Breaking Out of ‘The Golden Thread of Liberty’:
Understanding and Interpreting the United Kingdom
Open Democracy, August 10th 2009
Vernon Bodganor, The New British Constitution, Hart Publishing, 319 pp., £17.95.
James Mitchell, Devolution in the UK, Manchester University Press, 216 pp., £60.
Anthony King, The British Constitution, Oxford University Press, 432 pp., £25.
Peter Kellner, Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty, Mainstream, 540 pp., £25.
As a theoretical proposition the United Kingdom would probably win few converts because it seems such a fragile concoction. Imagine the reaction to a political scientist who proposed to create a country from the following design: three and a half nations, multiple religions, a number of languages, two separate legal systems and the whole thing ruled by a highly centralised government in the city in the south of the largest nation.
Kevin Morgan and Geoff Mungham, Redesigning Democracy: The Welsh Labour Party and Devolution, 2002, quoted in Mitchell, p. 219.
‘What is the United Kingdom?’ Despite a decade of incoherent devolution and constitutional change this question is seldom asked in conventional political or mainstream public discussions. Even the related debates on Britishness often seem to take as given the nature of the UK.
British Council seminars held on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland emphasise devolution in these countries as a kind of ‘Year Zero’ for each one, while treating them in isolation and underplaying the degree of continuity between pre- and post-devolution within them while backing away from debate on the nature of what is happening to the UK as a whole. While in England/Britain itself the recent Demos collection, ‘What Next for Labour? Ideas for the Progressive Left’ (1) is representative of most what passes for politics in the central part of the isles. It focuses exclusively on Westminster presuming a Britain without territorial politics or alternative centres of power. This remains the dominant perspective in the centre, even though it clearly represents only one band of a much broader spectrum of politics across the UK.
At last these old-regime attitudes are beginning to give way. The four books under review are contrasting couples in the process. The first two are each a partial advance towards the realities of the UK set out in an authoritative fashion which must eventually help displace traditional official attitudes. The second couple cling to the bygone presumptions, but their approach is so evidently derisory and inadequate they must surely help undermine the decaying order which they wish to support.
Beyond the Westminster Gaze
Vernon Bogdanor’s ‘The New British Constitution’ and James Mitchell’s ‘Devolution in the UK’ are powerful challenges to status quo thinking. Bogdanor argues that the shift from what he calls ‘the old constitution’ prior to New Labour taking office in 1997 to ‘the new constitution’ after its wide range of reforms, has been a transformation. Just as important, while it has ended the old in a definite and radical way, it remains only partial and incomplete. In particular, he argues it has shifted power within elites, rather than to the public. It has distributed power to politicians in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and the Mayor of London, and sideways to life peers in the Lords and to judges, thanks especially to the Human Rights Act. But this shift has hardly registered with voters or distributed power and influence to them. In this fundamental sense the UK’s political system remains unreformed and has become increasingly closed, an unstable process reinforced by the decline of the mass party.
Fifty years ago in Britain one of every eleven of the electorate belonged to a political party; today that figure has collapsed to one in eighty-eight. This is not simply a massive numerical decline. It means that up the nineteen sixties almost everyone would have been personally acquainted with someone who was a party member – while Conservative clubs and Labour and trade union networks were social as well as political associations. Today it is rare for someone to know a party member. However, participation in NGOs and single-issue campaigns has grown hugely.
Bogdanor recognises that this enormous shift has aided and then entrenched a wider move across society to what can be termed ‘hyper-individualism’. However, he places the demise of collectivism in the decline of the working class and their shift to a politics of individual advancement. Nowhere does he recognise that the decline is across classes and the political spectrum; and that Labour and Tory middle class traditions of activism have just as much declined.
Bogdanor places Thatcher and Blair in the context of responding to the decline of collectivism and the mass party. Both sought to transform their political parties into vehicles for their own personal and charismatic forms of leadership. Both appealed to people over the heads of their parties, understood that the old parties and ideologies were in crisis, and promoted a politics attuned to the ethos of hyper-individualism. David Cameron has positioned himself centrestage in this tradition.
