Britain has gloried in being the world’s great exception—for too long?by Linda Colley / April 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
Sir James Thornhill’s “Ceiling of the Painted Hall” at Greenwich (1707-14) celebrating the Protestant succession of English monarchs
The Scottish government will soon issue a draft independence bill, and it will include an interim written constitution. If Scotland becomes independent, this constitution will be modified, amplified and ultimately ratified by a formal convention in 2016. In a sense, the exact provisions of this document—if it materialises—will be of less immediate significance than the fact of its existence. It would signal Scotland’s difference from the rest of the UK, which lacks a written constitution—and that is, of course, precisely the intention.
The relentless proliferation of written constitutions has been one of the most striking developments in the history of the modern world. The last third of the 18th century witnessed at least two major alterations in the ordering of human society. The first was a quickening of the pace of industrial production and knowledge. The second was a wave of revolutions in the Thirteen Colonies, France, Haiti and elsewhere, which—among other things—helped give rise to substantially novel and widely influential constitutiuons.
In 1786, no country on the face of the globe possessed a single, legal document that it explicitly styled a constitution. But by 1820, and in the wake of the American and French Revolutions, continental Europe alone had generated at least 50 written constitutions. Between 1820 and 1850, over 80 more were drafted, many of them in Latin America.
In the second half of the 19th century, written constitutions spread to some non-western polities, such as Japan; and by the end of the 20th century, these instruments had become almost universal. In 1991, some 170 written constitutions were in existence, of which about 150 had been drafted or revised since 1950.
With only one marked and major exception, no polity has achieved what passes for full democracy without also generating some kind of written constitution. That exception is, of course, the UK, which, since the 1650s, has never possessed a codified constitution. This absence has often worked to reinforce assertions of British distinctiveness. Whereas a growing number of states in every continent have, since the 1780s, employed written constitutions to help invent and publicise an idea of themselves, in the case of the UK, it has been the lack of a written constitution that has frequently been invoked…