National Geographic : 1946 Aug
Yanks at Westminster There are three main differences between the British and American Constitutions. First, the British Constitution is a completely con stituent body and does not divide its powers into Federal and State as in the United States. It can make laws on any subject. The Ameri can Constitution owes its form, of course, not only to the size of the country, with its very divergent problems, but also to the fact that after the War of Independence each State was jealous of its rights and privileges. Suggestions have been made that both Scot land and Wales should have their own Parlia ments to deal with local questions, and that the Parliament at Westminster should become a real imperial assembly in the sense that it represent the British Empire as well as the people of Great Britain herself. The second difference is that we have no written constitution at all. There is no Su preme Court to decide the legality of any particular Legislative act and, as has already been seen, the House of Lords has very little power to act as a constitutional safeguard. The absence of a written constitution means that the House of Commons could do almost anything. A government of the Left might abolish the King or give away the British Empire. A government of the Right could repeal the Habeas Corpus Act or take away the power of the trades unions. A House of Commons elected on the most moderate "ticket" could bring in the most revolutionary measures without any constitu tional hindrances. What, then, are the safeguards? There are none, except the good sense of the British people and the conviction that no Parliament, however so minded, would dare to legislate in defiance of the wishes of the majority of the British people. The third great difference is that there is no clear division in Britain, as in the United States, between the Executive and the Legis lature. The Executive sits in the House of Commons and must be a member of it or of the House of Lords. The clear division in the United States between the Executive and the Legislature finds its origin in history. The framers of the American Constitution had before their eyes the examples of George III and Louis XIV, and were determined to impose consti tutional safeguards against such powers as they exercised. The limitations of the power of the Execu tive of the United States are not fully under stood in Great Britain, notably the fact that in the United States treaties must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate. At the end of World War I the principle of the League of Nations secured a majority of the Senate but not a two-thirds majority. Any British Prime Minister attending an international conference can on the spot pledge his country to any agreed action. If on his return to Westminster he is not immediately disowned by Parliament, that agreement be comes binding on his Government and by long-standing convention generally on sub sequent Governments as well. In the United States the Senate may refuse to ratify an action taken by the President. Under the British Constitution the Prime Minister can always appeal over the heads of the House of Commons to the country by asking the King to dissolve Parliament and demanding a General Election. The Oppo sition parties, unlike the American Senate under similar circumstances, know full well that they may find themselves called upon to provide a solution for the very problem for which they have refused assent, and that imposes a sense of realism which is of the utmost value. The Statute of Westminster No reference to Westminster would be com plete without explaining the Statute of West minster, a landmark in British constitutional development as important as the Magna Carta, the Habeas Corpus Act, and the Bill of Rights. This dates from 1931 and defines the relationship of the countries of the British Empire to each other and to Great Britain. Great Britain is an imperial power in the sense that it has extended its boundaries far beyond its original narrow confines. It has never forgotten the lesson of the American Revolution. The British came to realize that their vast agglomeration of over seas territories could not be centrally ruled from London, and for the past century British imperial policy has been directed towards an increasing measure of self-government within each constituent part. Even before the last war, the great Do minions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa were completely self-governing in internal affairs, and to all in tents and purposes equally independent in their foreign relations. They came into World War I by the side of Great Britain only because their democratically elected Parliaments decided that they should do so. It was, however, felt between the two wars that the constitutional position should be regularized by some formal declaration, and a statement which became known as the Statute of Westminster was drawn up.