A Constitution for Ankh-Morpork

by Elias Blum

As a Discworld fan, it seems to me that Ankh-Morpork desperately needs a constitution.

The Discworld books tell us a surprising amount about the law, governance and politics of the city. After the expulsion of the kings, Ankh-Morpork was ruled by a series of Patricians. The Patrician was informally chosen by a council of the great and good, mostly consisting of the guild leaders and the old aristocracy. The same council seems to have some recognised, if limited and occasional, role in the government of the City, as it is shown in several books as advising the Patrician. Moreover, although the Patrician has a near-autocratic power over public policy, he has to keep this council of guild leaders and aristocracy more or less on side; on at least one occasion we see the council attempt to depose a Patrician. There are also some well-respected limits on the Patrician’s power: the autonomy of the Unseen University is well-established, and day-to-day civil and criminal law is enforced according to a written set of codified laws that seem to be quite impartially applied. Ankh-Morpork is, moreover, a remarkably liberal society: there is freedom of movement and trade, freedom of expression, and a tolerant inclusion of different races and lifestyles. The guilds play a central role in Ankh-Morpork’s life: they not only organise and regulate economic activity, but also act as social institutions, providing education and a form of social security for their members. In all, we can see Ankh-Morpork as a sort of mixture between an elective monarchy and an oligarchic republic.

This arrangement is portrayed in the Discworld books as working remarkably well. The current Patrician, Havelock Vetinari, is the very model of the enlightened despot and renaissance prince; he rules with a light, subtle and cunning hand. However, as we dig into the history of Ankh-Morpork, we see that for most of the time this system has worked quite badly. Most previous Patricians have been bullies, madmen or incompetents. The turnover of power has often been achieved by means of coups and assassinations. Until Vetinari sorts things out, the city has been experiencing a long period of decay – all its institutions are decrepit until Vetinari comes along and rebuilds a working professional police force, a post office, a mint and a central bank. Even by its the standards of its own time, the system fails because it depends too much on the skills and character of one person – the Patrician – and it doesn’t generally guarantee a good one.

Secondly, the system has become woefully outdated. In the later books, we see profound technological changes, such as the invention of the printing press, the clacks, and the railway. We also see social and economic changes, such as mass immigration from Sto Lat and Uberwald, the entrance of Golems, Goblins and Dwarves into the workforce, and the decline in the importance of the guilds (because of new industries operating outside of the guild system) and of the aristocracy (because of new money). The old council of guildsmen and aristocrats used to represent the actual social structure of the City at the beginning of the series of books; it no longer does so at the end. Many Ankh-Morporkians (including a new bourgeoisie and a new industrial proletariat) are totally excluded from the institutions of government.

The all-encompassing prowess of Vetinari as a ruler, combined with the decline in the relevance of the council in a changing social and economic environment, cause Ankh-Morpork to become less republican, and more monarchical, over time. In the later books, Vetinari begins to style himself more self-consciously as a ‘Prince’ (that is, someone who has sovereignty over a city) rather than as ‘Patrician’ (that is, someone holding chief executive office in a sovereign city). The council also atrophies. Although we never hear of it being abolished, it is never mentioned and appears to have fallen into disuse.

So it seems that the time is ripe for Ankh-Morpork to adopt a new constitution that would, on the one hand, make the continuity of the City’s success less dependent on the skills of one rare person, and, on the other hand, incorporate new citizens and the previously excluded classes into public affairs. The obvious way to do this would be: (i) to replace the old council with a new one based solely or primarily on popular election, with a stronger mandate and greater powers; and (ii) for the Patrician to be elected for fixed terms. Something like the arrangement contained in the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act (two-thirds Councillors elected by the rate-payers for three-year terms, one-third co-opted Aldermen serving for six-year terms, and a Mayor chosen annually by the Councillors and Aldermen together) would do the trick. The inclusion of the Aldermen – who might be selected from the guild leaders and aristocracy – would be a balancing compromise to existing interests. By embodying these institutional arrangements, as well as certain already accepted fundamental principles such as freedom of expression and non-discrimination, in a constitutional charter, Vetinari could entrench his legacy and go down in history not only as the best Patrician Ankh-Morpork ever had, but also as the great reformer who laid the foundations for future generations.

A discworld book exploring the constitution making process would have made for very interesting reading – and not just for the world’s small handful of constitution geeks like me. The issues involved get to the root of Ankh-Morporkian society and I think Pratchett would have handled them very well. It would have ended the series nicely, retiring Vetinari as a central character and at the same time taking Ankh-Morpork from its origins in faux-medieval fantasy and bringing it up to a sort of steampunk modernity.

It would be even better if the book were to go as far as the first elections. I can imagine Moist von Lipwig as the leader of the ‘Whig’ party: brash, rich, populist, modernising, running on his record as the man who gets things done. Lord Rust would be a good ‘Tory’ challenger: physically courageous, honest in a gruff and tactless way, with a certain sense of public duty that never stops for a moment to think about anything so insubstantial as an idea. It would be a great read.