Bonfire of the Constitution

An excerpt from Anthony Barnett's Guardian commentary
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
5 November 2009

The following has been published in The Guardian's brilliant Comment is Free I was impatient for it to go up and having not heard from them ran it here. But it is their credit. So now it is in quotes. Thank you Cif.

Two developments yesterday have finally blown up Britain's uncodified constitution, symbolically just before the anniversary of Guy Fawke's early efforts (which thankfully did not succeed!).

The publication of the Kelly report on MPs expenses makes it certain that members of parliament will no longer be in charge of their own pay and remuneration. Their exceptional sovereignty as the supreme body, one which therefore had in its nature to be self-regulating, is now universally derided as a clubland hangover. They still call each other honourable members. But who regards them as such, or trusts them to be so? Now, not even they do! However, the legitimacy of the uncodified constitution rested on their being different from members of the assemblies of other, lesser countries. The normalisation of MPs, which turns them into employees, breaks the spiritual basis of Britain's unique form of rule.

At the same time David Cameron's commitment to pass a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill is explicitly designed to bind all future parliaments, breaking the larger, external mechanism of parliamentary sovereignty. Indeed, his proposal is justified by him has having the effect of a written constitution. He says, in his speech, which is well worth reading in full, that his proposal will "simply put Britain on a par with Germany, where the German Constitutional Court has consistently upheld - including most recently on the Lisbon treaty - that ultimate authority lies with the bodies established by the German Constitution".

"Never Again" is his slogan. But "never say never" is the genetic code of traditional British sovereignty. Cameron's proposes to formally recognise the termination of the formal uniqueness of the UK's unwritten constitution.

In practice it was already shredded. First by membership of the EU, then by the creation of Scottish and Welsh parliaments which Westminster cannot now undo on its own, third by the Human Rights Act. In effect, Cameron is recognising parliament's new constitutional status, that it is no longer sovereign. Previously, those who passed these laws always denied their transformative status. Now it is undeniable.

The old constitution is over, bust, no more, a dead parrot.

You might ask, does this make Cameron a constitutional radical? Or a democrat? Alas, it seems not. He has the better democratic argument on his sde with respect to the EU, though he has surrendered much of it by failing to call for a referendum of any kind. But he is playing the inheritance he hopes for in exacty the fashion of his role model Tony Blair: updating the centralisation it offers those who win office with a winner-takes-all system.

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Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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