The late Lord Bingham once said that “constitutionally speaking, we find ourselves in a trackless desert without any map or compass.” His words still ring true today. Britain’s arrangements are notoriously ad-hoc when compared with other democracies, which codify their rules into single documents. Our constitution, such as it is, was cobbled together over centuries and is a patchwork of precedent and convention.
In his new book, Vernon Bogdanor says that departure from Europe will scramble things even more. As Britain’s foremost expert in the field, he is worth listening to. Bogdanor pulls apart Britain’s numerous constitutional frailties. There have long been serious ambiguities over the role of parliament, the courts and the devolved assemblies. Add to this the question over what rights Britons actually have, and who is protecting them, and the level of uncertainty becomes clear. Then there are referendums.
In Bogdanor’s view, the EU glued things together. But with Britain leaving, we are travelling from a “protected” to an “unprotected” constitution. Vulnerabilities are being exposed—see the controversy over Northern Ireland.
His bold conclusion is that Britain requires a written constitution. It is time for us to join those other democracies with a unified text. If inertia prevents this, Bogdanor also proposes a compromise: a formal charter delineating the roles of Britain’s different political and legal institutions.
Whether Brexit will finally provide our “constitutional moment” is impossible to say. But you will not find a better account of why it should. Bogdanor’s knowledge is second to none—though his editors should have saved him from a lot of typos and repeated phrases that make the book seem rushed. His focus is on what kind of settlement comes next. We all have a stake in getting that right.
Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor (IB Tauris, £20)