Top positive review
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Cautious, dry, but thoroughly informative
on 13 September 2013
The 'Very Short Introduction' series contains some attractive titles and is ideal for subjects like this, where a curious reader wants to know more, but doesn't want to embark on a worthy hardback book or demanding textbook. The question is, were to pitch it? The 'Graphic Guides' by Icon seem to have pitched too dumb and the 'For Dummies' series goes for completion, so OUP are carving out a nice niche with this series which aims for academic rigour in pocketbook proportions.
Martin Loughlin has written widely on law and political theory and brings considerable expertise to bear on this topic which some people would argue is a non-existent subject. Loughlin tackles things head on, outlining the main positions on the British constitution (namely, that it's a priceless political treasure guaranteeing the freedoms of the common man, an archaic pantomime concealing the machinations of an efficient modern state or a mercurial expedient that enables governments to do 'whatever works'). Right from the outset he draws the contrast between Britain's unwritten, evolving or organic constitutions and the written constitutions that emerged from the Enlightenment and dominate political theory almost everywhere else in the world.
This is a tough subject and one which assumes the reader has a reasonable grasp of history, politics and political philosophy. You don't need a Degree to follow Loughlin's arguments, but it helps if you read a broadsheet newspaper. The author, I think wisely, accepts that a certain level of contextual knowledge must be a given with this topic and forges ahead, making few concessions to the reader's ignorance. After all, if you're not familiar with (say) the Whigs and the Tories, then Wikipedia is probably only a click away.
The danger with this sort of book, and this sort of writer, is that drafts of other books, lecture notes and unpublished articles are dusted down and pasted in with very little editing or reflection. To Loughlin's credit, his book reads better than that. After setting up our key thinkers (Blackstone, Dicey, Bagehot), the author moves swiftly into the present day, describing the modern constitutional settlement and its relation to different conceptions of the role and reach of the British state. It's a lucid read, but not a light one, and best taken in chunks despite the book's modest size. The final chapter ("Whither the constitution?") manages to be both summative and thought-provoking in the questions it leaves hanging.
Loughlin's own position is (to me) quite opaque, so his book might enrage readers coming from more critical perspectives, who see the British constitution as merely whitewashing privilege and arbitrary power. It won't provide much fuel either for the modernizers who argue that an unwritten constitution is no constitution at all. Nevertheless, Loughlin argues that the constitution is currently changing, and rapidly and invites some worrying thoughts about the role of lawyers as well as law-makers in this new settlement.
One of the better 'Very Short Introductions' then. The pages didn't turn themselves, nor was I gripped by a need to run out into the street and thrust this little book into the hands of strangers, but I felt myself being thoroughly informed, while aware that this was a much larger topic. Most importantly, I feel the author has guided me on the next set of questions I would want answered, were I to read deeper and further.