PO2212 Issues in Contemporary European Politics

The Importance of Constitutions

How to use this handout

We will be working our way through parts of this handout in class. You can later use the paper copy or the online version to follow up some of the points discussed in class.


Constitutions are sets of principles about the nature of the political system and sets of rules about the powers of, and the relationships between, different institutions within the political system.
If the ‘game’ is politics, then constitutions are the rules of the game.
G K Roberts actually has a chapter in his book called ‘The Rules of the Political Game’.

A definition from G Roberts & A Edwards (1991) A New Dictionary of Political Analysis

'A fundamental statement of laws governing the functions and relationships of political institutions within a political community, a statement of the limits set to the powers of such institutions, and usually also containing a catalogue of the rights of citizens'.

You can also check out the definitions here.

Nelson Political Science Glossary http://polisci.nelson.com/glossary.html
Online Extracts from Hague & Harrop's Textbook http://www.palgrave.com/politics/hague/summary.htm


Constitutions are a relatively recent phenomenon in European history, although you can see their antecedents in classical Greek and Roman times.
They are related to C17th and C18th ideas of a covenant or contract between rulers and those who are ruled - this covenant or contract should establish limits on the power of rulers in order to protect the rights of the ruled - it should also include was in which these limits can be enforced.
In this sense, constitutions are ways of limiting the power of autocrats - G K Roberts says that the idea of constitutions only becomes relevant when the existence of autocracy is being challenged.
Historically, it was the intellectual and political representatives of the rising bourgeoisie who challenged the right of monarchs to rule autocratically or arbitrarily in the C18th and C19th.

(Before you read on, try to define ‘autocratically’ and ‘arbitrarily’)

My definition of the first word is ‘ruling without having one’s powers limited by another institution or person’ and of the second is ‘ruling on the basis of the desires or whims of the ruler’.

(Think up some hypothetical examples to illustrate the difference between these two terms)

Constitutions make rulers subject to the law and accountable (to at least some of the people they rule) for their actions. Constitutions are a direct challenge to the idea of the Divine Right of Kings - that is the idea that a monarch’s power comes direct from God and cannot be challenged by humans.
By the C18th in Europe, developments in scientific knowledge had weakened considerably the belief that religion was the sole basis for knowledge about human behaviour and how society ought to be governed.
During the C18th, that belief was further weakened by the flourishing of philosophical and political writings known as the Enlightenment. The idea of ‘natural rights’ (that humans can claim rights in society because they are born human and in possession of reason) came out of the Enlightenment.
Remember, however, that for most people, ‘natural rights’could only be claimed by men, and men of property at that!
Remember also, that the establishment of constitutional government in Europe, happened a long time before there was even universal manhood suffrage.


American Constitution of 1787 http://www.law.emory.edu/FEDERAL/usconst.html
French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen 1789 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/rightsof.htm
French Constitution of 1791 http://sourcebook.fsc.edu/history/constitutionof1791.html
Polish Constitution of 1791 http://www.polishconstitution.org/index1.html
Commentary on Polish Constitution of 1791 http://wings.buffalo.edu/info-poland/classroom/constitution.html

These 3 constitutions are the earliest in the modern world.

The first two were made after revolutions when the old order was destroyed and a new one established - the principles and institutional arrangements of the new political system needed to be written down in one document - i.e. codified.

Peter Merkl and other commentators have pointed out that there was no such significant rupture with the past in Britain and this is one reason why the British constitution is not codified.

(Use the links leading off my constitutions page http://pers-www.wlv.ac.uk/~le1810/cons.htm to find out what is listed under Britain in databases of constitutions)

The Polish Constitution was the outcome of a serious reform process in Poland. However, it only lasted until 1795 when Polish territory was occupied by Russia, Austria and Prussia and the state ceased to exist.

The following quote emphasizes the symbolic as well as the practical value of a constitution.

'We honor the Polish Constitution of 1791 not so much for what it achieved as for what it represents. It is a symbol of the Polish people and of their struggle for liberty, justice, and honor'.
Carl L. Bucki at celebrations of Poland's Constitution Day on May 3, 1996.

(You are probably already aware of the symbolic importance of the American Constitution but what do the constitutions of the five French Republics symbolize? Use the links above to look at the general principles expressed in the different documents)

What to look for in Constitutions


Remember that constitutions do not tell us the whole story of the political system and may be silent on electoral systems and/or political parties. Remember also that some institutional arrangements may not work in practice exactly as laid down in the constitution or envisaged by those who designed the constitution.


Amendment must not be too easy or the constitution looks less like a fundamental document.
On the other hand, amendment must not be too dificult or the constitution eventually ceases to correspond to contemporary needs.


Does the political system include a Constitutional Court or a similar body to judge whether laws and government actions are compatible with the constitution?

Case Studies


Why is the constitution of Germany called the Basic Law?


In what circumstances was the constitution of the Fifth Republic drawn up?


In what ways did the most recent Spanish constitution represent a break with the past?

Soviet Union/Russia

What were the key constitutional changes introduced by Gorbachev and then by Yeltsin?

Eastern Europe since 1989

Can you find out how long the process of devising new post-Communist constitutions took in a selection of East European countries?

URL: http://pers-www.wlv.ac.uk/~le1810/po2212-2.htm
Page created by Penny Welch October 2000/ Last updated October 2005

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