Vernon Bogdanor: Britain is in the process of developing a constitution

From the inaugural lecture by the Gresham College Professor of Law, given in London
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The Independent Online

A Rip van Winkle who had fallen asleep in 1997 would, on waking up in 2004, hardly recognise the British Constitution. What we have been doing is unique in the democratic world. We have been converting an unwritten or uncodified constitution into a written or codified one.

A Rip van Winkle who had fallen asleep in 1997 would, on waking up in 2004, hardly recognise the British Constitution. What we have been doing is unique in the democratic world. We have been converting an unwritten or uncodified constitution into a written or codified one.

We are coming to develop, like most other democracies, fundamental laws. That is something quite new for Britain. The great 19th-century constitutional thinker AV Dicey declared: "There is no law which Parliament cannot change. There is no fundamental or so-called constitutional law". Our only constitutional principle was the sovereignty of Parliament, the idea that Parliament could do what it liked. The British Constitution could be summed up in just eight words - what the Queen in Parliament enacts is law.

Life became more complicated when we joined the European Community, as the Euro- pean Union was then called, in 1973. For European law is superior to the law of the member states and directly applicable to them. This caused problems for a country whose Parliament was sovereign and which found it difficult, therefore, to recognise any form of higher law.

Life has become even more complicated since 1997. The devolution legislation and the Human Rights Act are also in the nature of fundamental laws.

A further reform of momentous importance is the use of the referendum to validate constitutional change. Since 1997 referendums have been used to validate devolution, and also to allow us, the people, to decide whether we want elected mayors or not.

A great 19th-century French commentator on British institutions, Alexis de Tocqueville, once famously said there was no British Constitution. We are now, I think, coming to develop one.

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