The public philosophy of 20th century Britain, or to be accurate, the period from 1906-79, was according to Bogdanor ‘primarily social democratic’, which is overstating things to the point of caricature. From this starting point, Bogdanor develops a picture which has some similarity to Colin Crouch’s parabola of post-democracy. He believes the 19th century liberal era of limited government was defined by confidence in the rule of social forces and public opinion rather than formal constraints on government. There then followed his supposed social democratic era with no formal limits on state power. Subsequently we have seen the rise of a ‘new liberal era’ with a ‘new constitution’ and return to the idea of limited government.
This is where huge contradictions appear in Bogdanor’s thinking. On the one hand he believes in a redistribution of power to a popular sovereignty and an opened up political system. At the same time, he is unwilling to critique the power of the new individualism; he states that the political system has not been able to respond to this challenge, but leaves unclear whether this means enmeshing itself in it – and aligning the economic and social with the political – or attempting to map out an escape route from the wreckage of neo-liberalism. Bogdanor does not explicitly answer this, but you can guess he takes the former approach and for all his enthusiasm and radical suggestions he is advocating a new constitutional settlement to suit and entrench neo-liberalism.
After the Union State
James Mitchell’s book addresses a different canvas: the historic background to the recent devolution proposals, the implications following on from this, and what this tells us about the constitutional and territorial form of the UK. Mitchell opens by addressing the issue of how the UK is conceptualised. Using Nevil Johnston’s idea of customary and codified constitutions, Mitchell argues that the UK has had the former – a historic as well as political constitution.
The UK has numerous ambiguities and confusions: from its name, character to the issue of identity and state nationalism. Mitchell writes:
When the term ‘nationalism’ is used in the UK it is more often assumed to refer to one of the sub-state nationalisms and Scottish, Welsh or Irish nationalism. (p. 3)
UK nationalism operates in Billig’s phrase in a ‘banally mundane way’, while the wider public are not alone in seeing nationalism as ‘other’; rarely does the state and political elite of the UK recognise the state nationalism of the UK. An example of this is provided by Gordon Brown’s introduction to his recently approved selection of essays, ‘Being British’, edited by Spectator editor Matthew d’Ancona. Brown attempts to invoke George Orwell to make a distinction between patriotism and nationalism: a classic example of the delusion of the political elite about its state nationalism. Hilariously Brown also quotes approvingly Trevor Philips, the crisis ridden chief of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who in the same volume talks of Britishness as being all about ‘fairness’ and ‘fair play’ (2).
Mitchell addresses himself to the different unions which constituted the construction and evolution of the UK: the unions with Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543 with Wales were assimilationist leading in the 1736 Wales and Berwick Act to legal references to ‘England’ being taken to mean ‘Wales’ as well. The 1707 union with Scotland and 1800 union with Ireland were different and not assimilationist, preserving pre-union arrangements and being seen in the tradition of the union state.
Mitchell has long been seen as one of the leading advocates of challenging the myth of the UK as a unitary state, and posing through the work of Stein Rokkan and Derek Urwin that the UK was a union state. This notion allowed a theoretical framework to arise which emphasised that the UK was not actually a unitary state, as it was not despite the myth characterised by centralisation and standardisation. Instead, the UK was a union state where pre-union arrangements were maintained and institutionalised.
This was an important contribution to the debate about understanding the UK. As Mitchell acknowledges, to this day a large element of the Westminster political classes remain wedded to the myths of the unitary state. However, he now believes that the union state itself is equally a myth, and that instead the UK is a ‘union of states’.
The terrain he develops this case on is fascinating, but this feels like the beginning of a tentative argument, rather than a fully-fledged and finished case. It is not yet a clear cut theoretical and practical case. Mitchell makes the case for a ‘union of states’ on the different natures of the different unions, the case of England as a unitary state, and the shift of the union pre- to post-devolution. It does not seem on the evidence presented that the distinction between the union state and ‘union of states’ is hard and fast, and that being one necessarily excludes the other.
Bogdanor’s and Mitchell’s books are revealing and illuminating texts. Despite Bogdanor’s attempts to do so, neither fully make the link between constitutional change and the challenge of neo-liberalism. Bogdanor attempts to do this and fudges it; Mitchell admittedly leaves this outwith his more carefully targeted canvas.
