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July 31, 2007


Political Umpire

Implicitly and, perhaps, inadvertently, you and Sunny have stuck one in the eye of the European project. For "codified and easily accessible political values, which we can build a shared civic culture around. Political values such as strong democratic institutions, a commitment to freedom of speech, clearly laid out civil rights and more" already exist in a supra-constitutional form, namely the European Convention on Human Rights. Under the ECHR, the Strasbourg court can declare domestic legislation incompatible with the rights and freedoms in the Convention, and invariably the offending provisions are then modified or removed by the UK Parliament (it could in theory refuse, but that would precipitate a major constitutional crisis).

Neither Sunny nor yourself pointed this out, which makes me wonder how much of a shared culture has been created by the document (not much) or whether it would be different under a UK constitution - how we could have an equivalent document to the ECHR but still remain in the EU isn't clear (answer: you can't - note to David Cameron and Gordon Brown, please).

Other points:

- "clear" is an adjective never to be used in relation to Constitutions of the type under discussion. Everyone is in favour of free speech etc until you start to define it (if the concept was clear, it wouldn't have had two centuries of furious debate & litigation in the US).

- Indeed the chattering classes like written constitutions. At times, I confess, I am given to wonder if one wouldn't be a good idea simply because the Blair government proved itself so incapable of respecting the unwritten constitution that I was driven to think a written one might be needed. But then I remembered the beautifully written constitutions which formed part of the handover of African territories, and which lasted about five minutes each (Ghana, for example). Or the provision in Pakistan's constitution - there since 1956 and there still - providing for absolute freedom of worship, religion etc - which sadly has been honoured in the breach rather more than the observance.

- Written constitutions a la the USA hand a great deal of power to unelected judges, much more than they traditionally enjoy in Britain.

Anthony Barnett

Why is it that everyone seems to think that a written constitution means something like that in the United States the second oldest and arguably the second worst after the UK's in a developed country? There is the German federal constitution, the new Spanish constitution, the successful introduction of the South African Constitution, India's pioneering secular constitution. US legalism, which 'political umpire' rightly scorns, is partly a function of its downgrading of elections, many citizens cannot vote, elections are bought by money and they have a winner-takes-all system, in short a constitution which gave power to George Bush even though he lost in 2000. No one thinks this is a model for a contemporary democratic constitution.
Anthony Barnett

Political Umpire

And yet the US and UK have been far more stable and prosperous than any of those examples for a much longer period (Germany has been prosperous from 1871 granted, but with some rather alarming interludes, one of which gave rise to its constitution, which was specifically drafted to prevent extremists ever taking over again). The examples are very limited in their relevance to the UK (Spain has it so why not the UK? Well, the UK hasn't had Franco, and isn't presently the most corrupt country in Western Europe - had Mr Barnett done business in Spain as I have he'd know what I mean).

Britain has done pretty well in terms of its domestic economy and liberty over the years, compared with most other countries. It is ridiculous to suggest that its unwritten constitution is the worst in the developed world. Why is the City of London Europe's premier financial centre? Because everyone likes the expertise and the regulatory environment, the latter being controlled ultimately by our constitution. The market evidently disagrees with the cynics.

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