Do we need a written constitution?
Yesterday evening I went to London, first to go to a book launch/colloquium on the idea of a written constitution for the UK -- to celebrate the publication of Richard Gordon's book, Repairing British Politics, which not only argues for a written constitution, but has a go at drafting one. I haven't read the book yet, but there were plenty of arguments last night on and around the British Constitution (for and against a written version) from 14 speakers, who miraculously kept to time.
I have to say that I came away with the idea that British politics was in a right royal mess, but that a written constitution wasn't likely to be the panacea.
There were some fascinating contributions, apart from Gordon himself. It was good to hear Antony King argue against an elected upper house, for example. And Andreas Whittam Smith was eloquent on the excess of legislation under New Labour: one new criminal offence for every day they have been in power, so no wonder so much of it is so sloppily drafted and under-scrutinized.
The problem for me was that those who advocated a written constitution didn't convincingly explain why that would actually help our current dilemmas. In fact, as Dawn Oliver pointed out, the campaign for a written constitution tended to become a shopping list for a whole lot of other things we'd like to change (and which didnt actually need a written constitution at all). And Colin Kidd had a good number of cautionary tales about the endless supreme court messes that can result if you do have one.
Then there was the question of whether you could compare our constitution to a tennis club. Vernon Bogdanor started off his plea for a written constitution with just that comparison. If you become a member of a tennis club, he said, and you ask what the club's rules are, you don't expect to be told that they are scattered through various minute books and that some of them are just convention, not really written down at all. So why do we tolerate that with the state?
Well it isn't actually that simple.
For a start, it isn't clear that what goes for a tennis club also goes for a country (to take a basic difference, there is no government in a tennis club, and the rules replace that). But more to the point, it simply isn't the case that all the rules of a tennis club ARE written down. The book of rules may tell you when you have to pay your subscription and what colours are allowed on the court, but it doesn't tell you (for example) not to spit in the face of the Lady President or that you are not allowed to play naked. A tennis club no more has a written constitution than this country does.
Anyway, that's what some of us ladies at the back thought.
There was also, I must say, a bit of "taking antiquity's name in vain" going on. If I heard him right, a young man from Demos claimed that the Romans had a "third chamber" in their democracy (what on earth was that?). And Yasmin Alibhai Brown regretted that when Blair was invading Iraq, we didn't have a Brutus to his Caesar. The trouble was that all Brutus' deed achieved in the long term was the institutionalisation of the very autocracy he sought to overthrow.But, as I think I had been invited to keep the classical end up and didn't actually pipe up, I can't complain.
After this event I went to take part in a very jolly discussion on the rather gloomy subject of the futures of universities, with Deian Hopkin, John Kay, Terence Kealey, and David Sweeney.You can listen here.