+ The Unwritten British Constitution

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Sarah Lyall, in the New York Times, raises the question of how Britain’s new configuration — the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition — will be able to function.

Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, says “The British political system is without a written constitution, and there are no rules for handling these events, in the sense that there is no precise right or wrong.”

Jon Stewart joked that Britain had arrived at this “gentlemen’s agreement” government because it believes written constitutions are vulgar.  [Find the clip on YouTube.]

It’s difficult for Americans, who hold our founding document sacred, to grapple with the notion of a chimerical constitution.

The director of Unlock Democracy, Peter Facey, says the first thing to understand is that the constitution is not, in fact, nonexistent.  It’s a melange of statutes, precedent and historical documents such as Magna Carta.

“It’s like a wet bar of soap.  You try and catch it and it slips out of your hands,” says Facey.

Because nothing is codified, the government has enormous amount of power with little check on its policies — provided it has parliamentary authority (and it does, because that is what governments by definition do).

According to Mr. Travers, “Once you try and write things down, politicians say, ‘We can’t have that, it will constrain us.’ ”

So British courts have little authority to pass judgements on parliamentary legislation, unless the case relates to human rights law.

An example of government power?  Facey offers this: the moment when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government “abolished two whole levels of local government” — in Manchester and London — because it disagreed with their left-wing politics.  The plan didn’t have to go through a long process of checks and balances and legal challenges.  It became law with a simple up or down vote.

Says Facey, “It’s as if you could abolish Texas because it’s annoying to the president.”   But the next Labour government simply resurrected  London’s local government.

London School of Economics professor Thomas Poole, who teaches public law and constitutional theory, says that there is a “hidden sturdiness” to Britain’s constitutional system.

Speaking of the country’s political leaders, he says “There’s nothing propping it up other than what the actors believe should happen.

“But if they started doing something radically different, all the other actors and commentators and press would be all over them.”

And he quotes John Griffith, a scholar who died this month, who said that the British constitution is constantly in flux and “no more and no less than what happens.”

Griffith wrote, “Everything that happens is constitutionsl.  And if nothing happens, that would be constitutional also.”

source: Sarah Lyall’s article in the New York Times on 5/25/10.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/world/europe/25london.html?scp=3&sq=Sarah%20Lyall&st=cse

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