Constitutional history’s new public moment?

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

Over recent months I’ve watched more parliamentary debates than ever before. I imagine I’m not alone. This is perhaps a bold confession for a historian of political culture – admittedly, I’m more familiar with nineteenth-century Hansard than BBC Parliament. Numerous historical parallels have been drawn over Brexit, some more accurate than others. I won’t dwell here on what the EU referendum result says about the legacy of empire, whether Brexit will split the Tory party like the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, or politicians’ astonishing displays of historical illiteracy over Ireland. But with media attention fixed firmly on Westminster as the drama continues to unfold, I’ve been reflecting on the place of constitutional history in the public imagination.

Today, we have unparalleled access to the workings of the Houses of Parliament. Since 1992, parliamentary proceedings have been broadcast on television, first on The Parliamentary Channel and, from 1998, on BBC Parliament. You can access UK legislation, your MP’s voting record and parliamentary debates online. Yet even with information about how parliament works at our fingertips, understandings of the British constitution – among both the electorate and some MPs – appear to be at a historic low.

Westminster’s strange and often arcane procedures have been on full show over the course of Brexit negotiations. Two weeks ago, Speaker John Bercow invoked a parliamentary precedent from 1604 to prevent Theresa May putting ‘Meaningful Vote 3’ on her Brexit deal to the House. Citing Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice – the parliamentary rulebook first published in 1844 – he asserted that “a question being once made, and carried in the affirmative or negative, cannot be questioned again, but must stand as a judgement of the House”. As accusations of the Speaker’s ‘interventionism’ reached new heights within certain corners of the Commons chamber, political commentators rushed to explain the significance of his decision. It’s unsurprising that most people (myself included) needed a bit of context where the intricacies of a ruling dating back to James I’s power struggles with parliament were concerned. But what struck me was how quickly the conversation turned, in some circles, to questioning the legitimacy and relevance of a 400-year-old judgement to the current Brexit debate. This is a worrying sign of dwindling public trust in a parliamentary system based not on a codified constitution but on laws, practices and conventions which have developed over centuries.

Constitutional history once held a more prominent place in public and political consciousness. In the long nineteenth century, the British constitution served as the ‘master narrative’ of elite and popular politics.[1] The second half of the nineteenth century saw the publication of works on constitutional theory which remain authoritative today: Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867), A. V. Dicey’s An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885), and F. W. Maitland’s, The Constitutional History of England (1908), first delivered as a series of lectures in 1887-8. But interest in the constitution was not confined to the educated elite. ‘Popular constitutionalism’ was a key component of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century radicalism in Britain.[2] As Josh Gibson has argued, Chartist political thought was inspired both by the natural law underpinning American constitutionalism and a desire to restore the popular rights of an ‘ancient Saxon constitution’.[3] Joel Barnes has shown how appeals to long-lost constitutional rights were also invoked in the campaign for women’s suffrage.[4]

There are still moments when the constitution surges into public consciousness. Brexit aside, in the last decade, calls for further devolution and ‘English votes for English laws’, the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2017 have reopened debates about the fundamental workings of our four nations democracy. Historical anniversaries also throw constitutional issues into light. Last year’s centenary of the Representation of the People Act and the 800-year anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015 come to mind. The best exhibitions marking these two events challenged ahistorical narratives of inevitable national progress and focused instead on their complex legacies.[5]

It remains to be seen whether Brexit will usher in a new public moment for constitutional history. The task for us as historians is to continue to challenge reductive views of the constitution – both a distorted Whig narrative of British exceptionalism and a focus on centuries-old traditions which are at best a symbol of a peculiarly British quirkiness or at worst irrelevant and obsolete. We should welcome the opportunities Brexit brings to provide context to the legal and historical complexities which are shaping the parliamentary debate. And, if and when the moment comes, we need to be part of the conversation about how our parliamentary system can be reformed to better represent its people in the twenty-first century.



[1] Josh Gibson, ‘The Chartists and the Constitution: Revisiting British popular constitutionalism’, Journal of British Studies, 56/1 (2017), pp. 70-90, at pp. 70-1.

[2] John Belchem, ‘Republicanism, popular constitutionalism and the radical platform in early nineteenth-century England’, Social History, 6 (1981), pp. 1-32.

[3] Gibson, ‘The Chartists and the Constitution’.

[4] Joel Barnes, ‘The British women’s suffrage movement and the ancient constitution, 1867-1909’, Historical Research, 91 (2018), pp. 505-27.

[5] Read more about the British Library’s Magna Carta, Parliament’s Voice and Vote and the People’s History Museum’s Represent! Voices 100 Years On exhibitions.


Image: Chamber of the House of Commons, photograph by UK Parliament (Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons)

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