What constitution?

Matthew Groves MP makes some very good points about some of the best features of Conservatism in his ConservativeHome column today – summed up in Viscount Falkland’s quip ‘when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.’

This, as a political philosophy, is in contrast to conservatism as a tendency, which opposes all change out of an ingrained orthodoxy and a fear of what change may bring. The distinction is an important one – and first employed by Sir Robert Peel in response to the Whigs’ Great Reform Act of 1832 in his Tamworth Manifesto.

Peel’s followers went on to become founding members of the Liberal party in the years after his death and so this Peelite brand of Conservatism – changing where change is deemed necessary but conserving where it is not – is arguably a core value of classical liberalism.

Where this blog takes issue with Groves is his labelling of the Liberal Democrats’ doomed House of Lords reform as ‘unravelling the constitution’. A statement which begs the question; what constitution?

The lack of a written constitution, unique in the modern world, is something which has been of great service to Britain in the past. Such flexibility allowed the evolution of parliamentary government and a system of checks and balances in a sort of snowball effect – rolling from a tiny ball in the 1215 Magna Carta to a mighty behemoth of liberty following the English Civil War, the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the 1714 Hanoverian Succession.

This continually, yet slowly, evolving system ensured Britain was an island of stability in a world of wars, coups and revolutions and was essential for securing the liberties we today take for granted. But, like the unwritten Roman constitution before it, a lack of any fixed and written foundations means the constitution, in its perfect form, is very difficult to preserve.

This is because changes to the constitution, unlike most countries, require only a simple majority in Parliament – which is more and more controlled by the party in power. It is in a similar manner the caesars were able to maintain the ridiculous fiction that they were upholding the constitution of the Roman Republic while ruling arbitrarily as emperors.

The sad fact of the matter is that the British constitution, as it was once understood in a delicate balance of disparate laws, conventions and traditions, has already been mauled beyond recognition by successive governments in the latter half of the twentieth century.

This has largely concerned the growth in the power of the executive (nominally the Queen, in reality the Prime Minister) with the corresponding emasculation of the House of Commons, and the flooding of the House of Lords with party cronies and apparatchiks – beginning with the introduction of life peers in 1958 and climaxing with the expulsion of all but 91 hereditary peers in 1999.

Now, as a Whig-leaning publication, this blog is greatly in favour of a hereditary House of Lords. Indeed, it seems odd that, while almost every country in the world seems convinced of the need for a bicameral legislature, no-one seems quite sure how one ought to be composed. Yet, here in Britain, we had a ready-made House of patriotic (rather than partisan), wealthy (difficult to bribe), generally conservative (generally looked on as a good thing in a revising chamber and the reason the French Senate was designed to over-represent rural areas), highly traditional and duty-bound people with a lot of leisure time to really scrutinise legislation.

However, with the hereditary peers gone (most likely never to return) and the House grotesquely disfigured, there seems little reason to keep up the pretence either of nobility or constitutionalism in the House of Lords and this blog was greatly disappointed by the blind conservatism of people like Groves in scuppering the Liberal Democrats’ reforms which, while far from perfect, were a step in the right direction.

When India was granted independence by Britain in 1947, a lone man was seen skulking aimlessly around London approaching a nervous breakdown. That man was a young Enoch Powell, a staunch imperialist and admirer of Indian culture, who had hitherto been determined to become one of the tiny elite of British civil servants running the Indian Empire.

Yet, with the jewel in the British Empire’s crown lost, Powell’s merciless logic emerged from his panic with only one solution – Britain must abandon its imperial past entirely and forge a new identity. To this end he was to oppose the Commonwealth as a vestige of this empire for the rest of his days. Likewise, with the constitution and the House of Lords irreparably vandalised, we must focus on a clear, written constitution and a new set of institutions which best serve the interests of good government.