If you had asked an 18th or 19th-century Englishman about his country's constitution, you would not have got the baffled look you get today. The belief that a constitution is a document and that we do not have one is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Mr Podsnap was in no doubt whatever about the reality of a constitution that nobody could actually see:
'And Do You Find, Sir,' pursued Mr Podsnap, with dignity, 'Many Evidences that Strike You, of our British Constitution in the Streets of the World's Metropolis, London, Londres, London?'
The foreign gentleman begged to be pardoned, but did not altogether understand . . .
'It merely referred,' Mr Podsnap explained, with a sense of meritorious proprietorship, 'to Our Constitution, Sir. We Englishmen are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It Was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. No Other Country is so Favoured as This Country.'
There was equally little doubt in the republican minds of the shantymen on the trading ships that had made the likes of Mr Podsnap wealthy.
Oh, Louis was the King of France before the Revolution
Away, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe
But Louis got his head cut off, which spoiled his constitution
Away, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe.
It's therefore worth being cautious about proposed constitutions, whether for Europe or for the United Kingdom, because in one form or another both already have them. You do not have to be a state to have one: every off-the-shelf company, trade-union branch and golf club has a constitution.
LRB 5 June 2008 | PDF Download