Power to the people, via kings and lords

Constitutional History of the United Kingdom. First edition - Constitutional Reform in the UK. First edition
May 28, 2004

These books are timely, with constitutional reforms high on the political agenda. Most such reforms are controversial; all represent an attempt to modernise the constitution and to bring the unwritten constitutional arrangements of the UK into the 21st century. Broadly, they seek to address the cynicism that exists in respect of the political process; to reform the House of Lords, considered by many to be an anachronism; and to meet international and European expectations arising through membership of the European Union and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law.

The reforms can be seen as a pragmatic response to the need for change rather than as a "coherent programme for reform" and, while this point is made explicit in Constitutional Reform in the UK , an understanding of constitutional history suggests that evolutionary changes, reflecting social, cultural and political imperatives, have ensured the survival of the "unique" constitution in its present form and have avoided the defining moment of a written constitution.

Constitutional History of the United Kingdom tells the story of the evolution of the constitution to the present day. It is a fascinating story, extremely well told by a historian who now teaches law. The book, supported by a companion website, is of relevance to students of law, history and government, a source of reference for undergraduate law students and essential reading for postgraduate study. The author makes the point that students of law often lack a historical perspective, essential to a thorough knowledge of the UK constitution, and this work is, to my knowledge, the only recent one to explain the history of the UK with a view to illuminating constitutional changes.

Its sheer breadth is impressive. It begins with a description of the development of government pre-1066, followed by a sweep of 14 centuries, culminating in UK membership of the EU and the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights. Themes provide continuity to the sequence of events; so, for instance, coherence is traceable through the events that inexorably led to the balance of power shifting from king to Parliament, to the development of government through Parliament, and to our modern democracy. It explains well the background to events that were initially often violent and, in more recent history, political, and the conundrum of the UK constitution becomes ever clearer as the reader progresses.

Constitutional Reform in the UK has a similar target readership. The profound impact of recent constitutional change gives this book an immediate relevance to students of law and would be an important supplement to recent standard texts on constitutional and administrative law. It was the author's intention that it would be a second edition of Government in the United Kingdom , but the extent of constitutional change since that book appeared has resulted in this being in effect a new book.

Again, themes provide coherence to the analysis of each area of reform. One of the book's strengths lies in its analysis of the role of institutions within what is described as the political constitution of the UK. These themes are introduced in chapters two and three. They focus on the limits of representative democracy, developing social cohesion through political, civil and economic rights and the promotion of "good governance", which includes accountability and openness in government.

Matters explored include the impact of greater centralisation on local government, the effectiveness of the conventions of ministerial responsibility, the constitutional implications of the changes made to the function of the civil service and the role of quangos. Chapters on the role of the courts and the judiciary hypothesise the increasing likelihood of judges becoming more proactive in developing a rights-based approach to citizenship resulting in confrontation with the executive - a prophetic observation in the light of recent challenges to government policy and proposals. The impact of the EU is considered from the perspective of national sovereignty and the effect that the sovereignty of European law has had on the courts. The pervasive influence that "a parallel legal system" is having on political decision-making in the UK is also discussed.

Both these books are stimulating reads. The Constitutional History of the United Kingdom should be read by all students of constitutional law but is also a work of reference and could be enjoyed by anyone seeking to extend their knowledge of UK history. Constitutional Reform in the UK provides a deeper analysis of areas of recent reform and presupposes some understanding and familiarity with the basic principles of the UK constitution.

Rowland Hughes is senior lecturer in law, Wolverhampton University.

Constitutional History of the United Kingdom. First edition

Author - Ann Lyon
Publisher - Cavendish
Pages - 476
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 1 85941 746 9

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