Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Written Constitutions

Think back to your Higher History.

The whole of Hobsbawn's "long 19th Century" (1789-1914) was about insurrections against absolute monarchies. In 1789, 1830, 1848 (in spades), 1870 and at various other points in between "the people" rose up in "revolution". But, while their protest was invariably about particular urgent grievance, their demands invariably included "A WRITTEN CONSTITUTION!" Not so much to prevent these grievances from recurring but rather, if they did,  to provide a non revolutionary means for their resolution.

For revolutions might be glorious things, even on occasion necessary things. But they involve violence. Violence in which people get hurt. Even, if they succeed, people "hurt" on the winning side who do not live to celebrate the victory.

How much better if matters can be resolved at the ballot box within a commonly based agreed set of rules (for that is all a constitution ultimately is) and with an ultimate independent arbiter in the form of a Supreme Court?  A Court constituted in accordance with...... the Constitution.

Nobody gets hurt (except perhaps reputationally) and certainly nobody gets killed. And that surely has to be progress.

So that is why the Nineteenth Century's long march towards progress involved the steady adoption of constitutions. It is also why, within my lifetime, as they emerged from fascist totalitarianism in southern Europe, or communist authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe, that almost the first step of every Country was to adopt a constitution. For, today, every democracy in the world, (except four, a point I refer to in my footnote) has a written constitution. And it is also why the first act of any right wing coup, in any previous or temporary democracy, is to "suspend the constitution".

It is against that background that events in Catalonia have to be judged.

After the death of Franco, Spain became a democracy. And it adopted a constitution. Which was put to a national referendum in 1978. At which referendum it was approved overwhelmingly, including by 91.4% of voters in Catalonia.

And that constitution  included the declaration that Spain was indivisible.

There are, as there almost inevitably are, provisions for that constitution to be amended. But in respect of this provision it hasn't been.

And it is against that fact that events in Catalonia need to be judged. For as much as the establishment of a constitution is an aspiration (over more than 200 years) of the left and ultimately an achievement of the left, then the ability of any person or interest or faction to defy a democratically approved constitution can only be a defeat for the left. For while that defiance might on one occasion be about unilateral secession, it might on another be about freedom of speech, or religious observance or sexual equality.

And yet that is precisely what is being attempted in Catalonia. Even if some of the partisans of a unilateral repudiation of the Spanish Constitution don't appreciate that. I say some, because as with the dark underbelly of Scottish Nationalism, I'm sure many realise exactly what their politics truly are but just prefer to keep that quiet for the moment.

But I want to finish by talking about the first written constitution, which inspired so many others, that of the United States of America.

What was the American Civil War about? Today it is thought about being to free the slaves, Except it wasn't. Initially it was simply about the "right" of the southern states to unilaterally secede from the union, contrary to the Constitution. Emancipation followed only after nearly two years of actual fighting.

So let us be clear. That's the parallel. Anybody who supports the unconstitutional events in Catalonia have but one exemplar, Jefferson Davis. And let's be equally clear, any true democrat, Scottish or otherwise, should be standing with Lincoln. Not so much for the Union but for the Constitution. For all of us, but particularly those of us on the side of progress, benefit from there being a constitution. Don't ask me, ask those who died before me for that very principle.

Footnote. The four Countries are the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Israel. The second and third follow "our" example, The final one? These people are Israelis, They've presumably concluded they'd spend so much time arguing over what should be in their constitution that it was easier just to not have one at all. 


  1. I think that your argument is proving that written constitutions are actually not very progressive or useful.

    Written constitutions express the arrogance of a single generation of politicians that they can write the life of a nation from the beginning and freeze it in time. The failure of constitutionalism is comically exposed by the 27 amendments to the US constitution. If the document has to be changed so many times, then it essentially defeats the purpose of having one.

    Supposing that history changes and that the people (as in Catalonia) want new rights? Well, they're not in the constitution so forget about it. In this way constitutions soon become the epitome of conservatism, rather than "the left."

    Tom Paine - who is unfairly never numbered amongst the Founding Fathers - was dead against constitutions. He wrote that "every age and generation must be free to act for itself." Despite his dispute with Burke, he would have probably approved of modern UK democracy, in which the people are meant to be charge, rather than a piece of paper. No UK parliament can or should bind its successors.

    One of the objections to the EU is that it has been smuggled past electorates as a de facto written constitution, with the Four Freedoms becoming constitutional rights. Fortunately, no UK parliament can bind its successors. This is how we can leave.

  2. The figures say it all: 2.3 million votes (so 2.3 million "illegal acts") and not one person arrested. 893 beaten up. That's the action of a police state, not one ruled by law.