The British Constitution by Anthony King - review by Vernon Bogdanor

Vernon Bogdanor

After Bagehot

The British Constitution


Oxford University Press 413pp £25

Sensible people tend to steer clear of the British constitution. When, some years ago, I had what I thought was the bright idea of publishing a guidebook to the Blair government’s constitutional reforms, my publisher said that he would commission it only if I were willing to meet two conditions. The first was that I left the word ‘constitution’ out of the title – otherwise, he said, no one would buy the book. Accordingly, I adopted as my title Power and the People. The second condition was that I added a chapter on the monarchy – that, he said, was the only part of the constitution that really excited people. Again, I did as I was told.

It might seem that there would be more interest in the constitution today, following the plethora of constitutional reforms – devolution, the Human Rights Act, House of Lords reform, and the rest – brought in by New Labour. Survey evidence, however, shows that constitutional reform remains near the bottom of most voters’ lists of priorities, except in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the reforms have hardly affected the lives of anyone in England provided they have had the good sense to steer clear of lawyers and the courts. Precisely for this reason, however, we are inclined to underestimate the scale of constitutional change, and Anthony King is probably right to say that ‘the constitution of the early twenty-first century bears less resemblance to the constitution of the 1960s than the constitution of the 1960s did to that of the 1860s’. King’s ambitious aim in The British Constitution is nothing less than doing ‘for the British constitution at the beginning of the twenty-first century what Walter Bagehot did for what he insisted on calling the English constitution during the latter part of the nineteenth century’.

As is well known, Bagehot in The English Constitution believed that the ‘dignified’ elements of the constitution, such as the monarchy and the House of Lords, hid the ‘efficient’ reality, the real repositories of power such as the Cabinet, and that this served to mislead the populace, who remained in

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