The structure of the oak, the national tree of England, Wales and the United States, evokes the structure of the British Constitution.

Some people claim that Britain does not have a Constitution or that it is unwritten. That’s surprising since the British Constitution was a model for the constitutions of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
John Adams, the lawyer and US President who helped to frame the American Constitution, called the British Constitution the most stupendous fabric of human invention in history.
What did John Adams know? Is that knowledge being kept from the British people? Is the Constitution being betrayed? And how does the British Constitution resemble an oak tree?

A stupendous invention

A constitution describes how government will be organized and its fundamental principles. The fundamental principles of the British Constitution are rooted in the Christian idea that each of us is an individual created by God to be a free moral agent. Just as our family Christmas traditions are unwritten, some parts of the British Constitution are unwritten. However, many crucial parts of the Constitution are written down and have been for centuries. They are:

1) Common Law

2) The Coronation Oath

3) Magna Carta

4) Statute of Westminster

5) The Petition of Right, Declaration of Right and Bill of Rights

6) The Act of Settlement of 1701

7) The Act of Union

We’ll describe the written documents of the British Constitution and its structure and conclude with
8) Unwritten traditions


Established by Alfred the Great (AD 871- 899) Common Law has been developed by the British people for more than a thousand years. It is common because it applies to everyone equally.

Common Law is grounded in the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule – treat others as you would be treated. Common Law was developed by British people so they could settle their differences peacefully and fairly.

Common Law incorporates the Charter of Liberties (1100). The Charter makes the Sovereign subject to the law and affirms that no person is above the law. Common Law includes the Council of Westminster (1102), which ended slavery in England. Common Law protects the right established in the Petition of Right (1627) that no person can be arrested for disagreeing with the government. Common Law defends your property rights, your right to self-defence and your right to be secure in your own home – your home is your castle.

Common Law establishes every person’s right to a jury trial and the freedom of juries to declare a person innocent. If a jury believes that a person has been charged under an unjust law, it has the right to acquit. For this reason Common Law is superior to the statute law created by Parliament. In the 17th century the Lord Chief Justice ruled that juries have an inalienable right to freely decide guilt and innocence.

Common Law plainly states that judges are to be guided by precedent – the rulings of previous cases. They are not to make up the law. Where there is no precedent, Common Law dictates that decisions must be made according to principles of fairness recognized by Common Law.

Common Law contributes to the prosperity of Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


The Coronation Oath is the freely taken and mutual covenant between the British sovereign and the people of Britain. During the coronation ceremony, the people affirm their Sovereign, and the Sovereign swears the Coronation Oath and promises to protect their laws and customs.

First pledged by King Edgar in AD 973, the Coronation Oath binds the Sovereign to deliver justice and fair treatment to the British people. HM Elizabeth II swore to uphold the Common Law and the customs of the people of the United Kingdom.

It is the Sovereign’s duty to protect the people’s laws and freedoms. The Monarch’s grant of Royal Assent allows an Act of Parliament to take effect. The refusal of Assent is a check on the tyrannical power of Parliament. The Sovereign has a Constitutional duty to refuse Royal Assent to unconstitutional acts of Parliament.

The Sovereign plays a fundamental executive role, as was seen at the beginning of World War II when the King asked Winston Churchill to form a government. In the 1970s HM Elizabeth II plainly told PM Heath to make way for Mr Wilson. Acting on Her Majesty’s behalf, her Governors-General play a critical constitutional role in Canada and Australia.

Six British sovereigns were deselected and deposed because they did not protect the people’s laws and liberties.

The Sovereign is supposed to provide an important balance to the power of Parliament. As we will see, this has been forgotten because for many years it was Parliament that was attempting to check the power of the Sovereign.


In AD 1215, knights, barons, clergy and townspeople established and defended Magna Carta. (The support of the people of the big towns has been forgotten, but it was crucial.) The Great Charter affirmed the people’s rights and liberties, including the right to habeas corpus, the right to trial by jury and protection from excessive fines that would devastate your ability to make a living.

As you have read, trial by jury limits the power of the state by giving the power of establishing guilt or innocence to the people. The British people have repeatedly and successfully inhibited tyranny by declaring men and women charged under despotic laws to be innocent.

In 1297 the Model Parliament confirmed Magna Carta in statute law. Magna Carta remains in force to this day. Along with Common Law and the Coronation Oath, Magna Carta is part of the British Constitution.

