by Elias Blum
This week I have been reading Granville Austin’s ‘Constitution of India: Cornerstone of a nation’.
The Constitution of India is without doubt one of the greatest achievements of human civilisation – an intellectual, moral, cultural wonder of the world. In the Constitution the high principles of freedom and democracy, and the promises of fraternity and social justice, are brought down from the heights of abstraction and embodied in mundane, sometimes idiotic, often corrupt, but nevertheless valiant and vital, parliamentary institutions.
Indians are rightly and justifiably proud of their Constitution. Yet, without detracting from the Indian achievement, the Constitution of India is also, in a paradoxical sense, a great British achievement. It is a product of the values and institutions of the British Empire. It could not have been produced without the example and experience of the Westminster system in its manifold deviations, nor without the training that many of the Indian constitution-makers had at the Bar or in British Universities. The Indian Constitution was even written in English. As a legal and cultural artefact, it belongs to the worldwide ‘social union’ of British-Imperial culture – a shared commonwealth of history and understanding that stands ever firm, even as nation after nation has graduated from London-rule, through various stages of devolution, to full independence.
Yet the paradox is this: the Constitution of India could not have been achieved by the British themselves. The best the British could produce was the half-hearted semi-democratic ‘Devo-Max’ arrangement of the Government of India Act, 1935. The Indian Constitution, as the foundation for an independent, democratic, secular republic, could only have been written because the leaders and the people of India found the courage and strength to reject British rule, and the wherewithal first to demand, and then to build, something better.
In this brave course, India followed where Ireland had led. In reading Austin’s book, I was surprised to discover the extent to which Indian founding fathers consciously looked to De Valera’s 1937 Constitution of Ireland, rather than to the creaky institutions of late-imperial Britain, for examples of how to build a modern democratic Constitution.
I wonder, perhaps, if there are parallels here between India and Scotland. Sometimes, it seems, the best thing a noble-minded (but thoroughly opportunistic, venial and hypocritical) empire can do is to pass gently away, leaving its cultural treasures to be picked up and refashioned by those who were once subject peoples but are now free citizens.
Perhaps, to preserve what was good about Britain, and to leave behind what is bad, we need to find the courage to become independent. We need to say ‘Yes, we can do better than this’. In order to face our future and to make peace with our past, we need to be willing to constitute ourselves anew – to say ‘Yes, we will take the reins of government into our own hands. Yes, we will be responsible for our own country and our own future – we, together.’
This is a bold thing to do. It means shaking off sloth, apathy, complacency, fear, despondency and negativity. It is an act of faith, and sometimes I don’t think I have enough of it. But that, ultimately, is what Scottish Independence about: the chance for Scotland to reconstitute itself on democratic principles and to be re-founded as a free and flourishing res publica.
In doing so, we will take the best of British heritage (building on it, not rejecting it) and the best of global excellence – from India, Ireland, Canada, or elsewhere. We will combine these ingredients in our own unique way to produce something unmistakeably Scottish, but in no way ‘narrowly nationalistic’ or inward-looking.