Book Review: The British Constitution – A Very Short Introduction by Martin Loughlin

When reading the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series, I find them to be ideal for subjects where one has some modicum of understanding, but where any level of detail is currently unknown to me. Having grown up and lived in Britain all my life, and having observed our politics for most of my adult life, I get an idea of what it means for something to be “constitutional”. Unlike the Americans, we don’t have a fixed, codified constitution. It is very much something of a ‘sense’ that we have, but which is instilled in us through roughly 800 years of history since the signing of the Magna Carta. As we mark the octocentenary of that famous document it seemed appropriate to have a read of this.

The opening discourse is about the nature of a constitution and what could count as one. The most famous example is, of course, the American constitution, but it’s noted that that’s quite an odd example as it was designed as a founding document to a country with no history, no legal precedent of its own. So Thomas Paine (whose Rights of Man I have, but haven’t read yet) makes a rather post hoc argument defining a constitution as a single document with several features which just happen to coincide with a description of the American one.

One might well think, as I did at the outset, that there would be considerable focus on the Magna Carta and its legacy, but its role in British constitutional history is heavily downplayed here. Instead, Loughlin opts for a “common law” approach, claiming that what we understand as the British constitution is the combined history and tradition of the laws of the land. In order to colour the picture in we get a rundown of some specific pieces of legislation that have been passed over the centuries and their effect on the democratic make-up of what we now know as the United Kingdom.

Oddly enough, the author never mentions Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedure. This prompted me to then have a look at the author’s background, and here we can see that perhaps Loughlin was not the best choice to author a book on the constitution, as his expertise is in law. So it is little wonder that he views the constitution as the combination of various laws passed through the centuries. If it were labelled as “British legal history – A Very Short Introduction” then we might be less disillusioned.

In amongst a bit of a hodge podge of pieces, there is some really good stuff. For example, we get a good summary of the political history of the various unions that have taken place to give us the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we now have. Interestingly, it’s very much a book of its time, as it frequently references the current coalition government. So it will be interesting to see how later editions may be changed to reflect the government of the day.

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