Constitutional Law: The Big Picture I — Introduction

Each year, the lectures in Constitutional Law for undergraduate students at Cambridge are rounded off by a series entitled ‘The Big Picture’. This year, of necessity, they were delivered online rather than in-person, and so I thought I would take the opportunity to make the lectures available here in case they might be of more general interest. Over the next few weeks, therefore, I will be publishing a series of blogposts, of which this is the first, featuring the lectures from the series along with some accompanying text by way of introduction and explanation.

The aim of the lectures is to draw together the various issues and themes that students will have encountered during the course of the year as they have studied Constitutional Law. We do this not least because unlike some subjects, in which the topics that students look at are relatively discrete, the matters examined in Constitutional Law are highly interconnected. Indeed, when beginning to teach a course in this area, it is often difficult to know where to start, for fear that whatever is tacked first might well end up anticipating, and assuming knowledge of, matters that will only be considered properly later on. Our ‘Big Picture’ series is one of the ways in which we attempt to address this inherent feature of studying Constitutional Law (a synoptic introduction being another).

When I lecture to undergraduate students, I generally try to provide a neutral, objective treatment of the subject, dealing as even-handedly as I can with competing, and often strongly contested, views. However, in this final series of lectures, I adopt a different approach, deliberately and explicitly advancing a particular argumentabout the nature of the UK constitution, in order to encourage students to think for themselves about the issues — quite possibly by disagreeing with and pushing back against my own position as staked out in the lectures.

Against that background, in the lectures I contrast two different views of the UK constitution. On one view, the constitution is an essentially blank canvas upon which the sovereign UK Parliament is at liberty to paint at will. Alternatively, it can be argued that the UK constitution must be understood in richer and more subtle terms than this, the one-dimensional view that begins and ends with legislative supremacy giving way to a much richer account that envisages parliamentary sovereignty as an important principle but one that ultimately sits in relationship with other such principles, including the rule of law and the separation of powers. This first lecture sets the scene for that broader analysis, focussing on the meaning and nature of those key constitutional principles and sketching out the terrain that is to be covered in the rest of the series. Although written for students reaching the end of their Constitutional Law course, I hope that the series of lectures will be relatively accessible to anyone who is interested in exploring the subject.