Mitchell’s thoughtful and provoking text is in places filled with detail, nuance, and is an original and challenging take on some of the key tenets of the British political system such as the perceptions of parliamentary sovereignty. Bogdanor’s book is the summation of thirty years writing in these areas, but is a bit uneven: compelling in some places and slapdash and prejudiced in others. Throughout his exploration on Scotland he continually calls the Scottish Nationalists ‘separatists’ without inverted commas, explanation or qualification; that does not exactly imply a balanced, thoughtful case.
His book has a number of misjudgements and errors. A Claim of Right’s declaration of popular sovereignty was according to Bogdanor ‘implicitly adopted by the Blair government when it formulated the devolution proposals’ – a shock to those who heard Blair say ‘sovereignty resides with me as an English MP’ or the Scottish devolution White Paper state that ‘the UK Parliament is, and will remain sovereign in all matters’. The myth that the Convention established the Scottish Parliament is trundled out. The Labour government ‘resisted departures’ from the Convention, when in fact it radically departed from the Convention in key areas – not listing devolved powers to Scotland, but Westminster reserved powers and cutting the number of Scottish MPs.
What is revealing is that both talk of Labour’s constitutional reforms, but leave unexamined the counter-constitutional reforms that came after 9/11 and ‘the war on terror’. A Labour Government as quickly as it introduced a Human Rights Act vandalised, qualified and derogated from it. A government which passed a Freedom of Information Act sought exceptions to releasing the Attorney General’s legal advice on the war with Iraq.
And as we now know a government committed to a new culture of human rights has condoned and been implicated in the detention and torture of innocent British citizens. This is a grim story to put alongside everything else the New Labour project got up to in office, and one which tells us spades about the nature of the British state and power.
The Myopia of the Democracy Deniers
While both of these books have omissions, they are worthwhile contributions to a debate and conversation about the nature and future of Britain, which has yet to fully begin. The challenge Bodganor, Mitchell and reformers face is illustrated by two other books which have come out in recent years. The establishment version of Britain can be found shamelessly and with little self-knowledge of its limitations in Anthony King’s ‘The British Constitution’ and Peter Kellner’s ‘Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty’.
King places his book pompously and consciously as the follow-up to Walter Bagehot’s ‘The English Constitution’, and asks in the conclusion about all the concerns and calls for reform of the UK constitution, ‘What, then, is to be done? The short answer is nothing’. Reform ‘is likely to fall on deaf ears – and deserves to fall on deaf ears – for six separate reasons’.
He then goes on in the most revealing and complacent style, which would shame Bagehot or Dicey, to illuminate what we could call Anthony King’s ‘Six Separate Reasons for Why Reform of the UK Constitution Cannot Happen’:
1. That there is no need for a written constitution.
2. There is no popular demand for either a convention or a written constitution.
3. A broadly agreed draft constitution would probably not in fact emerge from the proposed convention.
4. There is a high probability, though not a certainty, that any agreed constitution that did emerge from the proposed constitutional convention would be a bad one, possibly a very bad one.
5. Even if men and women of comparable statute could be attracted, it is not at all clear that attending such a convention would be the most profitable use of their time.
6. Finally, but not least, the UK has already undergone – even since the late 1960s – a period of intense and unremitting constitutional change. Good sense would seem to suggest that the time has come to pause …. Enough is enough, one might think – if not forever, then at least for the time being. (King, pp. 363-65)
King’s book sits in a time warp where the gentleman’s constitution and gentlemanly capitalism of a century ago continues unchallenged, with the right chaps and uncodified rules running Britain, its companies and the world. It is strange to read such an out of touch, out of time, arrogant and complacent text – so ill-fitted for the realities of our contemporary society. In a way we owe King a debt of gratitude, for having the self-belief and importance to so candidly write such views publicly.
