Britain's unwritten constitution. famously, Britain has an unwritten constitution, in contrast with most other countries. at least that's a clich- that's the cliche. in fact, um, most of the constitution is not, unwritten at all. um, it's largely a myth, that Britain has an unwritten constitution. um, it's just not written down in a single document, which you can go out and buy. you can go out and buy a copy of the American or French constitution if you want to. but i don't think many people do. but you can do it.
our constitution, is strewn around, um, through various documents, acts of Parliament, and through history. one of the earliest written contributions is the Magna Carta of twelve fifteen, for example. but to get more up to date, all the various parliamentary reform acts, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. starting off as First Reform Bill, eighteen thirty-two, Second Reform Bill, eighteen sixty-seven. then, really the same thing, but in the twentieth century called, Representation of the People's Act. um, nineteen eighteen, nineteen twenty-nine, nineteen sixty-eight, those acts. the Parliament Bill of nineteen eleven, which took away, a lot of the powers of the House of Lords. all these are written, and if you collect them together, they form, a huge, written ensemble, um, which, collectively, are a large part of the British Constitution. and of course there are many other acts, like the Ballot Act of eighteen eighty-one. uh, which also you, you can tip into that category.
so, a lot of the British Constitution is, in fact, written. it's just strewn around. um, but, because it's strewn around, um, that, helps to make the constitution, our constitution very flexible. and there is indeed, a very important part, of the British Constitution which is not written. summed up under the term Conventions, um, Constitutional Practice.
Conventions of Constitutional Practice, what actually happens, um, and these conventions, are flexible, and they support the view, um, usually put forward by, people who like the British Constitution, that, um, the allegedly unwritten nature, has its advantages. you can change the constitution as necessary, without going through cumbersome procedures.
one example, is, fairly obvious. um, in the nineteenth century, the prime minister was more often in the House of Lords than not. but the last, um, prime minister to be in the Lords, was Lord Salisbury, who retired in nineteen oh two, at the very beginning of what is, for a few weeks, the present century. as_ a few weeks still. and since then, no prime minister has been in the Lords. two, two, um, candidates were rejected, among other reasons, because they were lords. Curzon in twenty-three, and Halifax in nineteen forty. this wasn't the only reason.
in nineteen sixty-three a peer did become prime minister, Douglas Hume, but he had to ren_ um, renounce his peerage, which you could legally do by then. you couldn't in nineteen twenty-four, and seek a common seat. um, it_ with the greater democracy of the twentieth century, it was_ became a convention that prime minister, the cheif's_ the chief, um, elected person, head of the executives, the chief, um, servant of the people had to be in the Commons, which was elected by the people.
but there's still no_ there is still_ it's still in fact no law, no constitutional rule, that the prime minister has to be in the Commons. the prime minister could still be in the Lords. or, the the prime minister c- need not be in either house. the story of Douglas Hume, in fact, was for several weeks in sixty-three, prime minister without being either a member of the Lords or Commons.
what about the present reform of the House of Lords, you may ask? well, um, that's not relevant to what i'm saying at the moment. i'm talking about practice up to now. but i'll come back to the Lords Reform, soon. um, however, um, conventions, also have to exist, or do exist, in countries which have written constitutions. they have to adapt their constitutions, to change in circumstances, just as we do. the American constitution's a good example. um, how do they do it?
well, you could change the constitution, um, itself, but that's a very cumbersome process. because naturally constitution laws, and input are not to be changed lightly, if they're in the constitution itself. um, so, how do they adapt? well, partly, by getting the Supreme Court to interpret, general, simple, eighteenth-century clauses, of the constitution, rather, s- um, liberally, to being them up to date. and partly, simply, by using conventions themselves. conventions exist in the U-S congress, about how to get about things.
um, one example of that, is that, um, powerful congressional committees, used to deal with legislation, and determine whether legislative processes went forward, or not. um, now, in the nineteen nineties the power us U-S, congressional committees has been much whittled down. the chairman, of U-S congressional committees, was always the next senior person after the, previous chairman retired. that was a convention, it wasn't written in the eighteenth century constitution. but now that's gone entirely. there's great competition for chairmanship, of, select committees. but, um, that's only in the nineteen nineties.
so, no, constitution can en_ exclude the use of conventions. Nevertheless, our constitution is more flexible than the American one. because, it's less easy, in many cases, to point to a document and said, it w- say, it was written in seventeen eighty-seven, that we have to do things, this way. um, which Americans do. the American_ in America it's much easier to block things than to change things. gun control is a good example. in seventeen eighty-seven, the constitution said every citizen should the right to bear arms. which make great sense in Amer_ in colo_ in, not colonial, in the rural, America of seventeen eighty-seven. the wild America, cabins in the clearings of the woods. you had to defend yourself against Indians, renegade white men, you had to shoot, wild beasts, and you had to shoot your own dinner. there wasn't a supermarket, you went out and shot a deer. they had to shoot rattlesnakes. it makes no sense now that everyone carry guns, really, in the urban America of nineteen ninety-nine. nevertheless, you can't really change the constitution. while all we need to do is have a quick law, on gun control. if we have it, and we have had recently.
um, however, um, the difference, with other advanced countries, the U-K's uniqueness in constitutional matters have been much whittled down. recently, with the_ Mr. Blair's Labour government. we've had, um, constitutional laws on devolution. which of course is all written. devolution to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. we're going to have a bill of rights. and then Euro law is increasingly overtaking whatever we might want to decided to do in Britain, anyway. and that's definitely written down. and it takes precedence over, whatever legislation is passed in Westminster.
so I think, it's another of the many unique features of Britain, which is, sadly, going to go out of the window, over the next fifty years.