Winston's constitutional exercise

With the controversial European Constitution set to dominate the coming elections to the European Parliament, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines reviews a highly topical new book that deals with Winston Churchill's attitude to our own unwritten constitution.

With the controversial European Constitution set to dominate the coming elections to the European Parliament, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines reviews a highly topical new book that deals with Winston Churchill's attitude to our own unwritten constitution.

THE United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, a strange illogicallity which has been thrust into the limelight as the arguments rage over whether we should sign up to the controversial European constitution so beloved of Tony Blair.

Every other democracy has a written document guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of its citizens. That we don't is as quirky as not having the country's name printed on our postage stamps and as idiosyncratic as the UK having four football teams representing the home nations, none of which are internationally recognised sovereign states.

Our safeguards against government and political tyranny are Common Law, Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy with elections every five years and a constitutional monarchy – another quaint nonsense because we don't have a written constitution!

We are now even blessed with a Department for Constitutional Affairs, taking over from the Lord Chancellor's Department and consuming much of the work of the Home Office.

So-called constitutional reforms including universal suffrage, devolution and reform of the House of Lords have been implemented over the past 150 years or so, including curbing the powers of the upper house to block financial measures approved by the Commons.

Most Read

Our unwritten constitution has survived the War of the Roses, the Act of Union, the Civil War, the overthrow of the Monarchy, the Restoration, the invitation to the House of Orange to assume the throne, the Hanoverian succession, Irish Home Rule, umpteen reforms of local government administration, the creation of life peers, and joining the Common Market. It has done so because it is not enshrined anywhere.

But with Tony Blair's government preparing to drive a modernising Centurion tank through the way we are governed and how the courts operate, traditionalists are in uproar.

A Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly, regional government for England, kicking out hereditary peers from the Lords, abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor, and setting up a supreme court are all the end of life as we know it to those who say the Constitution is under threat as never before.

Yet critics fear that the biggest danger to our unwritten rights will come from Brussels, with plans to introduce a 200 page European Constitution for all 25 member states. And because our Prime Minister believes it does not sign away any of our freedoms, it is not being put to a vote of the British people.

With perfect timing, this month sees the publication of Winston Churchill and the British Constitution*, a look at how the 20th century's greatest politician jealously guarded our democracy and the institutions of parliamentary government.

Churchill was born a few years after the franchise reforms of 1867 that doubled the size of the all male electorate to 2½ million. By the time he entered politics in 1900, about 60% of men had the vote taking the electorate to 6.7m. and when he died in 1965, universal suffrage meant 36m men and women over the age of 21 were on the electoral register. (The 1970 General Election enfranchised the 18-21 year olds).

In his Liberal Party days, Churchill took a major role in conducting the Parliament Bill through the Commons in 1910 and 1911, curbing the powers of the Lords on finance and revenue matters. He supported the creation of 500 new peers to outvote hereditary peers if they refused to accept the will of the elected chamber.

He dubbed them the "reserve forces of the Crown" which would help create the "overpoweringly justifiable and indisputable" need fort Britain to have "a fair and even Constitution" and "an impartial second chamber."

As a Tory in the 1920s, he argued against Labour plans to abolish the upper house and those in his party who wanted it wholly elected. He backed its role as a "chamber of review, a revising chamber" equipped with "the weapon of delay."

Churchill believed in the 19th century Liberal model of the constitution, emphasising parliamentary sovereignty, ministerial responsibility and the rule of law.

But he was not averse to backing radical change, such as trying to keep Ireland a part of a federal UK with assemblies in Belfast and Dublin.

Over the years, he backed many changes such as proportional representation with multi-member seats in towns and cities and general elections spread over six weeks with second ballots.

He favoured the abolition of county councils and the creation of devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and the "four great areas of England with a political identity and effective political machinery" – Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and London.

But Churchill admitted "there are parts of England which it is not nearly so easy to deal with," – not unlike the problems facing today's Government over its rolling devolution programme.

Just what he would have made of a pan-European written constitution will never be known.

But as a European idealist who took part in abortive talks after the Second World War for a European federation with its own standing army, there is little doubt he would have been a fervent backer of the European Union.

Unfortunately this otherwise highly readable book by Kevin Theakston – Professor of British Government at the University of Leeds – makes no allusion to the influence post-war Europe had no Churchill's constitutional views and how he saw Britain's relations with the rest of the Continent.

It's a major omission because the visionary Churchill knew that the only way to prevent Europe being plunged into yet another catastrophic war was through economic union and political understanding and co-operation, which is just what the architects of the European constitution claim they are proposing.

*Winston Churchill and the British Constitution by Kevin Theakston is published by Politico's on April 19, priced £20.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter