Opinions are divided on the matter of the British constitution. On the one hand, the politicians, the civil service and the judiciary, along with their allies and dependents in the financial sector and the serious media, take the view that the place has, and is lucky to have, an uncodified constitution. In this they side with Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, who famously wrote that without “the prudence and uprightness of Ministers of State… your Commonwealth is no better than a scheme upon paper; and not a living, acting, effective constitution”.
Peoples are governed, said Burke, “by a knowledge of their temper and by a judicious management of it”. The constitution may have written elements but its most important passages are inscribed in the minds of both the rulers and ruled.
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Prudence and uprightness, managing the temper of the people… It is an idea of the constitution as appealing to newspaper proprietors and intelligence officials as it is to politicians.
Their critics, on the other hand, side with Burke’s great opponent, Paine, and insist that a constitution “has not an ideal but a real existence; and wherever it cannot be produced in visible form, there is none”.
A constitution, wrote Paine, is the means by which the people determine the nature of the government that they will set over themselves, it is “to a government what the laws made afterwards by that government are to a court of judicature”.
This is a notion that has become self-evident almost everywhere in the world, apart from England, the country of Paine’s birth. Here the Burkean idea of a constitution encoded in hearts and minds survives, a living fossil in a world overrun by formally constituted republics.
Exotic though Britain’s arrangements are, they largely pass unremarked. Ministers and editors assure the English that the rest of the world has had to adopt formal constitutions because they lack the singular genius that inhabits these islands. Well-meaning outsiders like Larry Siedentop might point out that, by seeking “unity in manners rather than ideas”, British society has left itself with “no intelligible model of ambition”.
He has a point. Consider how the appearance of timeless solidity in the City of London obscures the reality of breakneck criminality. It takes only a moment’s thought to connect the inscrutability of public life to the troubles and confusions of the private sphere. So, for the most part, the English have preferred not to think about it at all.
On matters constitutional
But the party of Burke in England have run into a problem: The Scottish independence referendum. The second largest country in the United Kingdom will vote on September 18 this year on whether it wants to strike out on its own as an independent country. That’s worrying enough in itself. But the debate in Scotland prompted by the referendum threatens to shake the English out of their torpor in matters constitutional.
The devolved government in Edinburgh has produced a book, “Scotland’s Future”, which sets out its proposals for an independent Scotland. Independence, they write, “provides an opportunity to modernise Scottish democracy on the basis of a written constitution”. It, therefore, wants to hold a constitutional convention. The idea of a constitutional convention, in an English-speaking country, next door to England, as Adam Ramsay has pointed out, this is surely something the English will notice.
There are also devils in the details of “Scotland’s Future” to torment Burke. The Scottish government wants to establish a currency union with England in which “monetary policy will be set according to economic conditions across the Sterling Area with ownership and governance of the Bank of England undertaken on a shareholder basis”. This is something the three main Westminster parties have united to reject, and one can see why.
After all, if Scotland can have a share in the Bank of England, then the rest of the UK might start to ask questions. Should they not also have a say “on a shareholder basis”? Mark Carney, the Bank’s current governor seems very relaxed about another massive expansion of credit. The Midlands and the North of England, who are paying the price of the last one, might have other views.
These are only the proposals of the Scottish government. The debate is also creating an opportunity for others to set out what they think a modern constitutional democracy looks like.
The debate is also creating an opportunity for others to set out what they think a modern constitutional democracy looks like.
The Radical Independence Movement, for example, is campaigning for a Scotland that is greener and more socialist than anything that the Scottish National Party proposes. And there’s no telling how the debate will develop if the Scots choose independence and hold their constitutional convention.
The world has moved on since Paine helped persuade the Americans to risk separation from Britain. Taxation is no longer a straightforwardly national matter. The power to adequate revenues taxes in one country has unavoidably global implications. We now rely on digital technology, not pamphlets, for our political information.
If the Scots are to be truly self-governing, they will have to update 18th century notions of a free press to address this new reality. Almost everywhere money is created and distributed by what Geoffrey Ingham calls a “public-private partnership” of technocratic central banks and a profit-driven financial sector. Perhaps the Scots will bring it into the daylight of the constitution and under effective democratic control.
Already the debate is giving all the British an education in the assumptions and habits of mind that underpin our current arrangements. When asked whether it was a good idea to play on fears about Scotland’s status in Europe after independence, an unnamed Scottish MP in the Westminster Parliament replied that “they need to be told. It’s like a child saying they want to play in the rain. They can do if they want but they need to know that they’ll get wet.”
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He or she has a point. In the absence of a written constitution those of us who are not let in on the mysteries of public life are a lot like children.
The Scots are slowly turning away from the ambiguities and consolations of Britain. There is now at least a chance that their turning will wake the English. If it does, America, the most venerable of the revolutionary republics, will be presented in turn with the spectacle of English-speaking peoples designing modern constitutions.
Through the NSA-GCHQ system, the British and the Americans currently belong to the same transatlantic empire of knowledge. No wonder the politicians in Westminster are worried. Their partners in Washington will not thank them if the Scots, and then the English, take up the great cause, Paine’s cause, the cause of liberty.
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His e-book, Maximum Republic is published later this month.