Does Britain need a written constitution? Of course it does, which is why, as Anthony King points out at the start of this readable and illuminating book, it has one already. Whatever its detractors might think, Britain is not some folkloric society governed according to immemorial custom on the nod and the wink of the people in the know. Most of the rules of modern British political life, from the 1701 Act of Settlement on, are set down in statutes, which in total run to many hundreds of pages and cover everything from the maximum duration of Parliaments to the relationship between British and EU law. Not everything is written down - there are no statutes determining the role of the prime minister or fixing the responsibilities of cabinet government - but then again, no constitution has everything written down. The American constitution, which is often held up as a model of all-seeing sufficiency, leaves a great deal out, including the rules governing the country's electoral system: the principle of first past the post is an integral feature of the constitutional order, but nowhere is this actually specified. In fact, it is rare for modern constitutions to fix the details of the electoral system. This is perhaps because one of the few that tried - the Weimar constitution, Articles 17 and 22 of which established that all federal elections should be conducted according to the principle of proportional representation - was such a disaster.
LRB 7 February 2008 | PDF Download