I have spent a happy, wistful afternoon speculatively imagining what the political systems of Britain might look like today had the Labour Government of 1945 been as radical on constitutional reform as on economic policy.
It is not difficult to speculate on the sort of Constitution that Labour might have adopted, had it been so inclined: proportional representation; abolition of the Lords and the monarchy; disestablishment of the Church of England; a written constitution with judicially-enforced rights, some entrenchment of socio-economic principles; and a commitment to the principle of national self-determination.
While in European and even Commonwealth terms this would not have been particularly novel by the middle of the 20th century, it would have been shocklingly radical by Britain’s uniquely antiquated standards. Even today, it would be a step too far for many in Britain: keeping the monarchy, albeit in an attenuated form, seems to be the first condition of being taken seriously outside a small circle of republican purists.
Because I’m committed to the idea of expanding the ‘constitutional imagination’, I have taken the liberty of sketching it out here: Constitution of the English Republic (1948).
I believe that seeing and reading constitutional texts is vital in helping people who have never lived under a written constitution to grasp and to feel the reality, as well as to intellectually understand the theory, of constitutional democracy.
This particular text is based – quite closely – on the 1948 constitution for Israel which was drafted by Leo Kohn. Kohn, in turn, was influenced by the Constitution of Ireland, which was indirectly influenced by its Westminster progenitor. This text, for all its apparent radicalism, does not actually fall very far from the tree – the basic mechanisms of the Westminster system are preserved, but in a more democratic constitutional form.
Of course, all this is idle speculation. Labour in 1945 – like Labour today – was a party devoid of constitutional imagination. It was content to alter policies, without altering institutions. It left the structures of an oligarchic-aristocratic, and potentially quite authoritarian, state intact – until Blair came along for some half-hearted tinkering.
This unequally yoked union between constitutional conservatism and economic radicalism cannot endure; without a strong concept of republican citizenship, founded upon common right and freedom, it is hard to sustain the moral, ethical and rhetorical foundations of a just economic order. It is hard, without clear constitutional rights and principles, to maintain the institutions of democracy in a healthy state against the insidious incursions of oligarchic power.
The left in Scotland – through the Scottish independence movement – has been thinking about constitutional matters for decades now. It is time for the left in England to do likewise, to break free of its inherited Burkean assumptions, and to recover another tradition – the tradition of the Levellers, of the Radical Whigs, and of Thomas Paine.