Britain’s Ptolemaic constitution

English votes for English laws is another botched attempt to fiddle with a broken system.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
25 October 2015

Westminster - Graeme Maclean, Wikipedia, CC2.0:

The ever-continuing decomposition of the United Kingdom’s constitution continues and continues. EVEL, the hilarious acronym for English Votes for English Laws, is the latest stinking emission from the compost heap of the Palace of Westminster.

Despite the danger that over-long exposure to the fumes is known to induce quasi-toxic hallucinations, reducing judgement to mumbling rubbish about the mother of parliaments, and flaunting all health and safety regulations, the editors of openDemocracyUK insist on dragging me back to report what EVEL means for readers. As if to prove the extreme mental dangers involved, the once lively and intelligent Ed Miliband is quoted as condemning EVEL as “not true to the great traditions of Conservatism and unionism”. Quiver and shake!

For readers in saner lands around the world, baffled at what is going on, one has to explain that a complicated technical device is being introduced into the procedures of the House of Commons to give Members of Parliament elected in England a veto via “a grand committee” on laws that will only effect England even if the majority of the Commons with MPs from all the countries of the Union were to wish otherwise.

Somehow this is supposed to redress the imbalance caused by the existence of national parliaments that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy.

Of course it will do nothing of the sort, as the imbalance is one of voice and separate representation, which in its nature cannot be ‘resolved’ by a procedural technicality.

But for the sake of one’s mental health it is important to keep a distance and not get dragged into technicalities that generate a pumped up, inappropriate rhetoric. 

To switch metaphors, the way to understand what is happening is simple but needs distance. The Ptolemic system for explaining the universe was geocentric and assumed that the earth is at the centre of things and is surrounded by heavenly spheres on which the movement of the planets are inscribed. As observation improved in early modern Europe more and more complicated epicycles had to be postulated to account for the irregular patterns of reality. Only with the Copernican re-centering that described the earth as rotating around the sun, and Kepler’s account of elliptical orbits, could all the epicycle garbage be seen as what it was: a fanciful and fantastical exercises in nonsense generated a false premise, and discarded.

Westminster is mentally trapped in Ptolemaic equivalent of ancient astronomy. Its fundamental premise is the absolute sovereignty of parliament. Everything else supposedly orbits around this fixed point. This imperial notion was once arguably true and helped explain the exceptional constitutional achievement of the British Empire, although it was sustained by an immense political culture of informal checks, balances and consent – the heavenly spheres of the Victorian and Edwardian epochs. Today the notion of the absolute sovereignty of parliament is simply a falsehood. The reality is, quite simply, that there are other centres of sovereignty – national, legal, international, cultural. The old regime’s constitution is irreparably broken.

But broken or not it has to ‘carry on’. This drives it to the construction of procedural equivalents of epicycles – nonsense designed to ensure that the old mindset can pretend that all is well. EVEL is the latest such epicycle.

How do we get to our much-needed heliocentric revolution, that centers sovereignty on the people through a democratic and national constitutional renewal? Parliament can still do good things but the route to this is not via the dung-heap.

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