On Friday 24 February 2017, The Honourable Mr Justice Singh delivered the 2017 CPL Sir David Williams Lecture entitled "Divided by a common language: British and American perspectives on Constitutional Law" at the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge.
For his lecture, Sir Rabinder Singh adopted a comparative perspective. Befitting a lawyer educated in the United Kingdom and the United States, he compared the British and American constitutional traditions. Sir Rabinder brought this perspective to bear on four topics: the key differences between the two constitutions; the history of the drafting of the United States constitution; freedom of speech; and judicial appointments. He noted throughout that although the British and American constitutional traditions share a great deal, there are important differences between them.
Whereas the British constitution is largely unwritten and designed for a unitary state, the United States constitution is a written document designed for a federation; in the British constitutional order, executive power is residual, but in the United States, the President enjoys significant rule-making authority; and the United States is a republic in which law-makers are elected, while Britain is a constitutional monarchy that features an unelected upper chamber. Historically, although the Americans inherited a legal tradition from the United Kingdom, they soon struck off on a distinctive constitutional path, abandoning the principle of parliamentary sovereignty for the principle of constitutional supremacy. On freedom of speech, however, Britain and America are closer than one might think - despite the almost mythical status of the First Amendment, similar underlying values animate the development of the law in both jurisdictions. Finally, although judicial appointments in the United States are highly politicised - whether by a confirmation process, elections or recall processes - we should not forget that many great British judges have been drawn from the ranks of political parties, though of course the principle of judicial independence is not violated as long as they sever their political links on appointment to the bench.
In summary, while it would be dangerous to borrow unthinkingly elements of one system and transplant them to the other, it is important to recognise that the two traditions have influenced each other and will doubtless continue to do so.
The Sir David Williams Lecture is an annual address delivered by a guest lecturer in honour of Sir David Williams, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of English Law and Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, hosted by the Centre for Public Law (CPL).
More information about this lecture, including other recorded formats, a transcript, and photographs from the event, is available from the Sir David Williams Lecture pages on the CPL website.