Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What the constitution permits

We don't have a written constitution in Britain though there are some constitutional laws that are part of our written statute. We have an unwritten constitution much of which has been set by convention and previous actions. Interestingly, much of the constitution grew out of a period when the concept of a political party was a great deal more woolly than it is now. Parliamentary majorities in the earlier nineteenth century were not always easy to define. And throughout our history, including during the 20th century, there are many examples of minority governments. In my lifetime we had minority Labour government in 1974 and 1976 to 1979 and minority Conservative governments in February 1974 (for 2 days after the election) and in the mid 1990s when a bunch of Eurosceptic MPs were suspended from the Conservative Parliamentary party.

There is no requirement on a Prime Minister to resign after losing a majority. John Major didn't, Ted Heath took 2 days after the election to resign in 1974 whilst coalition talks took place with the Liberals (talks that failed). British history is littered with examples of majorities lost at elections but governments continuing in office.

So it is odd that it comes as a surprise to the media that Brown may continue in office if no one party wins a majority in the coming election. As I have pointed out before, this is perfectly constitutional. It may not be liked by the people, it may feel to many that it is not in the spirit of democracy, but it is legally correct. Alas, that's what our written constitution has given us. It should of course be changed. After an election, the Commons should be allowed to vote for who is PM, rather than having a summons to the Palace.

What all this does is highlight the need to overhaul our constitution and have it written down.
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