Statue of Churchill, facing Parliament

Sir Winston Churchill said about Magna Carta –

“In subsequent ages when the state swollen with its own authority has attempted to ride roughshod over the rights and liberties of the people it is to this doctrine that appeal has again and again been made and never as yet without success”.


Parliament was established because people wanted honest sheriffs, a say in taxation and a curb on foreign adventures. Henry III had resisted those reforms, including some that the people believed they had already won in Magna Carta.

Henry III went to war. Simon de Montfort captured the king and the prince of Wales in battle. He invited the shires and the towns to vote for representatives to Parliament where the reforms would be discussed and implemented. The first Parliament met on 20 January 1265. In August, Montfort died defending the reforms.

But the reforms did not die.

The Statute of Westminster, AD 1275, would appear to be the foundational document that established Parliament. With the Sovereign and the Judiciary, Parliament forms the third branch of government. Its political parties, cabinet, prime minister and whips have gradually evolved as hoary traditions.

Members of Parliament are elected by the people to serve them. MPs are elected to serve as both representatives of their constituencies and as representatives of all the British people. They are supposed to be the defenders of British liberties. They have no right under the Constitution to usurp the power of the Sovereign with whom the people have entered into covenant.

Canada’s House of Commons
Canada’s Constitution and Her Majesty’s Government in Canada are modelled after the British Constitution.


The Petition of Right (1628) at the beginning of the century and the Declaration of Right and Bill of Rights (1689) at the end frame a century-long effort to constrain the power of the Sovereign and to reaffirm the people’s “liberties and free customs”.

The Petition of Right was won from Charles I by Parliament –

Free men cannot be imprisoned without cause. The Government cannot arrest any man because he disagrees with the Government’s policies. (This protection is fundamental to a free society.) Habeas corpus is not to be denied. No person will be compelled to make loans to the King, and there will be no tax without the approval of Parliament. Soldiers and sailors will not be billeted on civilians, and the Government will not impose martial law during peacetime.

In 1689, the Glorious Revolution was won when William and Mary accepted the people’s Declaration of Right as part of their Coronation Oath.

Mary II

The Declaration of Right limited the powers of the Sovereign and Parliament and all officers and ministers and whatsoever, and reaffirmed certain rights and liberties of the people as their birthright. It was later enacted into statute law by Parliament as the Bill of Rights.

The Declaration and the Bill of Rights affirm that suspending or executing laws or taxes without the consent of Parliament is illegal; that the people have a right to petition the Sovereign; that excessive bail and fines cannot be imposed; and that the people (limited at this time to Protestants who were 98% of the population) have the right to bear arms in their defense.

The right to bear arms gives every person the right to meet violence with reasonable self-defence, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm.

The right to bear arms is recognized as a centuries-old shield against tyranny. Every genocide of the 20th century was carried out by governments who first deprived their people of their right to bear arms.

Further, the Declaration of Right and Bill of Rights plainly state That no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate hath, or ought to have, any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm.

Giving any foreign body authority over the British people is unconstitutional.

The structure of the English oak is a visual sketch of the organizing principles of the British and American Constitutions. The Constitution has three great branches – 1) the Sovereign (in America, the executive branch), 2) the two houses of Parliament (in America, the legislature) and 3) the judiciary. The three branches are meant to check each other’s power and balance each other just as the three main branches of the oak tree balance each other.
The great supporting trunk of the Constitution is rule by just law. The roots of the Constitution are the people. The earth is their God-given birthright of freedom. The people and their freedom nourish the Constitution, and are nourished by it.


The Act of Settlement affirmed that Common Law is the birthright of the people and may never be taken away. The Act declares that the British people are restored to the full and free possession and enjoyment of their religion, rights, and liberties, by the providence of God. The Act makes one essential idea absolutely clear –

Government cannot grant freedom to the people because freedom belongs to the people by birthright. Government exists not to give the people liberty, but to protect their liberty.


The Act of Union united the kingdom of Scotland with the kingdom of England and Wales in the United Kingdom. The British Constitution became the constitution for the whole Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland. Scotland retained some of its laws.


Freedom of speech is one of the “free customs” and unwritten traditions that belong to the people. It is not specifically described in these crucial documents (aside from allowing free speech in Parliament) because it is viewed as a “free custom” that has always belonged to the people. It is an ancient tradition of the islands.

This did not mean a person would not get in trouble for saying or publishing something which those in authority did not wish said. But if you were arrested, you could push back, as William Penn did, and be defended by a jury.

Most of the time you were not arrested because the great majority of the British people understood that freedom works – it makes people more prosperous and science more inventive, literature more interesting and life more brilliant and happy.

