Who rules Britain?

In this country we pride ourselves on having an unwritten constitution.  At least our polticians do from time to time for some reason or another.  Because of our unique constitution, it is pretty malleable and can be tweaked when necessary.  For exmaple, we’ve recently had an apparently irresolvable argument between the House of Commons and the House of Lords on a constitutional point.  However, it wasn’t too long before someone, probably a civil servant,  devised a few words which seemed to straddle the chasm and all became peaceful again. The electorate hardly noticed the fracas in the first place.

Discussing this with a friend I wrote the following:  Quite apart from the Lords versus Commons issue, a great deal of our unwritten constitution unfolds in practice as the civil service wants it to.  Out of a typical Cabinet with scarcely one competent historian among them and hardly more than half a dozen in the House then a geat deal of Constitution-creep takes place by means of guidance notes written by the civil service and the spoken advice to which Ministers and Prime Ministers — partcularly our present one — have frequent recourse when they’re confused.

For the sake of the civil service’s own consistency, there are frequent drafts of Ministerial Codes of Conduct,  Cabinet Manuals and the Prime Minister’s Function List (48 items not long ago!).  See the Institute of Public Policy Research study “The Hidden Wiring Emerges”.  Then there are “guidance notes” for the House of Lords, the Queen and royal family, quangoes and so on. Essentially, who actually rules the country?

On balance I’m glad the civil service do and that an unwritten constitution is best after all. Mind you, the civil service, being non-scientific since its meritocratic beginning in 1870, hasn’t done us much good in the last 100 years.  We lost our engineering lead to Germany and America.  it’s now showing ssigns of realising this so, maybe, as we enter the new scientifically-based services era —  phase 2  of the industrial revolution — we’ll be more flexible than most countries in adjusting to it.

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