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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - The British constitutional order

from Part I - Constitution, state and beyond


Nature of the British constitution

Almost every country in the world has a written constitution which is a declaration of the country’s supreme law. All other laws and all the institutions of such a state are subordinate to the written constitution, which is intended to be an enduring statement of fundamental principles. The absence of this kind of supreme instrument in the governmental system of the United Kingdom is unusual, leaving many observers to wonder where our constitution is to be found, and indeed whether we have one at all.

What, then, do we mean when we speak of the British constitution? Plainly there exists a body of rules that govern the political system, the exercise of public authority, and the relations between the citizen and the state. The fact that the main rules of these kinds are not set out in a single, formal document does make for some difficulty in describing our constitution, although even in a country with a written constitution we soon discover that not all the arrangements for its government are to be found there: many elements of the constitution will have to be looked for elsewhere than in the primary document labelled ‘the Constitution’. (The formal constitution may even be misleading, for we are warned by a Frenchman, Léon Duguit, that ‘the facts are stronger than constitutions’ and by an American, Roscoe Pound, that the ‘law in books’ is not necessarily the same as the ‘law in action’.) But at all events a written constitution is a place where a start can be made. Lacking this, how do we set about describing the British constitution?

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