Just as you know your family’s traditions without writing them down, you understand and value your traditions of freedom, which men and women before you defended with their lives.


The British Constitution that we have described is largely the Constitution which John Adams knew and admired. Its structure of government checked and channeled and balanced power and increasingly defended the people’s liberties. Today the British Constitution is in peril. It may not survive. The biggest threat to its future is clear –

John Adams warned that if a legislature seized executive power that executive power will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron. . .and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.

By destroying the power of the Sovereign, and refusing to allow the Sovereign to withhold Royal Assent, Parliament has usurped the executive power, and is becoming tyrannical.

Its recent laws regarding race and terrorism are depriving Brits of freedom of speech. Earlier laws have already deprived them the right to bear arms and defend themselves. Its excessive taxation and borrowing to fund its spendthrift ways are depriving working Brits of their property and their property rights.

Parliament’s 2008 approval of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty will destroy the Common Law and the liberties of the British people and make them subservient to Brussels. The EU is constructed like every other would-be tyranny – it asserts that it gives the people their rights. This is false, but it means that it can take them away.
The British Constitution embodies the natural rights and freedoms of the people, which are theirs by birthright. The British Constitution and British liberties will only survive if the people defend them.









        120 years of Fabianism
        Fabian General Secretary Sunder Katwala introduces the Fabian Thinkers collection by asking what the Fabian Society’s illustrious history means today.

        Nobody can know exactly what George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells or Sidney and Beatrice Webb would make of the world of Tony Blair, low-cost airlines and the internet.

        But then their Britain seems quite alien to us too. The Britain of 1884 was one in which most working men were denied the vote – along with all women – while wives were merely the property of their husbands. The British empire was at the height of its powers and its eclipse seemed unthinkable. The narrow political battle was between Gladstonian liberalism and Toryism. These must hardly have seemed auspicious circumstances for the small and idealistic group, which met in solicitor Edward Pease’s house in London to form the Fabian Society and declared their ambition to “help in the reconstruction of society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities”.

        Yet the Fabians were confident that their ideas could change the world, They were – though they would not have recognised the term – creating the world’s first “thinktank” and surely the most influential in the world of practical politics.

        Armed with facts, arguments and political persuasion, the Fabians created a uniquely practical utopianism. It was not just that they were able to “imagine things that never were and ask ‘why not'” (a Shaw soundbite later adopted by Bobby Kennedy). It was also that the Fabians educated and organised to make it happen in practice.

        They were first to propose many influential ideas – a national medical service and a welfare state funded by progressive taxation, equal rights for women and decolonisation. In addition to their ideas, publications and lectures, they created a highly impressive institutional legacy to create pressure for these reforms. Fabians advocated for and helped to create the Labour party in 1900. Convinced of the need for evidence-based social science, the Webbs created the London School of Economics, and the New Statesman to provide an outlet for political debate and ideas.

        Are these achievements anything more than a historical curiousity today? The fame and enduring reputation of many of the early Fabians could, after all, prove a burden as well as an asset for a thriving contemporary thinktank and political society, which will naturally be judged on its ability to shape the political debates of today and tomorrow, not those of yesterday. The Fabian Society’s central role is to lead debate in defining the future ideas, politics and policies of the left and to show that progressives can win the next battle of political ideas.

        Yet, in doing so, we can take inspiration from our roots. After all, what is most striking about the early Fabians is not that they provide a roll call of many of the most eminent thinkers of the Victorian and Edwardian age – the Webbs, Shaw and William Morris, Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, Rubert Brooke, Emmeline Pankhurst and many more – but the extent to which they were prepared to think ahead of the seemingly immutable features of the politics and society of their own times.

        Most importantly, they demonstrated that ideas matter in politics. The impact of ideas is often disguised and understated. After all, ideas, however revolutionary when proposed, quickly become part of the political furniture. Yet it is often the battle of ideas – with its intellectual revolutions and counter-revolutions – which reshape the boundaries of what is politically possible at any given time. And it is the ability of governments not just to legislate for their programmes but to shift their political opponents on to new territory which define a lasting political legacy.

        The battle of ideas cannot be taken for granted. Few today, especially on the left, would share the early Fabians’ characteristically Victorian certainty in “the inevitability of gradualness”. Rather, today it is common for neo-conservatives and neo-liberals to believe that history is preordained to go their way. Yet this too is disingenuous. Ideas need political champions to succeed. Richard Cockett’s definitive book Thinking the Unthinkable on the rise of the “new right” (a label first applied by a Fabian critique) shows how the neo-liberal counter-revolution was explicitly modelled on the influence of Fabianism, which it sought to to emulate, and counter, through institutions such as the Institute of Economic Affairs.

