new perspective Vol7, No 3
A constitution, in contemporary meaning, is the structure of government and its component parts (particularly the executive, legislature and judiciary), usually presented in a formal document. While the term may be less politically exciting in todayís Western nation state culture it has great significance in the development of political society.
The development of political society
In broad terms, from late medieval times Western states have changed from personal monarchies, when a kingdom and its government was the possession of a person, to absolutism, when one person with absolute power could, if he so wished, intervene in any part of government or the government apparatus, to the development of representative government from the late eighteenth century. Representative government is government in which representatives of the governed, chosen by election, are a part of the government process.
The explosive transformation of government in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from absolutism to representative government was fuelled by the writings of thinkers, notably Montesquieu, Rousseau and Thomas Paine, and achieved after the use of violence. The most noteworthy early transformations of political society were in Britainís American colonies and in France during the French Revolutionary era. In common to those who strove for the creation of a constitution was a wish to define, in a formal document, the rights and powers of the government and the rights of the citizens. The constitution of the United States of America is used as an illustration. The constitution was agreed on 17 September 1787 by 55 delegates from the states that had declared independence from Britain in 1776 . It contained a preamble and 8 articles. The preamble stated:
Further articles defined the executive (Article 2), the judicial powers (Article 3), the rights of the separate states and the procedure to amend the constitution.
Following Napoleonís conquests and his political reordering of Europe (see top map on page 9), the pressure for more efficient government and the examples of earlier constitutions, wealthier men who were excluded from the government process sought a share in power and they saw the creation of a constitution as a means to this end. The revolutions of 1848 are a marked example of this thirst for change. Following revolts in many European cities, among them Paris, Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Berlin, constitutions were promised to the peoples of Lombardy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rome, Austria, Hungary and Prussia. It has to be said that, in many cases, the promises made by rulers were later amended or withdrawn.
Britain diverged from the trends outlined here. First, Britain has no formal, written, constitution but what is termed an unwritten constitution. In Britain the procedures of government and the rights and relationships of its component parts are bound by convention, that is by past practice. Second, in England, the wealthier citizens who had met in a substantially minor institution of government, Parliament, escaped power limiting changes carried out by rulers in many parts of Europe during the trend towards absolute rule. Taking advantage of the Tudor rulersí shortage of revenue they increased their standing in government. Their confidence had increased to such an extent that, fearing the policies of Charles I, they declared war on the King in 1642. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Parliament further asserted their rights by the Bill of Rights in 1689. It was these circumstances that ensured popular enthusiasm for constitutions was muted in Britain in the early nineteenth century.
Constitution: an incomplete government guide
Alert readers will be aware that, while a constitution may be significant as a formal definition of powers, the operation of a system of government will reflect informal influences on people. For example, the new constitution of the USSR in 1936 was claimed to be the most democratic in the world. It did grant the vote to all over 18 but students of Soviet history know that state elections hugely reflected the wishes of the party leadership. The constitution of the new German empire, declared in 1871, while seemingly ensuring representative government, was fashioned by Bismarck to ensure the predominance of Prussia and to buttress the power of the chancellor - the office that he held.
Throughout the twentieth century, with a denser network of relationships between states, consequent to communicationís developments, greater interstate trade and more international organisations, national government is increasingly influenced by international regulation. The implementation of the Human Rights Act, 1998, the regulatory influence of the World Trade Organisation and the obligatory implementation of Common Market decrees within member states are examples of this development.