Constitutions and constitutional design

Constitutions and constitutional design

Week 9

Learning objectives:

  • Understand what is meant by constitution
  • Describe the difference between federal and unitary systems
  • Explain the different roles power can play in constitutional designs

Class coordinators

Team 4


Constitutions can be thought of as the operating systems for state governance; they are like the software of political infrastructure on which government and civil society balance through interaction in public space (recall the mnemonic introduced in week 8).

Constitutions can be written or unwritten, but are generally a combination of the two, because a written constitution must be interpreted, and successive interpretations change the meaning of the original written instructions.

Constitutions generally address both the powers and processes of branches of government, and the relationships of units within a state.  Thus, we might expect a constitution to include details about the executive, legislative, and judicial functions, and sometimes branches of administration and services like the armed forces and police.  Clauses on human rights, political freedoms, press freedoms, and electoral rights and processes set out the conditions under which government operates.

Some constitutions specify a single level of government (a unitary system) and others divide powers between different units (a federal system).

Many written constitutions are honored more in the breach than the observance – meaning that they aren’t worth the paper they are written on. The constitution of the old Soviet Union was a tremendously liberating and empowering document, which meant nothing to millions of political prisoners. Today, the constitution of the People’s Republic of China is being reinterpreted, and may eventually become more open, or less so (Osnos, 2013, 162). Closer to home, the practice of politics within Canada’s House of Commons is governed by a lot of unwritten practices and procedures, which constrain the powers of backbenchers to insignificance, much to the frustration of MPs on both government and opposition benches (See Samara Canada and Tragedy in the Commons).

A 2014 private member’s bill in Canada seeks to require parliamentary caucus to ratify the rules under which the session will operate, in a bid to remove some of the power that has gravitated towards party leaders and party whips at the expense of individual backbenchers (link, podcast). This is an example of the constant interplay of power and influence which moderates written rules by reference to evolving practice, within a single branch of government – in this case the

The tradition of unwritten constitutions lends itself to change and adaptation over time, which can help a state to adapt to changing circumstances, although the pattern of adaptation may only emerge clearly with hindsight. Canada, for example, has experienced clear swings of centralization and decentralization of powers.

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand what is meant by constitution
  2. Describe the difference between federal and unitary systems
  3. Explain the different roles power can play in constitutional designs

Required Reading

Tremblay, ch.10
Scott, ch.2

Optional Reading

Presentation on constitution and federalism
Alec Sweet, “Constitutions and Judicial Power” Chapter 9 from Caramani, ed. Comparative Politics.
Watts, federalism
Presentations from 104, 106 on centralization and decentralization in federalism
Elizabeth Hinton (2016) From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The making of mass incarceration in America. Harvard University Press.
Comparing crime statistics in Canada and the US
Incarceration in the US in comparative perspective


Be prepared to present ideas for your assignment 2.

Self-Assessment Questions

  1. What problems do federations address, and what problems do they potentially create? How is power manifested in constitutional designs, and how can different aspects of power (e.g. demographic, economic, geopolitical) evolve over time to create constitutional problems? [Consider the Lebanese constitution and problems resulting in civil war]
  2. Recall the models and theories of state-building we considered in week 7. How do federal systems reflect the pressures and circumstances described by Tilly and by Migdal?
  3. Describe the spectrum of centralization and decentralization of federal and unitary states. Under what circumstances are centralized and decentralized federations likely to be more stable, or less so, and why? Consider Scotland and Quebec as case studies of secessionist pressure in unitary and federal states. What are some of the pressures that were at work?


The seminar this week will concentrate on self-assessment question 3.


Weekly activities can be adjusted by class coordinators in consultation with the professor
Week 5 checklist of material

[1] Introduction from class coordinator – time allocation
[2] Current events of political significance (domestic, international) [60s]
[3] Review/amend focus of learning objectives [5D]
[4] Key terms [5D, GLI]
[5] Mapping the Political Landscape [5D, GLI]
[6] External resources [class coordinator]
[7] Exam questions [5D, GLI]
[8] Looking ahead: next week’s class coordinator introduces (last 15 minutes)

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