Probably the best definition of a constitution was given by Lord Bolingbroke ( 1678-1751) who in modern language described it as “that assembly of laws, institutions, and customs, by which the people have agreed to be governed.”
A constitution, which is not just one document, is about government. It determines the way powers to govern are allocated within a country.
On this there have been two principal schools of thought. As early as the Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, we find the notion that good government is about finding the best people, trusting them and endowing them with full powers.
In Plato’s republic the elite guardians, with superior knowledge and understanding, are trusted to govern.
This was criticised by Aristotle, another celebrated Greek philosopher. Much of modern history has been about whether governments should be endowed with near absolute powers, or whether power should be limited by effective checks and balances.
England resisted the tendency in continental Europe towards absolute monarchy, the leading proponent of which was the French King, Louis XIV ( 1638-1715).
In England this led to the Civil War (1642-1651) between Parliamentarians and Royalists, the execution of the King and a republic or Commonwealth which soon turned into a dictatorship (1649-1660). The question was finally resolved in the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when the powers of the King were limited in favour of Parliament.
England, and then Britain, have long been the leading examples of limited government. Indeed, the Parliament at Westminster is known as the Mother of Parliaments.
In the next century, the French tried to dismantle their absolute monarchy. But the French Revolution (1789) led to the Reign of Terror, dictatorship under Napoleon and until 1815 a long European war.
In the period of Australia’s evolution from a penal colony to self government and independence, France has known various revolutionary regimes, on fascist regime, five republics, three monarchies and two empires. The English speaking countries have since 1688 lived under constitutions which provide both limited and stable government.