Fascinating account of our ever-evolving constitution

The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction (second edition)


Professor Martin Loughlin


£8.99, OUP



In the preface, Professor Martin Loughlin says the decade between the first and second editions – 2013 to 2023 – has produced ‘more profound questions of constitutional significance than during any other decade since the first world war’.

The opening chapter, entitled ‘The existential question’, looks at if there actually is a British constitution. It explains both why there is (because there is clearly some magical glue which holds together this at times fractious UK) and why there isn’t (there is no overriding comprehensive constitutional document after all).

The book sees the constitution as a unique, evolving entity, expanding beyond the boundaries of England (the UK’s most populous component) to embrace in different ways  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The writer’s engaging narrative takes us through the history of this continuing evolution. The chapter headings signpost the constitution’s metamorphoses to where it is today – from Anglo-Saxon to modern times – a story steeped in tradition and culture, as well as the often brutal factional power-broking.

The book is definitely one for lawyers as well as constitutional historians, even though the writer cites the views of unnamed 19th-century Whig historians who reportedly believed that constitutional history had been ‘perverted’ by lawyers. These historians evidently believed that ‘“the legal mind” is congenitally unable to grasp ambiguity, uncertainty, or heterogeneity and is therefore incapable of sensitive historical understanding’.

The book, however, disproves such analysis by references to the contributions of eminent lawyers down the ages – from Coke to Blackstone to Dicey and beyond – to the thought leadership that has underpinned the development of the British constitution.

Significant space is devoted to key events that have recently shaped the constitution – devolution, Brexit and the pandemic – and the roles of the three recognised branches of state in handling that process. In a chapter on ‘Civil Liberty’, the writer quotes Montesquieu who, in 1748, said that Britain was ‘the one nation in the world whose constitution had political liberty for its direct purpose’. However true that dictum, it seems that the three branches have all had their roles to play in defining British liberties within a constitutional framework.

The book is beautifully written and well-referenced and indexed. It deserves to be read by anybody interested in the enigmatic but fascinating British constitution.

With further developments in 2024 and possibly more changes ahead, there will be a case for a third edition of this excellent book sooner rather than later.


David Glass is a consultant solicitor at Excello Law