Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Colley on the Unwritten Constitution

On January 12, Professor Linda Colley, of Princeton's History Department, testified before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons at a hearing entitled "Mapping the Path to Codifying--or Not Codifying--the UK's Constitution."  Professor Colley commenced:
It is famously said that we have an unwritten constitution. It might be interesting to think that that phrase "unwritten constitution" is, in historical time, relatively new. You can now search parliamentary debates on computer. Hardly anybody talks in Westminster about an unwritten constitution before 1850. It is rare in Westminster and the media really up to the 1870s. It is only then that the idea of an unwritten constitution really becomes ensconced in political analysis here. Why is that so? Partly because people had a much stronger sense than they do now of the extraordinary texts that support the constitution: Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, Habeas Corpus, the Bill of Rights, the Acts of Union with Scotland and Ireland. Even the 1832 Reform Act when it was passed was referred to as a "new constitution".

One thing that has happened, particularly since the second world war, is that we have lost a lot of that broad knowledge of important constitutional texts. This is something of a challenge....
The complete and uncorrected transcript of the hearing, at which Dr. John Allison, Senior Lecturer in Law, Cambridge University, also spoke, is here.