High Jinks at the Plaza

Perry Anderson

  • The British Constitution Now by Ferdinand Mount
    Heinemann, 289 pp, £18.50, April 1992, ISBN 0 434 47994 2
  • Constitutional Reform by Robert Brazier
    Oxford, 172 pp, £22.50, September 1991, ISBN 0 19 876257 7
  • Anatomy of Thatcherism by Shirley Letwin
    Fontana, 364 pp, £6.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 00 686243 8

‘Constitutional theorists who wish to hold our attention must charm as well as instruct; this is not so, I think, in other countries,’ writes Ferdinand Mount. Who better to illustrate the claim? Few figures in the world of English letters possess such a combination of credentials. Author of a number of novels; columnist or leader-writer for half of the nation’s press, with a record of service from the Sketch to the Spectator; champion of family values; political counsellor at Downing Street: the editor of the Times Literary Supplement seems the ideal candidate for the task in hand. Nor is the success of The British Constitution Now in fulfilling the first part of the requirement in doubt. Mount’s account of the framework of the United Kingdom, and what repair it may call for, has already beguiled readers across the political spectrum. Commentators on right and left alike have praised its wit and acumen. If few have seen eye to eye with every proposal it makes, virtually all have agreed that this is the work of an enlightened reformer, of liberal temper, within the party of tradition. Here, so it would appear, is a rare conservative who might even be regarded as an ally, in his own fashion, of the franc-tireurs around Charter 88.

The admiration The British Constitution Now has won is not misplaced. It is, indeed, a graceful and intelligent book. But it has attracted a misapprehension. The charm of the image has, so to speak, obscured the instruction of the text. There are a number of ways of approaching this, but the best is probably to begin with its dedication. The book is devoted to the memory of Michael Oakeshott – whose thought, Mount tells us, has left its traces, ‘no doubt sadly smudged’, on many of its pages. At first glance, the affinity between author and authority seems straightforward enough, for Oakeshott was widely held to be the most civilised conservative thinker of his time, a philosopher above party or prejudice, admired on occasion as far afield as New Left Review. But it has more political charge to it than might be thought.

On 17 November 1975, Oakeshott delivered a public lecture in New York, ‘Talking Politics’, in honour of the 20th anniversary of the National Review, the journal of the American Hard Right. In the issue of 21 November, Mount – a regular contributor – toasted the appearance of Oakeshott’s ‘majestic work’ On Human Conduct, whose ‘fresh and memorable definition of political liberty’ was cause for ‘gratitude and celebration’. This was a representative number of the magazine. Mount’s homage was accompanied by two tributes, from James Burnham and F.R. Buckley, to ‘our century’s most successful ruler’, Generalissimo Franco – ‘a giant who will be truly mourned by Spain’, giving ‘the lie to cant about “fascism” ’. At the start of the journal was an admiring interview with General Somoza, ‘long the best friend the United States has in Central America’, as he set about the reconstruction of his country in the aftermath of the Nicaraguan earthquake. Winding it up came a warning from Robert Bork against the menace of the ‘clerisy of power’ now (under the Ford Presidency) steering the nation towards the shoals of equality and uniformity.

The following bumper issue of the National Review, on 5 December, was mainly taken up with the text of Oakeshott’s lecture, accompanied by ‘a pictorial essay’ on the banquet in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel commemorating the journal’s 20th year – a Tatler-style spread awash with tuxedo and chalice, whose stars were Barry Goldwater (‘regarded more than any other living American with almost universal affection’) and Ronald Reagan (‘about to engage in a great enterprise – indeed this occasion is at once his last, and unlikeliest, chance to back out’). Peering out elf-like from the convivial flux was Oakeshott. Perhaps we should imagine the young Mount too, somewhere off-camera, hovering respectfully in outlying eddies. At all events, this is the constellation from which a consideration of The British Constitution Now – and for that matter, the new Times Literary Supplement – can most usefully start.

Mount’s book opens with a salvo against reigning complacencies and canonical authorities, calculated to win the sympathy of every radical reader. The vanities of British exceptionalism – the unique political wisdom of Westminster – and the illusions of seamless continuity in our constitutional development, are lightly dispatched. Then, at greater length, the received doctrines of Bagehot, Dicey and Jennings are dismissed as so many crude or mischievous simplifications of the subtler, more surprising reality of Britain’s heritage. Having demolished these, Mount proceeds to pass in review the actual shape of the country’s constitution – an edifice rather than an engine, he stresses, in Oakeshottian idiom. Surveying its principal parts in turn, he finds fault not only with the way they are understood, but also with the way some of them in fact operate. There has been, he concludes, a falling away from the original virtues of the British Constitution which still lie dormant within it. Mount’s proposals for reform seek to reawaken its ‘old spirit’, with a set of candid yet moderate changes, that would also help it adjust to the ‘incoming tides’ of the world outside the UK. Entrenchment of existing constitutional conventions, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, fixed-term parliaments, some kind of Scottish Assembly, are the main items of this agenda. Moving in the right direction, supporters of Charter 88 might say, but not far enough.

