Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Be wary of those who meddle with the constitution

We all know that Britain has an "unwritten" constitution. All that means is that our constitution is not written down in one single document, but is actually made up from a number of other documents - Magna Carta, Habeus Corpus, Bill Of Rights, Act of Union etc.

Some people are critical of this claiming that a single written constitutional document would make the constitution clearer to the people and not so dependent on constitutional experts to decipher. Such a view is clearly rubbish as many other nations have written constitutions but still require constitutional experts to make sense of the legal technicalities - often defying logic in the process.

The British constitution is what I would call an organic constitution - i.e. it developed slowly, steadily over centuries and is therefore part of the very fabric of the nation. How can I explain this clearly?

The problem with written constitutions is that somebody has to write them.

Perhaps the best analogy I can come up with is this - an unwritten constitution is like an autobiography while a written constitution is like a biography. An unwritten constitution is created by the people while a written constitution is written "for" the people - and this is why I believe that our constitution is the best we could have or hope for as it derives from the nation and people rather than from a selected or self-appointed group.

We also need to consider why we have a constitution - written or unwritten. The principle point of a national constitution is to impose limitations on the power and authority of government.

This is a crucial point to consider when you hear people talking glibly about "constitutional reform" - because nobody in power changes a constitution to give themselves less power or impose further restraints on how that power is exercised. The first thing Hitler did on becoming Chancellor was introduce "constitutional reform" with an Enabling Act.

Now consider this. Since Magna Carta was signed in 1215 there were just eight constitutional reform acts in 500 years - and most of these coincided with major changes such as the Act of Union in 1707.

We have had as many constitutional reform acts since Labour came to power just 13 years ago as there were in those 500 years since Magna Carta. Labour even managed to introduce as many constitutional changes in their 13 years as were managed in the previous 70 years - and the 20th century was the busiest period in our history for meddling with the constitution!

People who meddle with a constitution as frequently as this do so because they have little understanding of it and absolutely no respect for what it represents. Worse still, they invariably do so because the existing constitution prevents them from doing what they want to do - i.e. it places constraints on their power which is the whole point of the constitution in the first place.

In simple terms it comes down to this. A leader wants to introduce something, but his legal advisers tell him that he can not do this because the constitution forbids it - so the leader changes the constitution. That is power grabbing.

Anyone who changes the constitution when there is no major reason to do so is only making that change because the constitution as it exists limits their power. At best, those people are authoritarian in nature - at worst, they are dictatorial.

Neither is very British.


Roue le Jour said...

It's not a constitution you need as much as constitutional law, i.e. legislation that requires a 'substantial' majority rather than than a simple one.

Richard Matthews said...

Hi Stan

This is a wee bit off-topic for this particular thread, but I wondered if you'd seen the comments of Angela Merkel on the Euro.

Apparently the Euro is in danger. This sounds rather encouraging. I'm hoping our German brothers across the ocean will see sense and ditch the bloody thing. The rest of Europe will surely follow suit.

Stan said...

Hello Richard, I haven't actually read Merkel's comments, but I've heard a couple of comments about it from other people. As I understand it she was saying that the collapse of the eurozone could spell the end of the EU?

I think the demise of the EU is inevitable, but in contrast to Merkel, I think that if countries decide to ditch the euro and return to their own currencies this could actually help the EU stay together for longer.

Let me explain. For the eurozone to stay together someone is going to have to fork out an awful lot of money to support those weaker nations - Ireland, Spain, Portugal - and that someone will be Germany.

When I say a lot of money - I mean a LOT of money - we're talking trillions here. Germany will try and get other EU nations to share the burden of this debt - including the UK - but I think these requests will be denied - a) because we're not part of the eurozone and b) because we can't afford it.

France, burdened as it is with its own massive public sector liabilities, will also refuse to stump the cash and Germany will have to shoulder the burden alone.

This is where the arguments and recriminations will begin that will lead to the break up of the EU.

If, however, the smaller, weaker nations start to leave the eurozone and return to their own currencies, they will have regained the control over their fiscal policy enabling them to ride the depression more effectively.

They'll still struggle terribly - but now they'll be able to call on the likes of Britain to stump up more cash in the form of grants to support them rather than cash to support the currency - so it would be much like the EU was before the euro.

So I'm hoping that those smaller, weaker nations hang on to the euro until they force Germany to quit it - then the collapse will be rapid.

Richard Matthews said...

An interesting point, Stan. If it's true (and I think it is) that the Euro currency is all about politics and nothing to do with economics - the the Germans will certainly want to stop anyone from reverting back to their own currencies. Should the PIIGS leave the Euro, this would be a hammer-blow to the project of ever-closer union. Would the powers that be in the EU accept a step backwards to the EU-lite of a few years ago?

I think it's possible that the PIIGS may take the more drastic decision of leaving the EU altogether. They could release themselves from the shackles of EU regulations. This would certainly result in them losing EU funding (which surely has to dry up soon anyway), but might it also lead to inward investment as businesses strive to take advantage of a less-regulated labour market that the PIIGS would have if they left the EU.

This all begs the question: If the EU is bad for the PIIGS, then it certainly can't be good for the rest of us, can it?

bernard said...

Of all the EU states, the Czech Republic is the only one to get anything right.
They joined the EU in 2004, and a year later Václav Klaus became president.
From that day to this he has had serious doubts about the EU's viability, and from 2005 he appointed like-minded ministers, including Zdeněk Tůma (Governor of their National Bank) who has continued to postpone joining the ERM ever since, and refusing to bow to pressure from all the other member states.
Their country is run by REAL MEN, not the patsies and flunkies that masquerade as leaders in the West.
That we should be so lucky.

Richard Matthews said...

The Czechs still ratified the Lisbon treaty, which means they're just the same as the rest of us.