From Magna Carta to the Suffragettes: The Making of the British Constitution
Virtually all the world’s constitutions are the products of a particular historical watershed – the end of a period of colonial rule and the early stages of independence (the USA), the end of an authoritarian regime and transition to democracy (the former Soviet bloc), the end of a particular political regime (France, several times), emergence from civil war and chaos (Afghanistan). The constitution of the United Kingdom is very different. Having grown up haphazardly over many centuries, it is not contained in a single document or series of documents, and it is at times very difficult to establish when a particular constitutional principle exists and what its terms actually are. This lack of clarity can, for example, be seen in some of the arguments over the Brexit process. Lord Hailsham went so far as to describe the British Government as ‘an elective dictatorship’, and a cynic might say that the British constitution is ultimately what any person wants it to be.
This course examines the process of evolution, looking specifically at a series of major historical events which shaped the course of constitutional development. It begins with the emergence of recognisable royal government in the ninth and tenth centuries, first in Wessex and then in England. It moves on to the context in which Magna Carta, the first great constitutional document, was extorted from King John in 1215, and its importance in its own time. That Magna Carta was itself a stage in a process of development is shown by the deposition of two kings, Edward II and Richard II, in the following century on grounds of ‘tyranny’ and ‘unworthiness’. In the same period, Parliament emerged as an assembly at first controlled by the king, but gradually developing a degree of independence from him. The question of whether the king could act independently of Parliament, and the extent of Parliament’s powers to restrain the king is central to the Civil Wars of the 1640s, which were then followed by England’s only period of republican government and written constitution.
The Restoration of 1660 in many ways represents a turning-back of the clock, and the Revolution of 1688 a resolution of issues left over from the Civil Wars and downfall of Charles I. The Revolution Settlement, and connected events, in particular the creation of the National Debt and thus a settled means of financing government, and the separate financing of the Royal Household via the Civil List, put an end to the periodic violent clashes between king and leading subjects which had hitherto shaped constitutional development. Thereafter, the process of evolution was largely peaceful, with the development of cabinet government and the office of prime minister, the disappearance of the monarch from day-to-day government, and emergence in the 20th century of the public service monarchy we see today. The 18th century also saw the emergence of the theory of Separation of Powers and its embodiment in the United States constitution, the longest-lasting and arguably the most successful written constitution so far.
So far, the course has concentrated on events in England, but relations with Scotland, Ireland and Wales form a specific topic. Finally, the development of universal suffrage and a fully representative House of Commons will be considered.