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World Association of International Studies

Post Is There an "English Constitution"?
Created by John Eipper on 08/14/18 5:12 AM

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Is There an "English Constitution"? (David Pike, France, 08/14/18 5:12 am)

Our editor has asked British WAISers to chime in on the question of the "English Constitution."

First, a few weeks ago a WAISer referred to Britons as British "subjects." When I lived in Canada in the 1950s, Canadians were not too happy with what they read on their passports: "British subject, Canadian citizen." So that was changed. Then the British were not too happy either about being called "subjects." So that too was changed, and my British-UK passport (which differs from a passport simply called British) tells me that I am now a British citizen.

Now for the English Constitution. England and Wales were governed for centuries as a single unit, until 1707 and the Union with Scotland. From that time on, England was a geographical and poetic/rhetorical expression. England's "Constitution" was therefore no more than Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, with a few less important statutes thrown in. How it endured, and the British Constitution that followed it, is a marvel. It has no solid basis except in tradition. Certain things simply aren't done. You don't cross the floor in Commons, for example. The government and the opposition are separated by a distance a little wider than two extended sword lunges. So the Irish firebrand who crossed the floor to slap Prime Minister Heath in the face was out of step with tradition. It will be a loss if Parliament has to stoop to codifying the Constitution, beyond the existing framework of laws.

The British monarchy exists on a sublime understanding. As Bagehot pointed out, the system works not in the power that is invested in the monarch but in the power that is denied to everyone else. No one can take over the courts, because the courts have sworn allegiance to the Crown. No one can take over the Armed Forces, because these have sworn allegiance to the Crown. Removing the monarch changes nothing. Nobody in the UK ever has to repeat any of this. The system works because it's understood. So why codify it?

This brings up a question that I've long wanted to ask. In the English Civil War, Oxford and Trinity College Dublin stood with the King, while Cambridge stood with Parliament. So which side did Harvard support?

JE comments:  Seven of Harvard's first nine graduates, according to the source below, left to fight on the side of the Puritans (Parliament).  I wonder what became of them.


I never knew the "two sword lunges" arrangement of Parliament.  Isn't the sword also the reason the UK drives on the left--i.e., so that right-handed horsemen could charge at each other and slice away with their right hands?  If so, was the Continent more peace-loving, or was it populated by lefties?

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