Chapter 3 Guidance to answering the end-of-chapter questions

The Nature of the British Constitution

1. In no more than 150 words, explain the purpose of a constitution.

  • Constitutions come in many shapes and sizes but focus on what a constitution is for, rather than what it might look like. What is it that you understand that constitutions do?
  • As a starting point, constitutions describe the way in which the state is set up and should function. Is this all that constitutions do?
  • Are constitutions value-neutral? Or do they also give effect to principles upon which the state is founded?
  • Once you have written your 150 words, check your draft against what other commentators argued to see what you agree or disagree with. You will find extracts of those arguments at pp. 50–51.

2. List the ways in which a constitution may be classified and define what each of the terms means.

  • Think about the different form and structures of constitutions.
  • Some constitutions contain a body of constitutional law in a single document. How might you refer to these constitutions?
  • Other constitutions are made up from a collection of different sources. Can you recall the terms for those?
  • Can you remember how the constitutions of different countries are classified? How would you classify the UK constitution?
  • If you are not clear on the different terms, turn to pp. 52–56 for a refresher.

3. To what extent is it more accurate to describe a constitution as the founding document of the state than as the principles and laws that underpin and legitimise the state?

  • Think about the earliest known examples of Western written constitutions such as the US Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. What events preceded these constitutions? Would you say that these documents set out the founding principles of each state?
  • Did all countries develop constitutions in these ways? What do you remember about the history of the UK constitution? Think back to the explanation given by Tomkins on p. 53.
  • With all this in mind, do you think that all constitutions can be described as founding documents of state? If not, what is it that all constitutions do have in common?

4. To what extent do you agree that the mode of the constitution is less important than its content?

  • Before you think about the mode of the constitution, think again about the purpose or role of a constitution.
  • Do you think that the purpose of a constitution is better served if the constitution takes a particular form? For example, if the main purpose of a constitution is to set out the framework of state, is it necessary that constitutions be written? Or can an unwritten or uncodified constitution still fulfil that purpose?
  • For another example, think about another purpose of constitutions: setting out the rights of citizens or subjects. Is the nature of such rights more or less important than the form a constitution takes?
  • You can find help on these points at pp. 53–54.

5. To what extent do political and legal mechanisms to enforce constitutions differ? Which do you consider to be more effective and why?

  • What do you think is meant by a ‘political’ mechanism? What bodies or powers of state do you think would be involved in politically enforcing the UK constitution?
  • What do you think is meant by ‘legal’ mechanisms to enforce constitutions? What bodies or powers of state do you expect to be carrying out the work of legally enforcing a constitution?
  • When thinking about this, consider whether different enforcement mechanisms might be more appropriate for different kinds of constitutions or different elements of a constitution.
  • In the UK, you have learned that the constitution is made up of a number of different sources. Can you remember what a ‘constitutional convention’ is and do you think that a political or legal enforcement mechanism is likely to be more appropriate or effective for these? Refer back to p. 60 if you are unsure how to explain a ‘constitutional convention’.
  • It is not possible to legally enforce the constitution against the legislature in the UK, meaning that primary legislation cannot be challenged in court. Can you think of any reasons why it might be undesirable to make the constitution justiciable against the legislature? Think about how it might affect the balance of powers between unelected judges and elected members of the legislature. If you are not sure, look back to p. 64.

6. Explain the main proposals for reform of the British constitution since 1990. What difference, if any, do you think each of these would make in real terms?

  • Do you remember what the ‘Macdonald constitution’ refers to and what sorts of things were proposed?
  • What can you remember about Tony Benn’s Commonwealth of Britain Bill and how it compared to the Macdonald constitution?
  • How did the ‘Constitution of the United Kingdom’ test published by the Public Policy Research think tank compare to the MacDonald constitution or the text developed by Tony Benn?
  • What does the word ‘entrenched’ mean and what difference do you think it makes if a bill of rights is or is not entrenched?
  • To jog your memory about these reform proposals, look at Oliver’s explanations at pp. 65–67.
  • Were any of these proposals reflected in the constitutional reforms brought in by the Labour Government, elected in 1997? See p. 68 for help with this.
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