Saturday, 19 January 2013

Constitutional conundrums

I've just caught up with Slate magazine's American politics podcast from the end of December. As someone who spent large portions of his life in the US and still feels a sliver of American identity mixed in with the confusion of Britishnesses, I'm a shameless addict of the subject. But their end-of-year show steps back from political streetfighting to address 'conundrums' of all kinds, from the profound to the deeply frivolous.

One 'conundrum' this year was, if you could take one feature of American public life with you to a foreign country, which would it be? If you're interested in their answers, download the podcast. But it set me thinking: if that question was asked of British public life, how would we answer it?

There are cheap, obvious and perfectly true answers: the NHS, the BBC. Or there are cheap and realistic ones: we've already spent centuries exporting parliamentary government, slavery, common law, cholera and hypocrisy, so why stop now?

But I'll attempt something a little deeper: the power and depth of convention and consensus in public life. The US almost manages this, but not quite, because of its written constitution. Of course, in practice we all know that written constitutions are flimsy documents: plenty of countries routinely replace, rewrite, violate or simply ignore theirs. The American one has survived so long not because it's particularly brilliant (I mean, it's not at all bad, but there are also some definite oddities there), but because of an amazingly deep and universal political consensus that accepts it as legitimate. The US Constitution is powerful because political consensus and convention says that it is. And so the American system has deep reserves of stability, for all that it looks superficially dysfunctional right now.

In Britain we have something similar: a very deep and broad consensus about the basic rules of the political game. Unlike the US, we don't have a formal constitution to express that consensus. The advantage of that is that it allows the consensus to develop organically, and for new elements (the now-established position of occasional referenda, for example) to take shape. The disadvantage is that we have fewer formal safeguards against any attempt to violate the consensus.

But then, written constitutions aren't effective safeguards. They're just paper. The real safeguard, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a deep political culture that makes attempts at violation seem simply illegitimate. That only emerged in the UK as a result of a long, contingent and, frankly, weird set of historical processes. It is one of the least exportable things in the world. And I think it would be one of the things most worth exporting.

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