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The Republicans



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Rediscovering the Great British Republican Tradition


For a Civic and Constitutional Republic



Issue No 55 Friday 26 February 2010




This week 


·        We Need A Written Constitution – But Who Has The Authority To Write It?

·        Aljazeera English TV - A Breath of Fresh Air



News Stories

Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.





·        We Need A Written Constitution – But Who Has The Authority To Write It


Britain needs a written constitution. Anyone who calls themselves a republican would not argue with that. After all, republicanism was from its outset in Roman times about the constitution having precedence over any one ruler or magistrate and the constitution cannot have such authority if it is not written down. It cannot have authority if we can argue about what it says.


Romulus and Remus


A more difficult question in respect of the constitution is: who has the authority to draw it up? A common answer to this is to say that it is the people who have the authority to decide the constitution. But in practice that is not how it works. Looking at famous examples, the Roman Republic was said to be the outcome of the story of Romulus and Remus – in other words its origin is bathed in mythology. Mythology is not entirely absent in the foundation of many a subsequent republic. For instance, it would be a hard case to argue that there is no mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers and the creation of the American constitution – this, in spite of the fact that (unlike with Romulus and Remus) there is a wealth of factual detail available.


For a Republic to be born, what is needed in most cases is a powerful charismatic figure - or several of them -  and of course the boundaries between charisma and myth may be slim. The creation of the Fifth Republic in France was above all the creation of Charles de Gaulle and it is hard to overestimate his stature as a truly national figure in France in the second half of the last century. It is doubtful if anyone else would have had the necessary authority to do something about the deficiencies of the Fourth Republic.


So from where, in present day Britain, would the authority for a new written republican constitution come from? We want to say from the people via a referendum. And ultimately that would surely have to be the case. But, before that, to fashion it and persuade people, not only from all sides of the political spectrum but also people from the powerful ,non-political constituencies  that make up society, some work will have to be done. That means persuading many special interest groups - what James Madison liked to call “factions”. You ignore them at your peril. For a new constitution to be successfully enshrined a uniquely respected figure with great moral authority, or a grouping of such, is probably going to be necessary to bind the nation together sufficiently to proclaim a new constitution - and such figures don’t come along too often. Have we got any Nelson Mandela’s out there that we don’t know about yet?



Nelson Mandela


Which brings us the question of where sovereignty lies. Let us first be clear what we mean by sovereignty. If you are sovereign then you act without being answerable to anyone or anything. Not being answerable, you don’t have to explain or justify, you don’t have to be good or bad, right or wrong . No one sits in judgement on you except yourself. You just do it. In olden days the only thing that was sovereign was, well, the “sovereign” – the monarch. And close to the idea of the single sovereign person was the idea of their being in some sense blessed with divinity. This made them very, very special indeed. We still of course have this situation under our non-written constitution. (Well, we always say it is unwritten except that the sovereignty of the monarch is written everywhere for us to see – Her majesty’s prisons, her majesty’s Customs and Excise, etc. etc. and of course her majesty’s government.)


It was the philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who first had the idea of shifting sovereignty away from not just the monarch, but also from the government, and investing it in the “people”. No one had thought to do this before because the ” people” did not look like a very unified entity and certainly not unified enough to accept the charge of being sovereign of the nation. And even if it were to be accepted as such, how would this sovereignty be expressed? Rousseau had an answer to this – representative democracy.


We take Rousseau’s ideas for granted now, so much so that we fail to notice just how weird they were and also how blatantly wrong they were. The people are not a unified entity. Democracy does not express unity but division.  Democracy shows us just how violently the people disagree with each other and how little support the leaders elected by its processes actually enjoy. To talk of sovereignty being ascribed to such a disunited “rabble” as the democratic electorate is surely mad. If sovereignty of the electorate/people meant anything it could only mean some kind of metaphysical force floating around and somehow averaging out and amalgamating the diverse opinions of the people that make up the “people”.


Charles de Gaulle


Some disentangling is necessary here. It is one thing to discuss who or what should decide the design of the constitution but quite another who should decide day to day, or decade to decade, policy once that constitution is in place. For the first job you need a Mandela, a de Gaulle or a Romulus and the other guy. For the second the electorate will do. Insofar as the electorate/people will have a hand in creating the new constitution this is more likely to come in conjunction with extra-parliamentary action such as street demonstrations or as part of some, at present, unseeable historic events. The idea that we are going to see a cosy vote in the commons ushering in the republic is somewhat difficult to envisage.


But there is also another big problem in simply voting in the revolution. It can be voted out again just as easily. In this scenario, the whole idea of the republic would become just another political football. It could never be permanent. We have to somehow get to the position where the Republican constitution is permanent and irreversible. This can only come from a near universal reverence for it and that kind of reverence cannot be fabricated to order. The reverence in which the American Constitution and its Founders are held is clearly a vital mainstay of the nation but something like it exists in other republics. To achieve this special position one thing that is essential is that changes to the Constitution cannot be made as easily as passing legislation. In the Kingdom there is no difference between enacting constitutional change and legislative change but bizarrely no one seems to think there is anything wrong with this. The result is that the constitution has with no authority, no reverence and no stability.


The whole problem of the origination of a constitution by technical means contains a Catch 22. It has to be voted in. But that means it can be voted out. Of course we could try voting to not to be able to vote it out having voted it in but if we can do that we can equally vote again to overturn our previous vote to not to be able to vote it out. The conclusion has to be that you cannot successfully implement a radical new constitution by technical means. There has to be something else at work.


Which brings us back to having an emotional element at play – an element that transcends the mundane working of the polity. A truly popular movement could supply this element but it is certainly going to have to be lead – and lead by a figure who can command wide if not universal respect. Such figures usually only emerge out of tumult (de Gaulle form WW2, Mandela from apartheid, Oliver Cromwell from the Civil War). It is possible that we will find that we have the ingredient of tumult in place following the scars that the Banking Crisis. This could yet produce a welling up of popular feeling that will supply the necessary impetus to irreversible change.


Oliver Cromwell


Republicans often talk about the constitutional arrangements they would like to see in place but seldom look to the harder question of transition. Judging from the history of other nations this will not come about as customary political changes come about. To make the break there will have to other factors, other players. If this seems not so likely at present it is worth recalling that the fall of the Berlin Wall was said be some at the time to represent the “end of history” but it is clear now that that fall unleashed a new phase of history that is moving at a breakneck speed and nothing can be ruled out.


As the Chinese proverb says: “May you live in interesting times”.



Recommended of the week




  • Aljazeera English TV - A Breath of Fresh Air

If you are tired off British TV news with its relentless parochial emphasis on the minutiae of British political life, try the Aljazeera English language channel that is available on Freeview at 514. Aljazeera TV with its wide ranging factual reporting is a breath of fresh air.

The Aljazeera English language channel comes in a decidedly English rather than mid-Atlantic or American accent for the main news studio is in London. It seems to assuming a role that the BBC World Service could have taken if it had not been so starved of cash. But Aljazeera's non-western roots probably make it better qualified. Like any service it probably has its biases but these do not get in the way of its reporting.

The main competition for a world news international TV channel comes from CNN and France 24 (both on Freeview) but once you have tried them all you are likely to stick with Aljazeera. CNN suffers from too strong an American perspective and France 24 follows the lead of French national TV in having a rather superficial approach to news.

Aljazeera is obviously well funded with correspondents all over the place. And it will only get better. 



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