‘The ‘unwritten’ British constitution has traditionally been conceived as a ‘living structure’ (in Leo Amery’s words), its forms and processes the result of a continuous historical process of development and pragmatic adaption, rather than being based upon fixed principles or an entrenched legal settlement Precedent and convention have therefore been centra features of constitutional understanding and behaviour. Sidney Low’s famous comment that ‘we live under a system of tacit understandings, but the understandings themselves are not always understood’ (The Governance of Britain, London, 1904, pp.12) pointing to the ambiguities inherent in such an approach. James Callaghan once praised thus ‘back of an envelope’ flexibility which has been accompanied for much of the 20th century by an uncritical view of the constitution debate and analysis. The constitution has been widely described as simply ‘what happens’, the ‘rules of the game’ being driven by political forces and exigencies. The open-minded nature of the constitution came under attack in the 1980’s and 1990’s, with the emergence of groups like ‘Charter 88 calling for a comprehensive package of reforms and a written constitution. The traditional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty (celebrated by A. V. Dicey) also came in for criticism as allowing for an untrammelled executive dominance, growing centralisation, and the absence of effective constitutional constraint. The Labour government’s post-1997 reform programme, including devolution in Scotland and Wales, House of Lords’ reform, and the Human Rights Act, was designed to introduce checks and balances to counter word lord Hailsham once described as a system of ‘elective dictatorship’. But the new constitutional settlement was equally likely to be shaped by the dynamic forces released by Labour’s reforms in ways which the government did not expect and could not control’.
References: John Ramsden, ’The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century British Politics’, Oxford University Press, 2002.