Constitutions and the choke factor

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My boss has written a nice post about the last episodes of the West Wing last night, linking it with the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s report this week on Royal prerogative.

For me, the “choke” moment of the two episodes was the bit when Bartlet gave Charlie his copy of the US Constitution. But then it got me thinking: not only do we not have a document with similar meaning in the UK, but for our government such rules are problems to be got around, not sacred limitations of their power.

Both America and the US Constitution have their faults, and the iconic status many Americans grant the Constitution occasionally strikes one as bizarre. I would certainly take issue with the way some treat it as if it were written on tablets of stone – constitutions have to be able to slowly evolve over time. But I take far more issue with those, including its current non-fictional president, who act as if it is a legalistic buffet that you can pick and choose from to suit your agenda.

In the UK, we desperately need a written constitution; the last five years of repeated assaults by Labour on our civil liberties prove that. But going hand in hand, we need a culture that values constitutional documents.

Yet the nearest thing we have to a constitutional document, the Human Rights Act, is continually under attack. We are told we have a “human rights culture” – the truth is we have anything but. A human rights culture is a culture in which people instinctively understand what rights are, not one in which the police claim the HRA forces them to give perps Kentucky Fried Chicken on demand.

The problem is, for constitutions to have that sort of ownership or resonance – for them to be able to convey that West Wing “choke factor – they tend to be borne of war or revolution, neither of which are things liberal democrats (small-l, small-d) should wish on the country. The real problem with the HRA is that it was drafted by ministers and civil servants while the rest of us were shut out. It should have been drawn up in a more open fashion and should have been ratified by a referendum – back in 1999 Labour could have easily won such a thing. If we are to have a written constitution, it has to be written by the people, for the people, and nothing less than a Citizen’s Convention will do.

3 thoughts on “Constitutions and the choke factor

  1. My “choke” moment was the very end of the penultimate episode when Danny asks CJ if she wants to work in the White House.

  2. The problem I keep coming up against here is the one of how to create a culture of written/binding constitutional documents when you are living in a country governed by an unwritten one.

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