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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > May 2019 > Ye Olde Curiosity Constitution

Ye Olde Curiosity Constitution

Dusty parchments, ancient offices and precedents that outline “the way things are done” define the British constitution. Its anachronisms are often a hoot, but can also give rise to some very strange wrinkles in the way we are governed

1 The Crown

The line of monarchs traces back to jostling Saxon kingdoms, before England was a thing, and a crowned head has sat at the constitution’s apex since, except when it was briefly knocked off its perch in the 17th century.

Royal Assent for new laws has not been refused since 1708. By contrast, royal prerogatives to, for example, prorogue parliament and declare war retain bite. Though mostly discharged by ministers in the crown’s name, the ancient source of the power can have odd consequences. Repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, for example, may not neatly restore the monarch’s traditional prerogative to call an election.

2 “Time immemorial” and the Common Law

The origins of English Common Law may be lost in the sands of time, but since a 1275 statute, England’s legal memory has been precisely defined as beginning on 6th July 1189, the start of Richard the Lionheart’s reign. Lawyers refer to anything earlier as “time immemorial” or “time out of mind.” Case law evolves, so this legal year zero doesn’t often crop up today. But in theory at least it could still do so—one way to secure a right of way, for example, might still be to argue it had applied “since time immemorial.”

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InProspect's May issue: Tom Clark explores how British politics has ended up in crisis and suggests that a proper constitution could have avoided the current chaos and may well be necessary now to avoid the same problems in the future. Elsewhere in the issue: Kevin Maguire profiles Labour deputy leader Tom Watson who says that “if needs must” he would join a government of national unity. Max Rashbrooke examines Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand and the ways the country is being transformed, ultimately suggesting that it could be an example for Britain to follow. Also, Stefanie Marsh follows the work of a donor detective who is helping children conceived by anonymous sperm donation to find their biological parents and Francesca Wade shows how Virginia Woolf is inspiring a new generation of women writers.