Unwritten Rule

By Stephen Green, Thomas Legg, and Martin Donnelly
Published by Haus Publishing, 2021, paperback, £7.99
Available at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road

Review by Tim Barton

Here is another short volume from the new series, Haus Curiosities, ‘inspired by the topical pamphlets of the interwar years’. In the last issue I looked at ‘Self and Society’, five pieces addressing the question ‘are communal solidarity and individual freedom allies or antagonists?’ This time I am looking at another in the series: Unwritten Rule discusses the British constitution, and possibilities of reform. These are perennial topics that are inter-related.

In Hastings, groups such as the People’s Assembly, and Make Votes Matter, are fighting a rear-guard action to promote both communal solidarity and individual freedom through localism and constitutional reformism. In Self and Society one of the essayists wrote that whilst ‘privilege and money are both forms of power’, it is also the case that ‘power, remember, resides equally with citizens. My voice and my vote must be exactly equal to yours, or we do not live in a democracy.’ 

Now, I can’t begin to unpick the naivety of this statement in the space I have here! Let’s just take away from this two conclusions: Firstly, that if that is a definition of democracy then we certainly do not live in one. Secondly, the ‘Russian oligarch’ problem raised in relation to Tory donorship over the last weeks should make it quite clear that lobbyists can bribe our ‘representatives’ and steer our government’s actions far more readily than you or I can, even in concert with our fellow constituents.

TREASON AGAINST THE CONSTITUTION

Which brings us neatly to the reason Unwritten Rule has implicit in its subtitle – ‘how to fix the British Constitution’ – that it is broken. And not least of the issues needing mending is that, it is indeed ‘unwritten’. Shorthand for this might be that ‘we have no constitution’, but that would be too simplistic. We have a patchwork quilt of rules, laws, and common practices, a messy palimpsest that loosely is called, qua Walter Bagehot, ‘the English constitution’. Obviously, some of this is written down: Bagehot rather cynically, but not wholly inaccurately, didn’t regard this as important, as it was ‘living reality’ (a nebulous nexus of practical behaviours and the real centres of power) that mattered. 

When Johnson fought the Supreme Court over his right to prorogue Parliament, he was, ironically, battling against one of the few solid written chunks of our ‘constitution’, the Bill of Rights of 1689. If the court had found in his favour they would, in fact, have committed treason against the constitution, something Johnson surely must have known, as it is a fairly basic bit of sixth form political history, and he and his snobbish Etonian cohort claim to be experts in such things.

It is the expressed belief of the authors of Unwritten Rule that ‘the integrity of the UK is under threat’. They believe we can still salvage our country, but that a ‘national discussion must begin now’ on what a new modern constitutional settlement may look like. The tenor of this viewpoint is that further decentralisation is to be resisted, a position I regard as in fact detrimental to saving the country. Nevertheless, the book will, as Vernon Bogdanor, author of Devolution in the United Kingdom puts it, ‘undoubtedly reinvigorate the debate’.

RATIONAL VOICES PRESSING FOR POSITIVE REFORM

So far as Hastings’ People’s Assembly and Make Votes Matter are concerned, a more directly democratic element should be urgently introduced into any emergent constitution. For voter equality to be realised, a proportionally representative voting system would be a minimum requirement. A significant scaling back of the power of lobbyists, and a new ethic that calls a ‘donation’ a bribe and legislates accordingly, would also be a necessity. Those advocating ‘people’s assemblies’, or ‘municipal libertarianism’, will include some who would seek a more radically ‘direct democracy’ and significant devolution of powers to towns, councils, and indeed ‘the people’, moves that would be directly counter to the last twelve years of government assault on municipal power, something those of us here in Hastings will feel particularly sharply.

Such changes to the political and economic balance of powers would also require an urgent and conscious national effort to make the people of our atomised society into actual ‘citizens’, something many of our European neighbours teach from primary school upwards. If a directly democratic and/or proportionately representative system is to function at all justly, an electorate more au fait with critical questioning and basic analysis of argument, and some political and ethic history under their belts, would be far safer than the ‘democracy as mob rule’ cartoon promoted by Plato and spoon-fed to our elites from birth: a self-fulfilling prophecy, as this self-important class design our education with their own doctrinal blinkers firmly in place. 

There are, too, dangers in a formal written constitution. Who writes it, and who has a say in its contents? Will it be fixed for all eternity, or will it offer mechanisms for amendment? If it allows of the latter, which values will it seek to regard as relative or contingent, and which as fundamental and unchangeable? And again, who decides. To this extent the authors are right that we need constitutional reform, and that that should include a more formally written constitution and bill of rights; but, ironically, this perilous moment may make a sane agreement impossible, and may shackle us to the very same illiberal values that are causing us issues, as the vocal minority of dangerous populists drown out the rational voices pressing for positive reform. Nonetheless, the provisional suggestions for a ‘new constitutional settlement’ set out by the authors of this book are a good place to start a meaningful debate.


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