A Festschrift for Vernon Bogdanor

I had to look up the word ‘Festschrift’ when I received this volume: it is a work which honours a distinguished academic, drawing contributions from colleagues on the matter of their expertise. Vernon Bogdanor is undeniably the foremost constitutional scholar of his generation, and his Festschrift draws on an enviable cast to discuss this topic.

The British constitution is both ever-present and deeply mysterious in our politics, deep-rooted and in constant flux: Bogdanor once told the Guardian that he had ‘made a living out of something that doesn’t exist’. Fortunately the contributors to this serious book were persuaded to suspend their disbelief and have provided an impressive set of chapters, discussing issues as varied as Scottish independence, the changing role of the monarchy, and the development of constitutional conventions.

The voice is undeniably academic; I would struggle to recommend this as light bedtime material, even to fellow constitution-watchers. But the emphasis on the contested aspects of the constitution – its development and reform – rather than on dry textbook descriptions make for a work which is surprisingly challenging and, in places, trenchant.

Mike Finn and Anthony Seldon, in one of the book’s earlier chapters, discuss New Labour’s constitutional reforms in detail. The scope of the changes introduced is impressive: it is difficult to imagine now an upper house dominated by hereditary peers, or the most senior judge in the land being a partisan cabinet minister, or there being no Human Rights Act. But the authors are not unforthcoming in their conclusion of the legacy being a ‘missed opportunity’ which will be judged more for its failures (chiefly on Lords and electoral reform, and the looming threat of Scottish independence) than for the extent of its surprisingly far-reaching changes to our constitutional set-up.

Peter Riddell follows with a discussion of the constitution and the public, noting the contrast between constant political tinkering and deafening popular silence on constitutional issues. Given the forthright views of the authors, it is to their credit that the tone is always the right side of measured and is restrained from sliding into the polemic. Strong opinions are reassuringly accompanied by facts and an extensive and impressive sense of historical context.

The book is enlightening in the sheer extent of the subject matter. I had thought that some fundamentals of the constitution were so basic as to be largely settled; nevertheless, thought-provoking pieces from Richard Gordon QC on parliamentary sovereignty and Robert Blackburn on the reserve powers of the monarch challenged preconceptions and highlighted a constitution which is more fluid, and more contestable, than I had previously thought.

I’m sure that the contributors to this Festschrift do not doubt that uptake will largely be from libraries, and that it is unlikely to make any Christmas bestseller lists. That may be; but if you have a serious interest in the recent development of the constitution, and want an understanding of the way Britain is governed which doesn’t start and end with Dicey, this book will reward your curiosity.

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David Green is a management consultant and former Labour party organiser. He tweets @itsdavegreen

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The British Constitution: Continuity and Change
A Festschrift for Vernon Bogdanor      
Matt Qvortrup  (Ed)
Hart Publishing | 212 pp | £40

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