A constitutional reckoning
The idea that current events demonstrate the need in the UK for a written constitution is mistaken (“Crisis,” May). Moving to one is both unachievable and undesirable.
It is unachievable because the value of any new system can be decided only by reference to whether it would produce better results. No new process can really be impartial—it will inevitably make some decisions more likely than others; and no consensus will be attainable on which ones. After Brexit, would the written constitution we should have be the one that would have made it easier, or the one that would have made it easier to stop?
It is undesirable because it reduces political problems to arguments about the wording of a document framed before the problems arose, instead of the merits of the issues actually at stake. For this reason, it also necessarily involves a transfer of political influence from elected politicians to unaccountable judges.
The inevitably broad propositions of a written constitution would amount, in the words of the late John Griffith, to no more than the statement of political conflicts pretending to be their resolution.
Stephen Laws, former first parliamentary council and senior fellow on Policy Exchange’s judicial power project
Adam Tomkins (The Duel, May) believes that a protected constitution would give too much power to the courts. However, the ability of courts to strike down legislation can sometimes be an essential part of the system of checks and balances that prevents a democracy turning into an elective dictatorship.
Take, for example, the provisions in the Irish constitution on separation of powers, which the Irish courts have enforced by striking down legislation that delegated too much power to the executive. That is a protection the UK could well do with, on democratic grounds, in response to its own over-reaching executive.
The democratic case for entrenchment is even stronger if the constitutional protection upheld by the court is not effectively immutable (as in the US) but changeable by referendum after a process of popular debate (as it is in Ireland).
George Peretz QC, Monckton Chambers
Tweet of the month
“Does Britain need a written constitution? @Prospect_UK debates the question. Short answer: too complicated for a short answer. One thing worth noting: constitutions have a built-in resistance to their own change, something like the US two thirds majority hurdle”
Mark Wallace is right to point out that the Conservative Party is in trouble (Opinions, May) but I do not share his diagnosis of what has gone wrong.
As Brexit has shifted the political tectonic plates, the party has proved unfit to respond. Coming from business, it was initially the obvious home for me. Poor leadership, subservience to Ukip, ministerial appointments based on blind loyalty, and policies created in an unfeeling robotic No 10, all
mean the party lurched away from the centre—and away from me. Wallace underestimates the damage done by this shift to the right.
I resigned because I believe our country deserves better, with leadership less entrenched in political ideology. Brexit was the catalyst and the final straw. My fellow Independent Group colleagues and I are grabbing this new opportunity with both hands.
Heidi Allen, interim leader, Change UK
Mark Wallace started out as a defender of CCHQ, then an apologist, and now in the dying days of a collapsing regime, becomes a dissenter. Welcome to the enlightenment, Mark.
The party infrastructure has fallen apart. Dire official membership figures obscure a far worse reality. I suspect there are fewer than 10,000 genuine activists.
Yet even if the party machinery still worked, the patriotic conservative movement is unlikely to come back to the fold. Looking at the crowds at the 29th March Brexit rally, it was clear that they were people who would have once been the backbone of the Tory Party, but would now cross the street to avoid a blue rosette.
It’s not impossible to rejuvenate, but the party is like an asbestos-filled mansion occupying prime real estate. It might be time to demolish and begin again.
Ben Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group
Tom Watson is wise to consider a national government (“Labour’s other leader,” May), but 1940 is the wrong analogy. War creates a common purpose—victory—on which all parties can agree, enabling contentious domestic questions to be suspended. Brexit has had the opposite effect: it has polarised opinion while making domestic reform more urgent. The very divisions that make a war-time government attractive make it hard to achieve in peacetime.
The 1931 national government is also problematic, for it imposed a heavy cost on the party leaderships. Ramsay MacDonald shat- tered the Labour Party he had created; Stanley Baldwin had to serve under his former opponent. Neither Corbyn nor Theresa May’s successor are likely to follow suit.
A unity government today would require a total realignment of British politics. We can but hope.
Robert Saunders, Queen Mary University of London
Open the cages
Ray Monk (“The shadow of mankind,” May) is rightly impressed with the excellent new book from esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal. With well-built arguments and touching examples, de Waal helps us to appreciate our fellow animals and develop a profound sense of their emotions.
I do have, however, have some questions. De Waal’s first-rate books could not have been written without the benign experiments he conducted on captive animals. Since primates share so many of our emotions, is it justifiable to subject them to captivity—no matter how benign—in order to discover facts—no matter how important—about them and ourselves? More importantly, should they ever be kept in captivity?
Dawn Starin, anthropologist
Emma Lundin is right that looted artefacts should not be held for “protection” by British institutions (Opinions, May). However, what is missing from the repatriation debate is the power relations bound up in the objects themselves, long before they were taken (with bribes or bayonets) to British shores.
Take the Parthenon artefacts. It is common sense that their home is Athens. But the Parthenon was financed by forced tribute from the Delian league, smaller and weaker communities around the Aegean. Thucydides famously described the relationship: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Would the modern Delians, and other historical communities who paid for the hegemons’ luxuries, not have a stronger claim on the goods than modern Athenians?
Calum Rogers, SOAS
Yes, statues of women are few and far between (“A room for two,” May). The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association records 828 statues in Britain, 65 of real (not mythical or allegorical) women, 38 of these royal; only 27 other women are considered sufficiently meritorious.
In terms of Virginia Woolf, iconography is particularly problematic; most illustrations feature the 1902 photograph of Adeline Virginia Stephen, who had published nothing (your selection of the more mature Virginia Woolf is duly noted). So when the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain erected a statue, we went for a copy of the only three-dimensional image of her crafted from life, the 1931 Stephen Tomlin bust. Woolf hated sitting for it, and her anxiety shows. But it is at least truthful.
Sarah M Hall, Virginia Woolf Society
Liam Fox says in your trade supplement (“A world beyond Europe,” May) that he wants a “global agreement on services” with Britain at the helm. He makes the point that distance does not constrain trade in services to the same extent it does goods. This is true, but it risks underplaying the impact of geography. Distance does still matter when it comes to trading services cross-border—a 10 per cent increase in distance between countries reduces services trade by 7 per cent. There will be new opportunities for UK services exporters in the future, but the government would be wise to manage expectations.
Sam Lowe, Centre for European Reform
We noted your review of Heineken in Africa, (Books in brief, May) a work which makes a number of allegations about our operations in Africa. A majority of these are based on hearsay and half-truths, often portraying events which happened years ago.
When allegations were raised around the safety of our brand promoters, we acted swiftly to implement a new policy in all our markets and worked to drive wider industry change. When we invest in a market, we aim to make a positive contribution.
Africa is part of who we are. We’ve been in the continent for over a century, employing 13,000 people and investing billions.
John-Paul Schuirink, Director of Global Communication, Heineken