Facts alone fail to please

Britain Unwrapped
November 29, 2002

Is your textbook really necessary?' asked William Twining in the Journal of the Society of Public Teachers of Law as long ago as 1970. In constitutional law, the standard works are far too substantial and detailed to be used as introductions. A stimulating and lively textbook would, therefore, be welcomed by students, particularly at a time when the reforms of the Blair government seem to have altered the constitution beyond recognition.

Britain Unwrapped does not, however, meet this need, although it has, admittedly, two strengths. The first is that it is on the whole reliable, bar one or two inaccuracies. One is the statement that, under the Human Rights Act of 1998, "most of the rights formerly guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights are incorporated into domestic law and enforceable before the domestic courts"; another is that, in the misnamed "arms to Iraq" affair in the early 1990s, "the government had changed its export policy without advising Parliament".

There was in fact no change of policy but rather perjury on the part of a junior minister, Alan Clark, who, after insisting that he had not given covert approval to the Matrix Churchill company to export machine tool parts to Iraq in defiance of policy, later confessed in court that he had, in fact, done so. In fairness, Sir Richard Scott also failed to notice Clark's perjury in his report on the subject.

The second strength of this volume is that it covers areas often neglected in books on constitutional law, such as local government, and the government of the non-English parts of the UK. However, it covers the ground in a standard way and is likely to act as a substitute for thought rather than as a stimulant.

The fundamental weakness of this book is that it fails to convey the dynamic nature of the constitution at a time when the standard concepts used to describe it are under challenge as never before. Part of the reason is that there is so little discussion of the implications of recent constitutional changes. For example, Hilaire Barnett devotes just one and a half pages to the Local Government Act of 2000, which, with its provisions for directly elected mayors, referendums, and even initiatives, radically overturns many of our traditional constitutional preconceptions. Britain Unwrapped would have been a better book had it been less comprehensive and more analytical.

The best overview of the constitution, although in need of revision, remains Stanley de Smith and Rodney Brazier's Constitutional and Administrative Law , the latest edition of which appeared in 1998. But by far the most lively introductory account is Harry Calvert's underestimated An Introduction to British Constitutional Law , published in 1985, which seeks to challenge and provoke the student, rather than subscribe to the pretence that academic lawyers have reached settled conclusions on constitutional matters.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

Britain Unwrapped: Government and Constitution Explained. First edition

Author - Hilaire Barnett
ISBN - 0 14 029170 9
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £10.99
Pages - 595

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