Constitutional Shenanigans

The British Constitution is a very odd thing. It is an unwritten grab-bag of historical conventions, understandings, mutually contradictory 'settlements' and statutes. Those who try and follow it fairly soon realise the sense of the 'organic' description that best fits it and that reminds people of the interplay of light and shade in a forest built up over a thousand years.

Attempts to reform the system formally tend to be piecemeal. Since the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice of Cromwell's disastrous time strangled the Levellers and Diggers, England has only really been able to look to the Dutch invasion of 1688-9 for a written constitutional tradition. That incursion resulted in a coup d'etat, and the 'Bill of Rights' enshrining Parliament's privileges and trial by jury.

The Bill is not to be confused with the American document enshrining individual liberties. It protected legislators until Mohammed Al-Fayed's allegations encouraged a Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton, to have it altered so that he could fight a libel case against Al-Fayed, which he lost. There have been great bills of reform, and complicated adjustments; but there is no overarching scheme. This is odd, given how much legal scaffolding the British left behind in their former colonies, from America through Africa and Asia to Ireland. Still, those who order the lands of others, I suppose, might prefer a certain scruffiness at home.

British government is actually a mixture of social networks, committees and absurdly powerful written laws authorising various international bodies of law.

Cynical political maneuverings dressed up as constitutional reform and pompous schemes of reorganisation are equally well and oft known to such a system. It's difficult, if your rule is that the Crown in Parliament is supreme, to do anything to limit a Parliament. However, some people are wont to try, and there have been numerous attempts to put things on a more formal basis. The latest is about to hit the UK.

The scheme basically boils down to government oppportunism. The Prime Minister needs to seem British, since some little Englanders insist on seeing him as a Scot and Scottish Nationalists have performed a partial heist on the British identity of England's partner in Empire. The Justice Secretary is worried Labour may lose the next election. The Middle Classes are not happy with ID cards, which they presumably believe are only appropriate for the people they spend their lives attempting to patronise.

Cue lots of talk about writing down constitutional precepts (without understanding that this then means they become justiciable and the source of endless hours of paid legal amusement in the courts). Then dust off Lloyd George's (Liberal) 1918 scheme for 'Second Preference votes' built into the 1918 Reform Act to limit the anticipated power of the working classes in urban areas and never introduced. Then pull the secular Turin Shroud of the common law off a new body, 'The Supreme Court', which is basically the House of Lords Judiciary Committee in a new building. Finally, propose abolishing the Lords and stuffing a replacement Senate with people who won't go near local councils or who can't get elected to the House of Commons despite long service in student unions and other lesser comic operas.

It isn't hard to see what will happen after this milky way wind blows through the spirals of Britain's system. The media will be entranced, the electorate will be bored and the very real problems of the country, probably, will not be addressed.

I'm not wholly cynical about constitutional reform. I think that coherent and well-thought out reforms could be possible. We should nominate a national convention of interested members of the House of Lords who cannot be bought off or threatened, Judges, and ordinary voters who are not members or representatives of any political party and leave them alone for six months.

Such a convention wouldn't result in a repeat of the 'miracle at Philadelphia' but it may stop the cynical capture and deployment of the issue by a government determined to stay in office.

Though, of course, actually letting people who aren't part of the elected political class have a decisive say isn't what anyone in Britain's system actually wants or would allow at all.


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