We the (British) People?
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice and ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty, for ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” Preamble to the United States Constitution
These are words that I can type from memory, because I learned them in the form of a song in 8th grade, along with most United States middle school students. The constitution is so engrained into American identity that we refer to it in times of political turmoil and in federal court decisions. It is the keystone of the United States of America. It is our tradition.
Similarly, in 1958 France adopted a constitution and have abided by their constitution of the 5th republic for nearly 60 years, establishing themselves as a “Secular and democratic country, deriving its sovereignty from the people.” Though this is not their first constitution, and they have had 5 republics, France has never been successful without a constitution. Whether it be the failure of the Monarchy, or of Robespierre during his Reign of Terror, the French rely on a constitution to function. It is their tradition.
England, however has no constitution. They don’t have a single document that they refer to whenever they need to change their laws or policies. They have a Magna Carta, a Bill of Rights (declaration of 1689), a Petition of Rights, the Human Rights Act of 1998, and thousands more that have helped their nation flourish as a democracy. England has a long history of new policies and laws, but each is similar because it has been signed an approved by a monarch. The English look to their keystone, a monarch. This is their tradition.
I recently learned about a few interesting schools of thought in my European Studies class that touch on various ways identity is introduced in a nation. The first that I’d like to consider is the Constructivist school of thought. This theory entertains the idea that through an individual or group of individuals identity is created in a relatively short period of time; say through a constitution written in 1788 by a group of influential founding fathers. The second idea I’d like to introduce is the Primordial school of thought, which entertains the idea that national identity is an “ancient, natural phenomenon,” similar to the ancient, natural tradition of an English monarch.
America and France have constructed their identities through the influence of founding fathers and the separation from tyrannical monarchs. In the past 200 years, these nations have continued to build on top of their traditional, constitutional keystones with amendments and elections, and in turn have continued to construct their national identities.
England however, has always had an understanding of its national identity through an ever-present monarchical keystone. Through the ages, the English have turned to their tradition of a monarchy. I’ve seen this clearly time and time again, like when we visited British Parliament at Westminster Palace. They have an entire room dedicated to preparing their Kings and Queens to open Parliament. Our tour guide there told us about some of the different decisions (good and bad) that Monarchs have influenced in that parliament like when Charles I stormed in and tried to take power away from parliament. The Queen still has to sign each piece of legislation for it to take effect. Robert Blackburn from the British Library wrote:
“The Monarchy is one of the three components of Parliament (shorthand for the Queen-in-Parliament) along with Commons and Lords. In legal theory, the Queen has absolute and judicially unchallengeable power to refuse her assent to a Bill passed by the two Houses of Parliament.”
Even today, the British look towards their tradition of a monarchy which has been engrained in them since their beginnings.
So America and France and nearly every other country have needed a constitution to survive and look to as their traditional source of power. They have constructed their identity in their written constitution. How is it that England has yet to need one? Will they in the future? Robert Blackburn says yes. He writes:
“The case for a written UK constitution has been debated at our universities and by politicians of all parties for several decades and has been the subject of a House of Commons committee inquiry during the 2010–15 Parliament. If a written constitution for the future is to be prepared, it must be one that engages and involves everyone, especially young people, and not simply legal experts and parliamentarians. Some of the mystique and charm of our ancient [unwritten] constitution might be lost in the process, but a written constitution could bring government and the governed closer together, above all by making the rules by which our political democracy operates more accessible and intelligible to all.”
And he makes a good point. Blackburn is arguing that a written constitution could bring people together, and clarify the laws that the governed abide by. And Parliament has discussed the idea of introducing a written constitution with no progress on the issue. But, I would argue against Blackburn’s thoughts. England is one of the longest-surviving nations with their own, strong national identity that is built on their monarchical traditions. Why fix what isn’t broken? Why should they introduce a new written constitution when they’ve had centuries of global economic and political power through looking to monarchy instead of a written constitution?
Were they to introduce a new, written constitution, it could cause chaos. The United States and French constitutions didn’t just happen into existence seamlessly. They were constructed and reconstructed over time, conceived through revolutionary wars. They have also brought on civil wars and political turmoil and are still being modified some 200 years later. Constitutions don’t come without a price and though they have worked for many countries, especially France and America, it took a long time for people to look to their constitutions as their tradition. England hasn’t needed this document of tradition, they have their own inherent tradition. They don’t need their “founding father moment” because they have their primordial monarch. It seems to me that the Brits have it more than figured out. In the words of one of their great legends… “Let it be”.