In this series of posts and accompanying videos, I have considered how the UK constitution works by looking at a range of issues and attempting to draw connections between them, with a view to considering whether (and, if so, to what extent) the constitution functions satisfactorily. To the extent that it does, this is largely because of unwritten, and sometimes unarticulated, understandings about how the various actors who tread the boards of the British constitutional stage ought to behave.
The importance of such understandings in the UK context is attributable two interwoven aspects of the British constitutional order. First comes the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, which, at least in orthodoxy, renders every aspect of the system vulnerable to change by a Government with effective command of a majority in the House of Commons. Second is the necessary reliance within such a system upon political forms of control — including, critically, self-control — that, by definition, do not amount to hard legal constraints. Within such a system, notions of mutual respect, institutional comity and self-restraint necessarily occupy the centre-stage, yielding, when they are appropriately exhibited, a form of constitutional civility that enables an admittedly curious set of arrangements to work with at least some degree of adequacy.
Against this background, and in the light of the issues considered in this series, my final talk engages with three key questions. First, to what extent does the UK constitution meet our expectations of what a constitution properly so-called ought to do? Second, to what extent is the constitution merely the sum of its legislative parts, such that everything is ‘up for grabs’ by the Government of the day? To what extent does it include deeper, more embedded, more enduring features that condition exercises of State power? And, third, is ‘constitutional civility’ (that is, the willingness of political and legislative actors to exercise restraint, notwithstanding parliamentary sovereignty) breaking down and, if so, what should be the response? In particular, to what extent can legal aspects of the constitution be relied upon counterbalance absence of voluntary restraint?
The full series of lectures can be accessed here.