Why Written Constitutions are a Good Thing

The historian Linda Colley has written an article in the Guardian on the British experience of constitution-making. It is an argument about the uses of history. For too long, Colley argues, the British (the British elites, perhaps) have had a selective memory about constitutions and constitution making. Until the 19th century, there was a ‘cult’ of devotion in Britain towards various written constitutional documents—the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and above all, the Magna Carta. This receded over time, and although this is not stated in the article, it may have been a response to the proliferation of ‘written’ constitutions, particularly on the Continent, and the need for Britons to distinguish themselves as different. Having said that, the British continued to draft written constitutions for their colonies well into the 20th century.

Colley’s point: it is not un-British to have or engage in a process of drafting a constitution. Britons have been interested and engaged in constitutional processes in the past; it is quite possible they still are. Colley ends by suggesting that years of ad hoc reforms and the increasing disunity of the United Kingdom may make a written constitution more important than ever. Whatever the drawbacks of a written/ codified constitution, one benefit may be it would offer “a single, recognised source from which citizens can learn about how their state is supposed to operate.” As they say, read the whole thing.

As an aside, the finalised version of the UK Cabinet Manual was published last week (more on this another day). I raise it not to point to its (murky) constitutional status, but rather to point to it as a neat inversion of Colley’s description of how constitutional ideas were transmitted from the centre to the periphery: the NZ Manual was the inspiration for the UK Manual. And so, New Zealand gives back to the Mother Country. It’s the least we could do.

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