Neal Ascherson, 1 April 2021
Britain in 1815 emerged emaciated and simmering with unrest after three huge wars in a generation, but developed no written constitution. The best that can be said is that people start scribbling most frequently in stormy times, when the existing state of governance no longer carries conviction with subjects, rulers or both. All the same, Linda Colley’s book proves that constitutions can sprout from all kinds of earth. They can limit a ruler’s power, or sanctify and entrench that power. They can be grants of universal rights, or ‘no trespassing’ notices designed to keep natives, women, immigrants and the poor out of decision-making. Some are manifestos for a political movement. Others are foundational documents for a nation’s fresh-won independence. But the case for imposing a written constitution on ancient Britain, while touching on several of those motives, is more elementary. The ‘unconstitution’ has worked only because England’s ruling elites, out of decent self-interest, have never fully exploited its incredible lack of formal constraint on executive power. That convention is now ending, and the executive is pushing hard at its boundaries.