Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: October, 2016

Constitutions Shmonstitutions.

It’s important not to get too obsessed with constitutional design. Considering that I’ve made my academic and professional career out of constitutional design, that seems like an odd thing to say. But it’s just a reality check.

Of course constitutions matter. Constitutions do useful things: establishing structures and institutions of government, regulating relationships between them, distributing powers, defining the rights of citizens, proclaiming the identity and basic purposes of the state. The absence of a constitution means that these things are not set down in any clear and stable way, but are left to be determined by the government on the grounds of political expediency – which is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs. Likewise, the quality and resilience of a country’s democracy can be fatally undermined by a weak, inappropriate, illegitimate or badly written constitution – of which history affords many examples. On the other hand, the adoption of a new constitution, especially if produced through an inclusive, legitimate process, can be an important break from an authoritarian past, and can help – both by the legal provisions it establishes and by the political concord it represents – build a stronger and deeper democracy.

I’d also stand up for the role of the constitutional design expert advisor. We know that some constitutional models have relatively predictable effects, and a country would be ill-advised to ignore those likely effects when making constitutional processes. My trade lies in understanding these effects, relating them to the context and needs of particular countries, and helping people to make appropriate constitutional choices that will consolidate rather than erode democracy. That’s all good stuff.

But not every problem is constitutional in nature. And the best constitution in the world, if such a thing could be imagined, will not solve every problem. The constitution is like the skeleton of the body: a sound skeleton is necessary, but the best skeleton will not prevent a disease of the organs. Or it is like the foundation of a house: the firmest foundation will not prevent a leaking roof. When the appendix must be surgically removed, or the slate tiles are needing replaced, there’s no point trying to reset the bones: that’s not where the problem lies, and it’s not where the solution is to be found.

The constitution must be good enough. It must be robust, technically sound, legitimate, and suitable for its intended purpose. But there are limits to what endless constitutional tinkering can achieve.



Spot the Difference

Civic democracy: A form of government in which responsible representative statesmen respond to the real needs, interests and informed opinions of the public in order to hold power and use it for the public good, subject to on-going public scrutiny and debate.

Oligarchic populism: A form of government in which  unscrupulous greedy professional politicians manipulate the fears, prejudices and baser instincts of the people in order to hold power and use it for the benefit of the ruling class, subject to deals done with corporate lobbyists and media barons.

Which one do you live in?

Which one would you like to live in?

How can you help make the change?

‘Tory Democracy’ Explained

For conservatives, money and power go together in a traditional hierarchy of power. It is assumed that the rich have a right to rule, because they alone have a long term vested interest in society; property holding is associated, in the conservative mind, with competence and responsibility. Only the propertied (those whose ownership of productive property, and rentier lifestyle, enabled them to live without labour) were deemed to have the culture, leisure and educations necessary to rule. Only by concentrating power in a class of ‘gentlemen’ could civilisation be protected from the great unwashed.

We see such views animating the Federalist party in the development of the US Constitution: ‘Conservative delegates among the framers – later the core of the Federalist Party – had feared that if ordinary people were given ready access to power they would bring about policies contrary to the views and interests of the more privileged classes, which, as the conservative delegates viewed their interests, were also the best interests of the country’ (Dahl, 2003: 24).

Subsequent generations of conservatives may have come to accept procedural democracy. Some did so reluctantly, as an expedient that could not be avoided. Others saw at least a basic level of procedural democracy as a powerful source of legitimacy for those in government. For conservatives, however, a trusteeship model of democracy prevails. The power to decide policy is still to be concentrated at the top and subject to as few constraints as possible. Opportunities for democratic action should be few, with long terms of office, less inclusive electoral systems, centralised decision-making, and a clear focus on the discretionary authority of the executive.

In so far as rights are protected, primacy is given to property rights, rather than civil and political rights that could be used to challenge those in power, or socio-economic rights that could result in a redistribution of resources away from the elite. The privileges of particular classes – aristocrats, landowners, priests, the military – may also be protected, partly in order to bind these natural leaders, moral guardians and praetorians closely to the centre of political power and partly to guarantee their corporate influence over a polity and society that might otherwise go, as they see it, dangerously astray. The art of conservative constitution-making, then, is to use a minimal procedural democracy as a way of legitimating the state, while protecting elites against the levelling desires of the people.

What is a Constitution?

A constitution is defined as a written legal and political text that is a paramount source of law (principle of constitutional supremacy), that is in some ways harder to change than ordinary statute law (principle of constitutional rigidity), and that organizes political institutions, distributes powers, defines rights, and proclaims the identity and purposes of the state (principle of constitutional function).

Two Depressing Thoughts

Thought One.

The sad thing is that if we want human civilisation to survive for another few generations, we really should be working on resilience to climate change, reversing the decline of bee populations, tackling antibiotic resistance, and cleaning up all the nuclear mess we have so recklessly made. That means, amongst other things, a massive change to our food chain and agricultural practices, a change to how we do and fund research, and willingness to put curating the earth above neo-liberal models of growth. But instead, we have to deal with bonkers Brexiters who want to take us back to the 19th century and mad Mullahs who want to take us back to the 7th.

Thought Two.

You know what I’d like to see: I’d like to see a decent, moderate, centrist Tory (such creatures must exist, surely) come out and say, ‘Brexit was a serious mistake. More than that, it was a gross failure of leadership. If Britain has a future at all, it is a European future. I’m challenging Theresa May for the Tory leadership, and I’m willing to form a Grand Coalition with remainers of all parties to campaign for Britain remaining in the EU in a general election. Oh, and while I’m at it, we need a massive rethinking of how the UK works and what got us into this mess in the first place, starting with a Constitutional Convention with a view to establishing, inter alia, an English Parliament.’ But is is not going to happen.