Parliamentary sovereignty is not the solution to Britain's European impasse. Bill Emmott, editor of The Economist, and David Manasian, argue that Thatcherites and Hayekians should embrace constitutional reform and a bill of rights as a permanent restraint on the power of the stateby David Manasian / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Constitutional debate is not something to which Britons are accustomed. People do not march down London streets to campaign for proportional representation. No one chains themselves to the railings of the House of Lords to appeal for its abolition. The newspapers are not full of columns arguing the case for or against a bill of rights. Even when in October 1994 The Economist used its cover to declare itself in favour of the abolition of the monarchy it caused barely a flutter; a few hundred letters were received, some of them passionate, several vitriolic, but the moment passed quickly.
The reason for this lack of interest, it might plausibly be argued, is that the British are passably satisfied with their political freedoms. They may be contemptuous of politicians, but they are truly afraid that constitutional change might threaten the stability of their daily lives. Only in places where people feel systematically repressed do constitutions and political frameworks become important, which is why Northern Ireland is the only real venue for constitutional dispute within the British Isles. Even in Scotland, where the desire for some sort of devolved power does exist, it is not a passion-raiser.
So perhaps the traditional Tory assumption is true: wait patiently, let the British instincts for compromise emerge, and all will in the end be well. That is an attractive view, until you notice what Tories themselves, traditional or otherwise, have been arguing about in recent years. One issue, and one alone, has made a constitutional question a source of sustained political division and popular passion: Europe. For two decades, but especially in the past five years, Britain’s relationship with the EU has divided the Conservative party; less noticeably, it has also divided popular opinion. Although a clear majority of those asked by opinion polls express support for British membership of the EU, large scores are also achieved by those decrying European intrusion and the transfer of powers to EU institutions.
There are, however, three important oddities about this. The first is that as a part of this argument a barrow-load of grievances about red tape and intrusion have been assembled and blamed, often wrongly, on Brussels. But these grievances actually have very little to do with the EU per se. They are grievances about the citizen’s lack of redress against over-mighty government, not merely of a general despotic sort but also of a petty…