This lecture has four objectives: (1) to define what is meant by constitutionalism; (2) to provide an overview of the basic propositions that underpin the established British and American constitutional doctrines; (3) to review the constitutional pressures which have challenged those doctrines; and, (4) to highlight the contrasts and similarities between the two systems.
(2) Defining Constitutionalism.
We will employ Fred Ridley's (1988: p. 317) broad definition of a constitution as: .the whole system of government of a country, the collection of rules, written and unwritten, which regulate the government'. Any investigation of the sources of state authority must address two preliminary conundrums. The first of these relates to the ambiguity, which surrounds the explanation of what a constitution actually involves. Britain's unwritten constitution and its disaggregated system of laws, conventions and principles have tended to obscure the definition of the function and powers of the institutions of the state. Secondly, the British constitution's unwritten' or unformalised' nature, as Neville Johnson (1977) has more aptly put it, presents a problem of reference. Up until October 2000 when the Human Rights Act came into effect there existed no written principles, which constrained and/or structured the distribution of authority, rules and resources in the state. Nor were they any rules and resources either to constrain or enable the capacity of individuals who occupy key positions within the state or the institutions in which they work. In theory the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) now plays that role but to what extent it will serve as an effective check and balance remains to be seen.
In the United States the written constitution does play this role. It has four key features:.