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The Political Constitution at 40

The constitution ‘is no more and no less than what happens’. So wrote Professor John Griffith in the 1978 Chorley Lecture, ‘The Political Constitution’, which was later republished in the Modern Law Review in 1979. It was not the first time that Griffith dangled this tantalizing aphorism before his readers, but it was this lecture that saw it melt into the vocabulary of public law. It might seem trite to spotlight this aphorism from what is a rich and intricate lecture full of important insights as well as memorable phrases. However, as we see it, constitutional practice over the last three years —or, for that matter, the last three months, the last three weeks, or even the last three days—underscores the continuing relevance of Griffith’s insights into the complex and contingent nature of the relationship between law, politics and the constitution.

In the forty years since 1979, Griffith’s lecture has unquestionably become, in Thomas Poole’s words, ‘one of the key texts of late twentieth century UK public law scholarship’, and one that is today ‘a founding text of an influential style of public law thinking’. Its appeal is manifold. It is a window into the complexity of its author’s constitutional thought; it encapsulates many of the themes of what Martin Loughlin, in Public Law and Political Theory, described as ‘the functionalist style in public law’; and it offers a riposte to those agitating for constitutional reform, whether in the late 1970s or today. But much of the lecture’s appeal lies in its many contradictions. It seems to represent both an end and a beginning. It signalled an end to a historic, customary ‘political constitution’ that rested on consensus and the shared sympathies…


Continue at the UK Constitutional Law Association


Image by Coolcaesar at English Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.