Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Neal Ascherson in the LRB 

Written​ constitutions? ‘Because of where I came from, these documents seemed profoundly exotic.’ In spite of where she came from, which was England, Linda Colley became many years ago the first English intellectual to explain to her nation just how exotic ‘Britishness’ was. Now, with the same pioneering enthusiasm, she has produced a book about constitutions. Not the unwritten playground rules that supposedly guide the Anglo-British state, but those semi-sacred printed sheets of paper for which men and women in the outside world have been known to die. 

The book comes at the right moment. Constitutional storms are massing over the old United Kingdom. One, of course, is territorial: the matter of Scottish secession and perhaps Irish reunion. Another approaching hard rain is less obvious but more dangerous. This is the accelerating offensive of the Westminster executive against its restraints: against rival centres of power in Brussels or Edinburgh, against plural interpretations of history, against law itself. Most British governments since Thatcher’s have sought to stamp out what they see as a spreading ‘European heresy’: the notion that supreme law should stand above parliaments, that judges in a democracy may reverse the will of an elected government if it violates a constitution.

This storm has been brewing for a long time. Take a late 20th-century example: during one of those recurring leak panics, somebody in Whitehall revealed to a journalist that a cabinet minister was lying. In the uproar that followed, a civil servant was challenged to confirm that she owed unconditional loyalty to her minister. But she demurred. ‘At the end of the day, I answer to the little lady at the end of the Mall.’ That reply confirmed that the United Kingdom is still essentially a monarchical structure. Not in terms of direct royal intervention, but as a polity in which power flows from the top down. The idiotic doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the late 17th-century transfer of absolutism from kings endowed with divine right to an elected assembly – excludes any firmly entrenched distribution of rights. Popular sovereignty in Britain is a metaphor, not an institution....

One of the virtues of this book is that it isn’t Eurocentric. The Polish constitution of 1791, which so much excited radicals and intellectuals in France and Britain, gets only a passing mention. Instead, Colley discusses the 1821 Plan de Iguala in Mexico, whose famous Twelfth Article overthrew racial (but not sexual) discrimination: ‘All the inhabitants of New Spain, without any distinction between Europeans, Africans or Indians,’ it held, ‘are citizens of this monarchy.’ And she finds a connection between the plan and the extraordinary Calcutta Journal, edited in those years by the radical English wanderer James Silk Buckingham and his friend Rammohan Roy, a high-caste Bengali intellectual who campaigned to reform Hinduism and attacked the ruling East India Company. Both men believed in the reforming power of written constitutions for India and republished the Plan de Iguala in their paper.

I'm a fan of written constitutions –living trees, not dead ones- a council of elders, forms of "elitist theater for all." "Because I understood," he said.

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