Inthe19thcenturywhat was meantbytheterm "constitution"was reasonably definiteand clear. Paradoxicallyenough, if the wordretained some ambiguity,this was becauseof theBritish constitution;that is, becausethe mothercountry ofmodern constitutionalismappearedto have an obscure constitution,or even-ac-cording tosomeofthe standardsthat seemedvery importantelsewhere-no constitutionatall.IYet thevery term "constitution"has ac-quired itsmodern meaning in English,inthecourse ofthe evolutionof the English legalterminology. TheLatin termconstitutiomeanttheveryopposite of whatisnow understoodby "constitution."Aconstitutio wasanenact-ment; later,after the 2d century,the pluralformconstitutionescame tomean a collectionof laws enacted by the Sovereign;and subse-quentlythe Church, too, adoptedthe termforcanonicallaw.Theterms constitutioand consti-tutioneswerenotfrequentlyused, however, bytheEnglishmedievalglossators (whilefre-quently used,as asynonymforlexandedictum,bythe Italianones).Thisexplains why,inthecourse oftime,theword constitution becamea "vacant term"-i.e.,a term availableforanew employment-inEnglish (thisdoes notnecessarilymean in England), andnot in thoselanguageswhichhadretained the Romanlegalterminology.Forterminologicalreasons also, then,wehave to referto an English meaningofthe wordconstitution,1 althoughthe UnitedKingdomhasa difficult andsuigenerisconstitution, derivingfrom a tortuous sedimentationof commonlaw,acts andconventionalusage, partlylegalandpartly extra-legal,anddespitethe factthat,whenone readsthe Britishconstitutional
*Apaperpresentedatthe FreudenstadtRoundTablemeetingof theInternationalPolit-ical ScienceAssociation,September1962.
DespiteJellinek's contraryopinion.Accord-ing toJellinek,"constitution"derivesfromtheLatinphraserem publicamconstituere.Cf.Allge-meineStaatslehre(Berlin,1914,3d ed.), vol.III,ch. iv.However,no historical continuityappearstoexist betweenconstituereand"constitution"(seeinfranotes21,25),and thisderivationisboundto giveusa misleadingstart.
lawyers,oneisoftenreminded of what wassaidin a reviewofStirling'sbook, The SecretofHegel:"never has a secretbeen better kept."For one thing,English constitutionallawyersappearto take a particularpleasure in pointingout toforeign jurists andpoliticalthinkers(beginning withMontesquieu) that theirunder-standingof the English systemis quitewrong.To besure, thishas beenand still isvery oftenthe case.ButoneremainswithafeelingthattheBritish find a special gratificationincon-foundingalienscholars:there is an elementofpolemiccoquetryintheemphasisthey layonthe principleofthe supremacyofParliament(exhibitedasbeing unlimited, arbitrary,omnip-otent,supra and contralegern,etc.);inthe some-whatprovocative and boldstatementthat,accordingto the Americanand French mean-ing ofthe term, the UnitedKingdom does not
the pointthat theBritish system isbased not on the"division"buton the "fusion"of powers;3or in the wayin which Sir IvorJennings puts forwardthat,"Since Great Britainhas no written constitu-tion,thereis nospecial protectionfor'funda-mentalrights'."4 And onecould quoteat length.Allthese statementsare,tobesure,true. Buttheyare "literally true,"andoneis broughttowonder why the emphasisis laidonthe lettersomuch morethanonthespiritofthelaw ofthe constitution.Afterall,constitutionalismhas aprescriptivepurpose;whereas Englishscholarsappearmore inclined to addressthem-selvesto anMPby saying"youcould"ratherthan"youcannot."Letus take, for instance,the principleof thesupremacyof Parliament. Woulditbe farfromthemarktosaythatif theprincipleis relatedtothehistoricalcircumstances ofits establish-ment,it hardlycarries withit the dangerousimplicationsthatBritishscholarssomewhatproudlyexpound?5 Parliament,in the Englishterminology,meanstheKing,the Lordsand
Cf.,e.g., K. C. Wheare,ModernConstitutions(London,OxfordUniversityPress,1960), p.21.
TheLaw andthe Constitution,5thed. (London,UniversityofLondonPress,1959), p.40.
Bagehotisno exceptionwhen heasserts that"anewHouse ofCommonscan despotically..resolve" [myitalics]. Op,cit.,ch".vii.