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Our Unwritten Constitution

Maccabaean Lecture in Jurisprudence, delivered by Professor Sir John Baker FBA, on 24 November 2009.

There has been much talk of constitutional reform in recent years, but the changes which have actually been taking place have often differed markedly from those which the Government has professed to espouse and have shaken the foundations of the previous system without following any coherent overall plan. Written constitutions are not without shortcomings, since they tend to politicise the higher judiciary without achieving much greater certainty.

The conventions which held the old British constitution in place are in any case difficult to codify or enforce. But a pressing problem with an unwritten constitution is that there is no special mechanism for constitutional change. Recent reforms have therefore become associated with short-term political expediency and spin. The creation of a Department of Constitutional Affairs betrayed a worrying indifference to the very concept of a constitution as a necessary control on governmental power – and changing its name has not necessarily altered the mindset which formed it. Several other serious erosions of constitutional propriety have occurred with little critical notice in the Press. The cure is not simple. Although some legislation will indeed be necessary, the best outcome may depend not so much on trying to draft a completely codified constitution as in making the Press and Public more aware of what is happening and in alerting them to the dangers of allowing the Government – any Government – to tinker on its own initiative with the controls on its own conduct.

About the Speaker
Sir John Baker is Downing Professor of the Laws of England in the University of Cambridge. From 1988 to 1998 he was Professor of English Legal History there and prior to that Reader in English Legal History at Cambridge.

The lecture was chaired by Professor Paul Craig FBA, Professor of English Law, University of Oxford.

Illustration: The Houses of Parliament from the Thames: Photograph by Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons

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