Don't knock the British constitution. It always moves on, and allows us to do the sameby Adam Tomkins / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Coalition, majority and then minority government. A secessionist near-miss in Scotland. Withdrawal from the European Union. A sudden change of prime minister. Suspension of home rule in Northern Ireland. Threats to national security and the murder of a member of parliament. These last three years have thrown a lot at the old British constitution. We live in a time not merely of political tumult, but of extraordinary constitutional strain. How lucky we Brits are, then, to live under a constitution that can take it.
Watching events unfold in Catalonia, one can immediately see that not all European citizens are so fortunate. On 1st October, the Spanish government sent in riot police, who violently disrupted voting in what Spain’s constitutional court insists was an illegal independence referendum. The sense of panic was only intensified by the sight of King Felipe VI being drawn into the political fray by making a national television address that pronounced the referendum as unlawful. It is both dangerous and foolish for a constitutional monarch to speak out on a divisive question like this; it is unthinkable that Queen Elizabeth II would ever be so crass.
But could a similar clash between the state and the people in part of the country happen here? Well, for three decades it did, of course, if we’re thinking of the UK as a whole. And even now no one is quite as confident as they would like to be that the Troubles will not return to the streets of Belfast. Great Britain, by contrast, is lucky to be a place where politics may be frenzied without spilling over into police brutality or violent insurrection. That the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and the anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller have felt the need (or have been advised) to employ bodyguards is deeply concerning. But, unlike voters in Barcelona, the threats they face do not come from the state.
The Scottish independence referendum campaign stirred passions like no other political argument I have ever seen. It was an intense two-year campaign and a ballot in which nearly 90 per cent of the electorate cast a vote. There was plenty of shouting and more flag-waving than at a royal wedding. But other than an egg being thrown at former Labour MP Jim Murphy and a few “No Thanks” posters being torn down by Better Together’s wilder opponents, not a punch was thrown and not a truncheon wielded.