Book launch: Barber, The Principles of Constitutionalism (OUP)

The Bonavero Institute of Human Rights and the Programme for the Foundations of Law and Constitutional Government jointly hosted a panel discussion to mark the publication of Professor Nick Barber’s book The Principles of Constitutionalism (OUP, 2018) on 27 November 2018. The panellists were Professors Richard Ekins, Timothy Endicott and Kate O’Regan. The session opened with Barber’s outline of some main themes of his work, followed by comments from the panellists and questions from the audience.

Barber introduced the book as the second volume in a trilogy. The first book, The Constitutional State (OUP, 2010), focuses on the nature of the state as such, a sound understanding of which, says Barber, leads to a sound understanding of constitutionalism and its principles. It is a widespread mistake, on Barber’s view, to hold a purely negative conception of constitutionalism, a conception focused on setting limits to a state regarded as a standing threat to human well-being. As against such narrow, negative constitutionalism Barber’s book defends a broader, positive conception of constitutionalism, a conception that takes the state’s defining purpose to be the advancement of the well-being of its members, and accordingly makes central the capacities of the state’s structures and techniques to attain this end.

The book presents and sequentially discusses six core principles of positive constitutionalism, namely: sovereignty; the separation of powers; the rule of law; subsidiarity; democracy; and civil society. While these six principles capture interconnected ideals jointly necessary, according to the author, for the state to live up to its purpose (the first four also are necessary for the ‘bare existence’ of the state), the respective fulfillment of these principles can and sometimes needs to be a matter of degree. At the end of the book, for instance, Barber explains why there may sometimes be good reasons to tolerate ‘good enough’ constitutionalism, and in other respects too he accounts for different ways in which constitutionalism may be realized in different states, recurrently using the case of China as a counterpoint and test case.