Thursday, December 23, 2010

1265 And All That

Of the many questions the pundits and prognosticators will ask during 2011, one will dominate; is the AV referendum fundamental to the coalition? Of course, they'll add in a lot of extra words like "yes vote" and "survival of", which is a shame, because if they restricted themselves to the underlying question they'd find that the answer is yes, but for none of the reasons they've thought of.

For while a referendum by definition asks a question, both the referendum and the coalition itself demand that we consider the same problem; how do we govern our country? And that's a terrifying question for the British, because do you realise when we last asked it?


It's quite scary as a law student to be taught that at its most basic level, Anglo-Welsh law still relies on the idea that the Monarch is empowered to dispense justice to their subjects and that a millennium's worth of legal reform has largely been about making it easier to deliver that justice to the people.

The standard British answer to most constitutional matters is "tradition". At one level, there is the simple irony that plenty of the elements we consider as traditions nothing of the sort (first election in which every MP was elected by FPTP for a single-member geographical constituency? 1950!)

More fundamentally, however, tradition tends to focus on individual elements of the system, which is where 1265 comes in. De Montfort's Parliament was the point at which we had all of the institutions of English government in place; the Monarch, the Lords, the Commons. Every reform since then has been about the details of those institutions; the relationship between Monarch and Parliament in the 17th Century, the nature of governments and the office of Prime Minister in the 18th Century; the franchise in the 19th Century; and the relationship between the Lords and Commons in the 20th Century.

If you were feeling charitable you might describe that as evolution, but it's really just a vaguely related series of circumstantial moments. Expediency, either through constitutional deadlock as in 1911 (and, indeed, 1642) or popular protest as in 1832 has always been the leading driver. The result is a systemic whole that we've never actually thought about, justified by spurious traditionalism and a vague sense that what we have has always worked. But as Blackadder would have identified, there's just one tiny flaw with that analysis...

Indeed, far from having always worked, our system has never worked and rarely has that been truer than now. The faults are legion; the tyranny of execuslation, the insane overcentralisation of power and money, the disservice to opinion and debate that is our electoral system, etcetera, etcetera...

And while much of the response to the coalition is about the policy (and at least some of that isn't even tainted by the foul stench of hypocrisy) a significant measure of the response derives from the fact that the system we have struggles to give even the appearance of functioning unless certain conditions are met. Now that we can't squint and tilt our heads to the left and think that what we have looks a bit like an effective system of government, we have to face up to what we have; many people clearly don't like the look of that and would rather wish the problem away.

My challenge to the Yes campaign, then, is to ensure that the naysayers can't do the ruby slipper act. The grassroots-focused approach they are taking so far looks an excellent way of doing that, but we all have a duty to ensure that complacency about the status quo is eradicated, not left to fester and undermine the reforms that are so crucial to our future.

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