could have cleared this hurdle. 

In the UK it is broadly the case that the constitution is whatever the prime minister of the day – with a working majority – deems it to be. In time this results in the triumph of expediency and prejudice over principle. So, a ruling class and society develops that resists even modest constitutional change. Any attempt to modernise is greeted by appeals to a mythical past and a commitment to resist. 

It seems that for many at Westminster the ‘Scottish’ question has replaced the ‘India’ question or the ‘Egypt’ question; and is seen in quasi-colonial terms. As Lord Cromer put it in 1908: “the two imperial ideals are mutually destructive, the ideal of good government, which connotes the continuance of his own supremacy, and the ideal of self-government, which connotes the whole or partial abdication of his supreme position.” 

To many in Scotland watching recent events this may seem eerily familiar.

John Drummond

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