Constitutions in transition
Constitutions in transition

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Constitutions in transition

1 Evolution and revolution

Described image
Figure 1 Evolution and revolution

When considering constitutions many people might think of nations and their main source of legal power. However, constitutional frameworks can be seen to operate on a smaller scale than nations. As a comparison, sports clubs or sports societies will have a basic set of rules structuring their organisation. Certain organs of the organisation will be given certain powers and the spheres of influence of the members of the organisation will be set out. Electoral rights might even be set out to legitimise those organs or institutions. One could even say that many families have their own little constitution in place, setting out rules that family members abide by.

When thinking about the concept of constitutions a good question to ask is: why do they exist? In terms of a nation and its organisation and government, where does the need to establish a constitution come from?

The answer remains vague: it depends! Every nation has its own historic background which led to a very particular constitutional development that remains unique to that nation. Before looking at some examples, you are invited to create your very own constitution.

Activity 1 The New State

Timing: You should allow yourself 30 minutes to do this activity.

View the interactive map below and click on the island called ‘New State’ to reveal a short description of the island and how it was discovered.

To access the map, click on it or press the ‘View’ button located underneath it to the right. To return to the main course from within the map page, scroll down and click on the back arrow and section title. It is recommended that you open the map in a new window or tab.

Read the description of the island and then consider the following questions:

  • a.Imagine a nation without any set governmental or legal framework in place. Its constitution is a blank canvas and you are the artist who is going to complete it. What does a state’s constitution need in order to function? How would you structure a constitution if you had the chance to start from the very beginning?
  • b.Think of constitutions that you might know (including one relating to a sports club, for instance) and use your general understanding to develop a constitution for New State. It can apply any form of government that you find suitable. However, it does not have to have a government.

The aim of this activity is to assess what you already know about constitutions, their functioning and structure and frameworks. The point of the activity is to get you thinking about what a constitution might look like and how its structure operates as part of the nation and also, its impact on the society of that nation. Should you need inspiration, explore the map and have a brief look at the different constitutions in place.

Use the textbox provided to collect your ideas. You might want to refer back to them as you work through this course. You can alter your draft constitution at any point in time to reflect your learning.

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Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


In global history, constitutions were rarely drafted from scratch. Most constitutions in place today are the result of a constitutional concept that has evolved. But for now, accept the challenge and start your own idea of a constitution.

One way of looking at this is by first thinking about whether the constitution of your state would be structured like a republic or a constitutional monarchy. Or would you even consider the concept of anarchy?

Alternatively, you could start by considering certain concepts and principles. You can ask yourself whether the constitution of New State will apply the principle of separation of powers in any form? Regardless of the strategy that you adopt, you can go into as much detail as you like.

Should you want to develop a more advanced and detailed constitutional framework, you could consider the following questions:

  • Who would be the sovereign lawmaker?
  • Who would govern the nation? Would the government be elected? If so, in what way?
  • Would there be a bill of rights?
  • Would you have a court system?
  • Would New State be a member of any international organisations or be signed up to any international treaties that can influence the constitution?

The actual content of a constitution depends to a significant extent on the context in which it developed. The incentive to frame a constitution can come from inside the nation or from the outside. Constitutions are as individual and distinctive as the nations in which they exist and to which they apply as is evident from the constitutions explored in the interactive map.

A closer look at some constitutional examples will allow a more informed comparative approach to constitutions in general. So, the next sections of this course briefly introduces the constitutions of South Africa, Germany and Canada before, finally, the UK constitution is outlined. These nations have been chosen as examples due to their differences in constitutional development. Each nation had to face other political and social challenges in the process of constitutional development. By looking at this selection of nations and their constitutions a wide overview of what those challenges were and what effect they have had can be gained.


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