We never needed a formal constitution to guard against extremism—but if we continue down our current route that could changeby Rory Stewart / June 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the end our British culture has always been about finding the creative energy of the centre ground and avoiding the fantasies of the extremes. It was the genius of our constitution—our response to reformation and revolution—through church and constitutional monarchy. It is the core of the concept of a loyal opposition that can contest every policy while accepting the ground rules. It is how we avoided the extreme ideologies of the 20th century. It is the source of our stability—and our economic credibility.
Even British nationalism was always a complex and flexible phenomenon: it had to be, since we needed an identity which could encompass four quite different nations. And the English element was even stranger, with no traditional costume or music to match the bagpipes and kilt. Instead, it was defined by a culture: being good at queuing, stopping at zebra crossings, and indeed having judges that don’t take bribes. It is an unspoken way of behaving, and a very powerful one—admired throughout the world but difficult to codify or replicate. Politically it lends itself to pragmatism and stability, which then supports an economy where investors and businesses judge this to be a safe place to keep their money.
Today, however, I fear that something unfamiliar and new is creeping into British political language: the abstraction and the absolutism more associated with revolutionary republics such as France or indeed the United States. It is alien to our tradition, doesn’t solve anything and—perhaps most importantly—is ill-suited to our institutions, and the way they have always worked.
In the US, whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, his power is checked and balanced in many ways. What is potentially frightening for the UK is that with our much less formal constitution, if we were indeed to lapse into a shrill and irredeemably polarised discourse then political leaders who are only interested in their own narrow base, as opposed to the country as a whole, could operate without checks. A Corbyn government—or, God help us—a far-right administration could do what it liked with a majority of one.
Our governance has sometimes been called an elective dictatorship, and in more tranquil circumstances that might have advantages: when George Osborne needed to take through a very stiff budget, there was no…