Reading an unwritten constitution?
March 29, 2007 7:45 PM   Subscribe

Reading an unwritten constitution?

I'm an American student of Public Policy, and next year I'll be studying government in the United Kingdom. I need a primer on the workings of government in the UK, and I suppose that if my situation were reversed, I'd start by reading the American Constitution and move on from there. There is, however, no such document in the UK, so my question is: where to start? I'd like to read a book (or a few books, if necessary) that covers how exactly government functions in the UK, the idea being to give me the same level of understanding of UK government as someone politically aware who grew up there (or close to it). I can handle academic writing easily, but the more readable, the better. Bonus points for books taking an institutional view, like James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy. Thanks in advance.
posted by awesomebrad to Law & Government (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Bradley & Ewing: Constitutional and Administrative Law is a popular textbook.

TRS Allan: Law, Liberty and Justice and Tomkins: Our Republican Constitution are definitely on the academic side of writing, but you may find them interesting.
posted by djgh at 8:30 PM on March 29, 2007

How 'bout this?
posted by robcorr at 8:32 PM on March 29, 2007

If this is the book I think it is, it actually might be more appropriate:

Introduction to Constitutional Law

Slightly easier going than the huge textbook I recommended at first.
posted by djgh at 8:34 PM on March 29, 2007

This is easy. Any reasonable undergraduate text on British politics should be okay.

(1) You're at Brown, so your profs should not be dolts. Ask whoever teaches western Europe what you should read, or what they assign for Britain. If you don't know who teaches western Europe, ask any other poli-sci prof who you should talk to.

(2) Read the Economist from now until you go. When something is unfamiliar unto you, look it up.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:11 PM on March 29, 2007

You don't want a text on constitutional law in Britain or British constitutionalism. These will be, overwhelmingly, legal treatises of no use to understanding the politics around you. You want a basic introduction to the British political system -- UK Politics For Foreigners And Other Idiots.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:14 PM on March 29, 2007

I agree with ROU_Xenophobe about the modern actuality, but if you do want some source texts, there's Select Documents of English Constitutional History.
posted by Abiezer at 9:54 PM on March 29, 2007

I know this is a bit simple, but would you not start with Magna Carta?
posted by pompomtom at 10:11 PM on March 29, 2007

There's stuff pre-Magna Carta.
posted by wilful at 10:20 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: Start with Peter Hennessy, The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution. Hennessy is a wonderful writer with a very accessible style, and this is by far the best account of how the British constitutional system works (or doesn't work). I'd also recommend some of Hennessy's earlier books, especially Whitehall (his classic account of the Civil Service) and The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945.

If you want a more historical perspective, the classic text is Bagehot, The English Constitution, first published in 1867 but still very relevant today. (You'll find that Hennessy's book is in continual dialogue with Bagehot, so it makes sense to read the two together.)

Bear in mind that the Blair government has made a lot of constitutional changes in recent years (e.g. the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, which stripped the Lord Chancellor of his position as head of the judiciary), so make sure you have an up-to-date textbook which takes account of these changes. You might also be interested in a recent speech by Lord Phillips, Constitutional Reform: One Year On, in which he discusses some of the recent reforms (which he describes as 'cobbled together on the back of an envelope').
posted by verstegan at 1:55 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a "dummy's guide" you could look at the UK Parliament website

But I'd second Hennessy to understand things in more depth.
posted by crocomancer at 3:07 AM on March 30, 2007

Best answer: Foreign friends have found British Politics: A Very Short Introduction to be useful. It's simple, simple stuff, but that's what you're after, surely - a quick grounding to start you off, not a lengthy textbook. You might even try Wikipedia's series on Politics and government of the United Kingdom - it's certainly up-to-date and offers a decent overview, even if academic types would sneer at it.
posted by reklaw at 3:53 AM on March 30, 2007

For your purposes I'd also recommend Hennessy. He's probably the leading authority on the mechanics of British government, as well as being an excellent writer.
posted by Touchstone at 4:27 AM on March 30, 2007

this book is the recommended text for apprentice journalists studying with the UK's national journalist train school. it gives a pretty good overview.
posted by ascullion at 11:58 AM on March 30, 2007

I agree that Bradley and Ewing is more for a student of British public law/constitutionalism.

Another classic text besides Bagehot is Dicey's An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution.

If you truly want to get into the nitty-gritty of British public law, a good place to start is British Government and the Constitution, by Colin Turpin (and apparently now Adam Tomkins in the sixth edition). It's more dense than Bradley and Ewing.
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 12:52 PM on March 30, 2007

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