Constitutional reform is usually regarded as worthy but dull. Anthony Barnett of Charter 88 argues that this indifference has been challenged. Reform has found a voice. The simultaneous publication of several important books on constitutional themes seems to support his caseby Anthony Barnett / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
A new order is being born. When the UK’s constitution is codified, probably about the year 2010, people will date the start of the process to the months between the publication of the Nolan and the Scott reports. This new settlement needs a fresh discourse: free-ranging, sharp, non-sectarian. But how do you speak about the unspeakable?
In the past three months more books have been published on the state of our constitution than at any one season in living memory. A dam is breaking, a blockage is lifting, an historic impediment to democracy in the UK is at last giving way. Yet the strain is clear to anyone who reads these new studies. Their language is arbitrary or jocular-and full of stress. To write about the constitution still feels like dealing with the undead. Heads droop. A grimace of pained disinterest forms a rictus across the cheeks. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” seems the natural response. It is not that constitutional reform is unpopular-the polls show otherwise. Or that it is irrelevant-it is essential if the UK is to prosper. Something irrational is going on that makes reading and talking about the British constitution (the world’s oldest and-once-arguably its finest) almost repellent. The reason is that in any fair and open debate our constitution could not justify itself to a turtle. This implicates us all-so we share a common desire that the matter not be talked about.
It was not ever thus. Until the first world war our constitution was a matter of constant interest, argument and admiration, often seen as the reason why Great Britain was more powerful than other countries. It was not only Bagehot, Dicey and Burke; Maitland, Disraeli, Mill and even Coleridge turned to the constitution and to what Coleridge regarded as “the great constructive principles of our representative system.” Coleridge also quotes from The Royalist Defence of 1648 “that arbitrary power is destructive of the best purposes for which power is conferred.” Who has produced a phrase as fine as this in criticism of Michael Howard, the home secretary? Who, in official life, has harked back to the debates which helped to form our constitution, in order to defend the historic liberties which the very same constitution now allows to be eliminated?