The British Constitution could easily have been the subject of a Monte Python sketch. Graham Chapman, as the historian, would begin by saying, “We first realized that we needed a Constitution during the time of the English Civil War, when all of that nonsense was going on with the Rump Parliament and that awful Cromwell fellow. So straight away, we set about not writing one. We used bits that went back to 1100 and have been adding bits ever since and I’m proud to say that, at today’s date, the UK enjoys the finest Constitution that has never been written.”
Those from across the pond in America might be inclined to raise an eyebrow and say, “He’s making this up, right?” but, in fact, it is true. Britain has no written Constitution, yet we have written documents that form a part of our unwritten Constitution. (“Say what?”)
All right, I’ll try again. Following the English Civil War (1642 – 1651), Parliament began collecting up existing documents that seemed to be the most well-written, sensible and vital in terms of describing the rights of Britons and the management of the UK. The first to be included were the Magna Carta, written in 1215, the Charter of Liberties (1100) and the Petition of Rights (1628). Rather than write a new document, a decision was reached to use these existing documents as a basis for government. Whatever was not covered by them would be decided upon by Royal Prerogatives, Acts of Parliament and Judgments by the Court. It was felt at the time that this approach would make the Constitution a work in progress and would ensure its flexibility and vitality.
Along the way, further documents have been written that have been deemed so fundamental that they have been added, such as the English Bill of Rights (1688), the Act of Settlement (1701) and the Acts of Union (1707). Since that time, an additional twenty-five acts have been added.
So how do the British feel about all of this?
Well, since Parliament hitched our star to the EU, many Brits are not too chuffed over the new arrangement. Indeed it is now questionable whether our Constitution has real validity, as it does not exactly dovetail with the new (and highly-defined) terms of the EU Constitution. Membership in the EU does not sit well with many British people.
And how do the British feel about the American Constitution?
Perhaps the best comment on the subject was made by William Gladstone, British Prime Minister in the latter part of the 19th century.
“As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from the womb and long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
Strong praise, indeed. So, what we have here are two very different approaches to the concept of governance. Which is the better? Well, possibly each serves its respective country best.
So, then – the acid test. Do either of them do what it was intended to do? I have already mentioned British doubts about whether Parliament has sold Britain down the river by joining the EU and accepting the ponderous EU Constitution. How is America doing?
Regularly, we hear of Congress passing laws that ignore the first ten amendments – the Bill of Rights. Additionally, the incumbent President of the US seems to often ignore the Constitution, along with other laws, and simply does as he sees fit. Finally, even the Supreme Court is now demonstrating an inclination to ignore the Constitution. At best, it would appear that all three branches of the Government, (the Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary) are passing through a period in which the general consensus is that they, themselves, should be omnipotent and that the foundational concepts of the Constitution are as disposable as shopping bags from Walmart. At worst, what we are seeing is a collapse of the US; an inability to govern – a direct result of the fiscal failure of successive governments.
And in the UK? Much the same. The Labour government has been ousted and an experimental joint-rule has begun between the Tories and the Social Democrats. After only one year, we are already seeing dysfunction, as the new coalition Government demonstrates an inability to govern, in part as a direct result of the fiscal failure of successive governments.
Both the US and the UK are on the ropes economically and, by extension, politically. Successive governments in both countries have made such a mess of it, as a result of their close associations with the central banks and big business (and, in the US, the military) that an economic (and, again, by extension, political) collapse is inevitable.
Looking at the big picture, what does this mean to us?
If we step far back and view the situation as a period in history, we conclude that the UK and the US each created a Constitution that would serve as a template to assure that future leaders would always be obligated to govern morally, assuring in an ongoing manner, the basic rights of every citizen.
However, over time, a slow shift occurred in both countries (as it has in much of the First World). As Thomas Jefferson stated, “Even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power have, in time and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Exactly so. Sadly, the rot is now all-consuming in both countries. While some are vainly hoping that somehow the magic wand may be waved to save these two situations, history informs us that this, in fact, will not occur. Once the cancer is systemic, the body must succumb. The two nations have begun their respective collapses. Once the collapses have been completed, a period of slumber will take place. We do not yet know how that will play out in either jurisdiction, nor in the remainder of the First World, which, in many cases, will go down with the US and the UK.
Optimists are stating even now that they are looking forward to getting The Great Unraveling over with, so we can begin again. But will this happen? They picture a situation like a tornado, in which, after the storm has passed, there is much work to do. But they assume the system is intact to allow progress to take place.
Is it not more likely, leaders being what they are, that they will hang on to the remnants of their former power as much as possible – regardless of whether to do so is good for the country? This may well be the case. It is entirely possible that both the US and the UK, in addition to other First World countries, may drag existing governments like a ball and chain in their efforts to rise up once again. For a period of years, they may resemble East Germany during the communist era.
Eventually, each country will begin its rebirth — but we would be foolish to imagine that the US will once again lead the world in, say, 2020, or even in 2030. Once an empire has crashed, the world does not politely wait for it to recover and resume its previous strength. Instead, there are invariably countries waiting in the wings that are healthier and ready to take their turn in the sun.