Vol. 26 No. 21 · 4 November 2004

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Everything and Nothing

Maurice Vile may have misunderstood my point (Letters, 21 October). There is, as he says, a constitutional veto possessed by the president of the US. It is provided by article 1(7) of the Constitution. Its effect is that the bill returns to Congress, where a two-thirds majority will override the veto.

But what I was speaking of when I referred to the presidential power of suspending legislation was the practice, not found in the Constitution but repeatedly acquiesced in by the Supreme Court, of ‘impounding’ legislation involving public expenditure by capping or postponing it. Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1952 called it ‘a systematic, unbroken executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of Congress and never before questioned’. The constitutional scholar Edwin Corwin had ten years before offered the curious justification that ‘the president’s very obligation to the law became at times an authorisation to dispense with the law.’ The practice was used only as a suspending power until Richard Nixon used it to bring entire programmes of the Democrat-led Congress to a halt – something closer to a dispensing power.

My point was that such a practice can acquire the force of law independently of, and even in defiance of, a written constitution. The continuance of proxy voting in the French chamber of deputies for 35 years after it was banned by the 1958 Constitution is another of many examples.

It is perfectly true that, despite the prohibition of it in the Bill of Rights of 1689, monarchs from time to time exercised a dispensing power over legislation into the early 18th century. But what they were doing was now illegal. The problem was that, unlike the US practice of impounding, it was not justiciable – unless, perhaps, the courts were to have ignored the purported dispensation. It is interesting in this regard that Cromwell’s Instrument of Government, 1653, expressly prevented the use of a presidential veto and anticipated the Bill of Rights by forbidding the Protector to dispense with or suspend legislation.

As to Montesquieu, I did not suggest that he was the first to propose the separation of powers. I said that it was he who first helped to make it part of the orthodoxy of democratic theory. As Vile suggests, the flowering of radicalism in the Civil War had thrown up this and other modern ideas long before their time. One finds, for instance, John Warr, whose pamphlets I have edited, writing in 1649 about ‘people’s rights’. What had changed by the mid-18th century was that these were ideas whose time had come.

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

The Trouble with Hanging

Hilary Mantel is a little hard on John Chernoff (LRB, 21 October). When I knew him 25 years ago, he was not the usual lumbering white man in Africa. He was a very good drummer – he’d learned from some demanding teachers in the field – and wrote a great account of Ghanaian percussion in African Rhythm and African Sensibility (1979), arguing persuasively that this was not the enthusiastic whacking of sticks on hide that we might have imagined before the arrival of ‘world music’. He also had much to say that was right and intelligent about the layerings of African ‘style’. He grasped what people in Ghana called the thickness of tradition: what certain kinds of music meant and how this meaning became apparent in long, challenging performances when you got it right. Chernoff usually did. That must have counted for a lot, whether he was ‘hanging’ or only pretending to hang, in the places he describes in the two new books. His way of hanging was, in general, engagingly post-post-colonial – in bars and clubs and, above all, village wakes, where the drum orchestras were tremendous. I’m not sure if he went on playing, but he probably should have. David Byrne used him for The Catherine Wheel (1981): his drumming had much to do with the energetic undertow that brought the album to life. Byrne was making a good living in those days and Chernoff was, well, a musicologist. Apparently, when Byrne and the musicians went to the bar between recording sessions, it was Chernoff who’d be left with the tab. I suppose that’s the trouble with hanging.

Jeremy Harding
St Michel de Rivière, France

Coated with Bilge Oil

In his essay on the ocean’s resilience to ecological damage from oil spills and sunken shipping, James Hamilton-Paterson says that in comparison with the total volume of the oceans, a million tons of crude oil ‘are as nothing’ (LRB, 23 September). He overlooks the damage caused by the relatively small amounts of oil discharged when ships empty their bilges at sea, particularly in the North-West Atlantic. It does untold damage to the numerous pelagic seabirds indigenous to the area: murres, puffins and gannets. These birds, coated with bilge oil, end up either dead or in a wretched state washed up on the shores of Newfoundland and the Canadian-American eastern seaboard.

John M.W. Scott
St John’s, Newfoundland

There’s something about Mary

Colm Tóibín’s erudite and entertaining article on Mary Queen of Scots had a disappointing omission (LRB, 21 October). James Hogg’s narrative poem The Queen’s Wake (1813) tells of a poetic contest at the court of Queen Mary on her return to Scotland from France in 1561. As Douglas Mack shows in his recent edition, Mary symbolises the worth of pre-Reformation Scotland in Hogg’s poem, a world of poetry and legend often dismissed as barbarous and superstitious by Enlightenment historians. Hogg’s portrait of the 18-year-old ‘Queen of grace and love’ is shadowed by the knowledge that the promise for Scotland she appears to embody will not be fulfilled and that ‘A sight so fair, on Scottish plain,/A Scot shall never see again!’

Gillian Hughes


A great deal of the cultural singularity of France between 1945 and 1978, discussed by Perry Anderson (LRB, 2 September and LRB, 23 September), lay in the PCF’s being one of the two biggest parties in the country. This guaranteed the continuing power of the Marxist current, flanked by strong Trotskyist, libertarian socialist and social democratic lefts, and meant that France had an unequalled political complexity and richness, ranging from a powerful far left to a Poujadist right. This was greatly reinforced by the combined efforts of right and left to make and keep France an intellectual chasse gardée. I remember that colleagues of mine at Sciences-Po regarded it as somewhat humiliating when Philip Williams’s magisterial Crisis and Compromise, was – many years late – translated into French. The notion that an Anglo-Saxon had written the definitive work on the Fourth Republic was simply unacceptable.

De Gaulle’s achievement was undeniable, but the intellectual left fought him every inch of the way. Having lost these battles, they found themselves, after 1958, in the Fifth Republic, which he had built. It was rich, it put an end to instability and a weak currency, it made France an independent power with nuclear weapons, and for fifteen years it went from strength to strength. The left finally got their chance in 1981, first nationalising everything in sight and then, after a pause for thought, privatising it again. The damage to their credibility was lasting. Moreover, Sartre in his old age had become ridiculous, supporting all manner of madcap Maoist projects. Althusser strangled his wife, Poulantzas jumped out of a top-floor window, and Gorz abandoned Marxism for Greenery. Unfortunately, the left’s intellectual collapse created a vacuum into which the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy have moved, but it is doubtful if even the more formidable Furet would have succeeded had the left proved more serious.

Anderson also misses the continuities of the far right. (Tixier-Vignancour refused to use the word ‘legitimacy’: ‘for I know it has not existed in France since 21 January 1793’.) Virulent in the 1930s, it had its day under Vichy, only to find that De Gaulle had so comprehensively trumped it that it was now seen, in his words, to be ‘against the nation’. Shamed as collaborationist, it then went underground, bursting forth in 1956 when Poujade’s party secured 50 seats, only for De Gaulle to trump it again in 1958, then crush it in the early 1960s. After that there was no significant far right party for twenty years: the current movement re-emerged only when De Gaulle’s heirs lost power.

Now, not only has Gaullism withered along with the PCF, but both the forces that bid to succeed them – Giscard’s ‘advanced liberalism’ on the right, Mitterrandist socialism on the left – have proved shallow and, indeed, somewhat fraudulent. Hence the popular alienation from the governing elite. It is hardly surprising that all manner of lesser creatures can now come out from beneath their stones, or that France sees this as déclinisme.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

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