        For political ideas to be effective, they must be constantly rethought. A good Fabian slogan might be “Revisionists revise”. The Fabian ability to influence across political generations has been achieved through the pluralism and diversity of Fabian thinking – a constant rethinking for every political generation what it is to be progressive and on the left. Every time there has been an important renewal of left-of-centre thinking, Fabians have been central to those debates.

        So Sidney Webb wrote the Labour Party’s constitution in 1918, including the famous clause 4 commitment to nationalisation. But Fabians also played a central role in the debates which led to the Labour party rewriting its statement of aims and values in 1995 as it sought to escape its years in the electoral wilderness, particularly through Giles Radice’s highly influential Southern Discomfort pamphlets examining what stopped voters disenchanted with the Conservatives switching to Labour. And the time has come to renew again – we must re-examine the founding myths and fears of New Labour as we seek to ensure a radical Labour third term.

        As the 12 essays in this collection show, disagreement and debate is built into the fabric of the Fabian approach – underpinned by the lack of any collective Fabian “line” on policy issues. The ideal of open-minded, rational disagreement has not always been achieved in practice – HG Wells stormed out of the Society and lampooned the Webbs in his satire The New Machiavelli while the formation of the SDP created deep divisions a generation ago. And few would claim that Fabians have got everything right – the early Fabian claim that markets were inefficient simply by virtue of being unplanned was clearly a mistake, and the Webbs in particular have been much criticised for their grey statist approach and their naivety, late in life, about the Soviet Union.

        But many of the most telling critiques have come from within the Fabian fold. Tony Crosland’s famous claim in The Future of Socialism, easily the most influential book for the postwar left, that “Total abstinence and a good filing system are not now the right sign-posts to the socialist Utopia: or at least, if they are, some of us will fall by the wayside”. And his call for a greater emphasis on “freedom and dissent, on culture, beauty, leisure, and even frivolity” still stands among the most eloquent expressions of an attractive ethical, democratic and participatory vision of what it is to be on the left. The values and ideas of William Morris, RH Tawney, GDH Cole and many others can similarly still influence contemporary political debates too.

        A long Fabian history has inevitably contained low as well as high points – the Society’s non-sectarian approach was somewhat out of time with the political mood of both the 1930s and 1970s. Yet we Fabians enter our 13th decade in particularly good health. Two Labour landslides have seen more Fabians returned to the House of Commons than there are Conservatives and Lib Dems MPs put together – their number including Stephen Twigg whose shock defeat of Michael Portillo on election night 1997 meant he had to give up his post as Fabian general secretary.

        Today the membership of the Society is twice what it was 30 years ago and stands at its highest level since Clement Attlee was prime minister. While under previous Labour governments Fabian membership has fallen, it has continued to rise steadily each year since 1997 – just one sign that, for all of the talk of apathy, there is immense interest in politics today, though increasingly often this is taking place outside formal political party structures.

        The great questions which will shape the next era of political debate – revitalising democracy and political participation; reshaping the relationship between citizens and the state; making environmentalism central to mainstream politics and creating an effective internationalism which can hold power to political account in a global age – will require new and innovative thinking to create a progressive politics for our own age.

        Yet the early Fabians would still find much that was recognisable in our contributions to these debates. The traditions of gradualism remain strong – especially the tactic of breaking political taboos to open up new ground in debates, as with our influential Commissions on Taxation and on the Monarchy. Our next major Commission, to be launched early this year, on Life Chances including setting out a road-map for the Labour government’s ambitious goal of abolishing child poverty by 2020, returns to a perennial Fabian theme of social justice, and indeed contains echoes of the Society’s very first pamphlet, titled Why are the many poor.

        Whether they would be, on balance, more encouraged or dismayed by the condition of contemporary Britain, those who founded the Fabian Society in 1884 would perhaps be surprised to find it still going strong 120 years on. In his essay on Sixty Years of Fabianism, George Bernard Shaw, then aged 90, concluded that he must “retire to make room for the Fabians of 60 years hence, by whatever name they will then be called. For the name may perish, but not the species”. We can do no more than commend his thought to the future Fabians of 2064.

        •Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. Email: e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it •This piece appears in Fabian Thinkers: 120 years of progressive thought , published by the Fabian Society at £6.95 on October 20 2004.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s