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What is a Constitution? - Role & Impact on Government

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  • 0:01 Need for Guidance
  • 0:55 Written vs. Unwritten
  • 2:25 Basic Law
  • 2:48 Basic Rights &…
  • 4:03 Changing the Constitution
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

We hear the word 'constitution' thrown around a great deal, but do we ever stop to think about what a constitution really is? Almost every country has one, and every U.S. state does too, but they are often very different from each other.

Need for Guidance

When you were younger, chances are you had rules; you had rules at home, you had rules at school, and you had rules for any extra-curricular activities that you participated in. Rules surrounded you, but there was a trade-off. If you followed those rules, you were sure to receive certain rights: don't punch your sibling, and you had the right to not have to go to your room; don't talk back to a teacher, and you had the right not to go to the principal's office, or even the right to go to recess.

This balance of rules vs. rights is important for governments, too. After all, we have an agreement with our government - 'You treat us fairly and justly and we won't overthrow you'. This is in fact known as the social contract, and the document that guarantees such rights and responsibilities, as well as the basic laws of a country, is known as a constitution. But, shouldn't we get that in writing?

Written vs. Unwritten

If you're saying that you'd be crazy not to get such an important document in writing, then the vast majority of countries would agree with you. After all, a constitution protects them as well! Yet, some countries are hesitant to call their most basic laws a constitution. This is especially true in the Middle East, where fears of superseding religious teachings would heavily damage the image of governments, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. That said, they call their basic governing document something else, but not a constitution. However, there is one shocking example of a country that doesn't have a written constitution at all, and that's the United Kingdom.

Yes, the island nation that we think of as quaint for still having a monarch and serving tea every day is downright odd for a completely different reason: They don't have a written constitution. To understand why, we have to look at how the British government has transformed over the past 1,000 years. Long story short, as new groups demanded rights, they looked to the past and to the monarchy to see how these rights should be established.

In 1215, it meant that nobles looked to the monarch to gain the rights listed in the Magna Carta. In more recent times, it means that groups look at Parliament, the ultimate source of political power in the U.K., for recognition. In fact, if the whole constitution of the U.K. were to be just one sentence, it would be this: 'Parliament is in charge, but had better hold elections regularly.'

Basic Law

Compare part of that last sentence, 'Parliament rules', to the constitutions of practically every other country, and you'll see that no matter how long or short the document is, it establishes a structure of government. In the United States, many pages are spent explaining the structure of the government that the Constitution permits. In other regimes, it is much shorter, just leaving it up to an established group to show the way. Either way, a constitution is a blueprint to a government on how to run itself.

Basic Rights and Responsibilities

Yet, it is not enough just to establish a government. Constitutions also establish the rights and responsibilities of the people. Consider the second part of our imagined constitution for the United Kingdom: 'Parliament … had better hold elections regularly'. By saying this, the constitution sets up the right of people to vote, as well as the responsibility for them to do so. You'll often hear people tell those who didn't vote that they have no right to complain about the way things are precisely because they didn't care enough when it was time to vote. Remember that - voting is a right as well as a responsibility!

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