Britain’s constitution is not literally unwritten because there are multiple documents which comprise its content ranging from the 1215 Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights of 1689, to give but two important examples. Additionally, the British constitution is comprised of unwritten traditions which have become constitutional precedent whilst the precedent derived Common Law is also part of the British Constitution. Thus, because the constitution of Britain is partly based on unwritten precedent and likewise because the written elements are not found in a single corpus of law, Britain’s constitution is colloquially referred to as an “unwritten” constitution.
Recently, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has reiterated his position that Britain should adopt a US style written constitution. Whilst Nigel Farage is often labelled a small ‘c’ conservative, it helps to remember that it is his radical/reformist streak that is in many ways his most readily defining feature. As such, it is unsurprising that Farage should advocate for the drafting of a US style constitution for the UK as America’s constitution was a radical/reformist document written by erstwhile British subjects who had literally rebelled against Britain’s political and fiscal system during the 18th century.
The US constitution is indeed an admirable document. The US constitution’s Bill of Rights is particularly enlightened due to its emphasis of restrictions on government power (including the ability to go to war) and its clear protections of human liberty. And yet for well over a century (some would argue for much longer), the US constitution has been gradually debased, discarded and even ignored by those in power.
While heroic Americans like Dr. Ron Paul have continually pointed out how multiple governments in Washington (and even in many US states) continue to ignore and debase the US constitution, his Cassandra like warnings have not changed the course of US history which is pulling further and further away from the letter of its written constitution.
And thus, one discovers a counter-intuitive problem inherent even in the best written constitutions. When one has a written constitution, it is actually easy to ignore due to a fault in human nature which refuses to believe empirical evidence that is not accompanied by a visual dramatisation of this evidence. The original US constitution is housed behind a glass class in America’s most prestigious national museum, its text is taught in most US schools, its authors are venerated as national heroes – the founding fathers. And yet, because the symbolism remains – the content can be and is in fact regularly ignored. Worst of all, the debasing of the US constitution continues to occur with ever more tenacity as a majority of Americans are not even cognisant of what is being done to strip them of their constitutional liberties.
Because the constitution is not being burnt by anarchists, because the graves of the founding fathers are not being desecrated by vandals and because schools continue to tell children that their constitution remains intact, few bother to investigate the reality that the US constitution has been proverbially burnt whilst its authors have had their legacies vandalised on a regular basis by anti-constitutional members of congress and multiple presidents.
Due to the fact that written constitutions like that of the US are typically notoriously difficult to amend, few are cognisant of the fact that ignoring the constitution is itself an amendment by stealth. By contrast, because the British constitution is a living and breathing mechanism continually shaped by the actions and even the words of parliamentarians, whenever something unusual occurs in parliament, within the government or even in a Royal palace, all of Britain (that is to say the press and politically aware men and women) pays close attention to just what is being done to “amend” the British constitution.
Because Britain’s constitution can be amended by direct parliamentary or governmental action rather than through a cumbersome process of constitutional conventions, people are more inclined to watch parliament and related institutions like a hawk so as to make sure that no amendments which violate precedent or the spirit of the British constitution are enacted without opponents putting up a significant fight.
Thus, because the British constitution is theoretically easy to amend, it is in practice difficult to amend because any real time move to amend the British constitution meets with real time scrutiny. By contrast, because America’s written constitution is so difficult to amend, most people assume that it is not being amended even though it is constantly being chipped away by people who simply ignore it – safe in the knowledge that because no formal amendment process has been instigated, scrutiny will not be forthcoming from the people nor from the press.
And thus, one must return to the virtues of the increasingly maligned British constitution. The British constitution has been shaped by multiple generations of diligent, enlightened and virtuous men and women whose way of thinking compliments tradition whilst those who would seek to manipulate the system towards serving their own ends have over the centuries been readily exposed as knaves, cowards or savage idealists.
The British constitution remains flexible enough to adapt to the modern world yet grounded in ancient traditions so as to not allow modernity to abrogate ancient liberties through recklessness. Like any constitution, the British constitution is imperfect and constitutional vandals like Tony Blair and David Cameron have sadly left their mark. Even so, the virtues of Britain’s constitution continue to outweigh both its vices and the perceived virtues of a written constitution which can paradoxically be easily ignored. Furthermore, with the straitjacket on the British constitution that is the corpus of EU law removed (assuming Brexit is achieved), the British constitution can hopefully rejuvenate its finest qualities that have been impinged upon ever since Britain’s disgraceful entry into the EEC in 1973.
Finally, whilst the US constitution was written in an age where liberty was the clarion call of every major reformer in the Anglo-Celtic world, today, radicals are deadest against the torch of liberty which is increasingly relegated to the hands of older generations. As such, if a new constitution was written for Britain today, it might well be drafted by the likes of a fiend Tony Blair rather than by the likes of an enlightened and wise man like Thomas Jefferson.
It would be far better for today’s generation of parliamentarians in Britain to respect the spirit of the British constitution rather than struggle to come up with a written document which given the moral degeneracy of the era, would likely be a document many miles away from the pro-liberty stance of the treasured yet sadly ignored US constitution.