Kellner’s book is not in the same league as King, but this is a Plantagenet-Whig view of British history and democracy, sanitised and carefully selected in problematic ways. His opening words, ‘Liberty is Britain’s gift to the world’, accurately captures the spirit of this volume of key documents, with his introduction asking, ‘Why are we able to tell such a unique story of argument and negotiation, protest and contest, empiricism and free thought?’ He is happy to find the answer in geography and climate, and that there might not be one answer at all. This is a strange collection, containing extracts from a wide range, but missing Charter 88 or A Claim of Right, two of the most important documents in recent decades, while including parts of the Anthony King volume and Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, not usually associated with the cause of liberty.
In a review of the recent ‘Taking Liberties’ exhibition at the British Library, Kellner celebrated its joy, wonder and wisdom, and its diversity and inclusion of a wide range of opinions (3). Kellner wrote that this ‘wonderful exhibition’ showed that ‘the nature of liberty is as contested today as it has been at every state in the past’ and cited as examples Richard Tawney arguing for greater equality in the 1930s in the name of liberty, and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s stating that the cause of liberty required the pursuit of inequality.
This is where Kellner is on thin ground. There are many interesting items in the ‘Taking Liberties’ exhibition, but it is not, as Tristram Hunt claimed in a more balanced review ‘the definitive story of British liberty’, or one reflecting equally Isaiah Berlin’s positive and negative liberty (4). It does explode ‘the much vaunted ‘golden thread’ of British liberty’, acknowledging how British ideals were often re-imported via the American and French revolutions, and the tension between the British principles of liberty and the reality of empire and imperialism. However, there is little on contemporary multi-culturalism and faith issues, with ‘The Satanic Verses’ episode ignored, and more importantly, given Kellner’s point, the Thatcherite counter-revolution left unexplored; mistakes repeated in the book of the exhibition (5).
This is revealing considering that ‘Taking Liberties’ is an official exercise by British state institutions with the imprint and support of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In a section entitled ‘Freedom from Want’ we see the slow and incomplete march of British welfare, through Lloyd George, Beveridge and the NHS. Yet this forward march is presented in Fabianesque style, as if from 1975 onwards a new voice of liberty did not take on this tradition, critique, challenge and overcome it. This is a bizarre omission which anesthetises the whole exhibition and locates it in some parallel Fabian universe where the nasty right never emerged with their anti-welfare, anti-state agenda.
We live in confused, messy times with a messy political system, constitution and political order. Despite Bogdanor’s belief that we have shifted from an ‘old’ to ‘new’ constitution, we actually neither live entirely in the world of the ‘old’ or the ‘new’. Instead, we inhabit a strange, shadowy, ill-defined transition world which is in part shaped by the twilight of the Westminster model, its bastardisation and morphing into the neo-liberal state, its authoritarian degeneration in the counter-constitutional reform movement led by Jack Straw and the Labour and Conservative front benches, and much worse things in the dark recesses and corners of the world done in the name of ‘Great Britain plc’ and ‘Great British Powerism’ from selling privatisation and weapons to regimes which violate the most basic human rights, to illegal detentions and kidnappings.
This is a difficult, contradictory picture to paint, and Bodganor and Mitchell provide worthy guides in much of this, unlike the democracy deniers of King and Kellner. There is much still to debate, campaign for and worry about, as well as some signs of positive change and hope, in the emerging alternative centres of power finding an increasingly confident voice outwith of Westminster’s gaze, but at least some commentators are prepared to start addressing part of this difficult story. To begin to tell the whole thing, we need honesty, courage and humility to look at the limits of our own liberties at home and what we invoke and practice across the world, much of which falls far short of the triumphalism and chauvinism of ‘the golden thread of liberty’.
1. Peter Harrington and Beatrice Karol Burks (eds), What Next for Labour? Ideas for the Progressive Left, Demos 2009.
2. Gordon Brown, ‘Introduction’, in Matthew d’Ancona (ed.), Being British: The Search for the Values That Bind the Nation, Mainstream 2009, p. 30, 33.
3. Peter Kellner, ‘The ‘Taking Liberties’ Exhibition at the British Library’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 80 (1), 2009, pp. 134-5.
4. Tristram Hunt, ‘Statutes of Liberty’, The Guardian, October 30th 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/oct/30/civil-liberties-exhibition-british-library
5. Mike Ashley, Taking Liberties: The Struggle for Britain’s Freedoms and Rights, British Library 2008.