The drift of the enterprise, however, is not to be caught so readily. The feature of Mount’s book that has perhaps most caught the fancy of the Left is its disposal of ‘the three great simplifiers’: the caning given Bagehot and Dicey, in particular, has aroused more than one pleasurable frisson. Greater attention should have been paid to Mount’s own classification of his trio: ‘By coincidence,’ he remarks, ‘the three most noted constitutional analysts represent each of the three main political tendencies – Bagehot the Liberal, Dicey the Unionist, Jennings the Fabian.’ A critic of all three, the reader can deduce, will not be pleading from any narrow standpoint of party. The description is, however, a feint. Dicey was indeed a ‘Unionist’, but he was never a Conservative, remaining a Liberal of Whig persuasion throughout his career. One of the ‘main political tendencies’ is tacitly exempt from stricture here, and forms the real basis for the critique of the other two.

For on inspection, the substance of Mount’s objections to the standard authorities turns out to be not their fabrication of conventional pieties, but subversion of them. In every other way the epitome of ‘manly common sense’, Bagehot had the bad taste to treat the Monarchy as if it were a mere charade to gull the masses, rather than a ‘heart-touching symbol’ of the culture they shared with the educated classes – and so in truth ‘the legitimate authority which was entitled to demand their obedience’. It was C.H. Sisson, from a Maurrassian background, who first vehemently lodged this complaint in The Case of Walter Bagehot, which Mount now repeats in more decorous terms, regretting that Bagehot should have been so distrustful of the broadening of the electorate.

Dicey was guilty of something worse. Behind his high doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament, unencumbered by rival power or binding precedent, ‘lurks the menacing, insatiable sovereign will of the people – the id to Westminster’s ego’. The tenets of Diceyan constitutionalism, despite appearances, amount in the end to little more than a formula for ‘mob-rule’, as his own conduct during the long Irish crisis, when he appealed for popular resistance to Parliamentary decisions, showed. Here the affront is to the rule of law itself. Mount affects to be shocked that Dicey could have contemplated insurrection to preserve the Union, as if his had not been an option entertained by many members of the political establishment of the time, including Bonar Law: indeed, it was a famous episode in the modern history of Mount’s own party. Like Bagehot’s opinions of the Second Reform Act, Dicey’s interventions against Home Rule form a tactically convenient stick for Mount to wave at writers whose real offence lies elsewhere – tarnishing the aura of monarchy, and opening the door to popular sovereignty. Jennings, by contrast, requires no side-gambit. Mount taxes him directly with ‘unashamed bureaucratic slurring’ of the Constitution by treating bodies like the trade unions as if they had some relevance to it. That was the road to a calamitous corporatism, swelling the pretensions and corrupting the integrity of government.

If such are the defects of the accepted authorities, what has been the practical effect of their doctrines – did they simply reflect or actually promote dangerous trends in the body politic? ‘Are Bagehot, Dicey and Jennings merely unwitting agents of an intellectual degeneration which was inbuilt?’ That would imply structural faults in our constitutional heritage itself. This is delicate ground, where Mount’s natural constituency has strong convictions, and here he treads carefully. His solution is an equivocation. Essentially, the problem is our ‘understanding’ of the Constitution, rather than the reality of it. If strains have appeared over time, the ancient structure contains the remedies for them – strengths that have been long neglected, under the distorting influence of official misinterpretations. The pragmatism of the past century is a ‘symptom of decadence’. The need today is to return to the principles that informed our original institutions: to recover the ‘old spirit’ of the Constitution, as Mount puts it.

The convenience of the notion lies, of course, in the absence of any letter to correspond to – or even contradict – it. The ‘British Constitution’ is, in any comparative meaning just spirit. Indeed, one might say, any number of them, in the table-turning sense. Mount’s own séance is rather desultory, and after a few erratic results, he abandons the board. The ghosts that briefly appear include Bracton, Grattan, inevitably Burke. The ideal past summoned up oscillates mistily between Angevin and Hanoverian times. Without lingering on either period, Mount passes to the safer task of ‘summarising’ the genie in general. Naturally it includes the rule of law, as an empyrean superior to all legislators. Beyond this, in Mount’s retrospect, the old spirit of the Constitution turns out to be what Montesquieu had supposed, but few English have believed – the separation of powers peculiar to our kingdom. Colported home by Leo Amery, the judgment of De l’esprit de lois re-emerges as the deeper truth of our institutions after all, whatever historians may say. This departure from the verdict of modern scholarship is not, however, pursued in any detail. For what Mount really wishes to stress is not the separation, but the multiplication of powers in the national past. The term he uses to deplore the modern decline of the Constitution is significant. When he describes the trend of the 20th century, he always speaks of the ‘thinning’ of British institutions – not ‘fusing’. What he means by this is essentially the process whereby first the Monarchy lost the substance of its prerogatives to the King-in-Parliament, and then the Lords lost most of theirs to the Commons, leaving the latter in something perilously close to full control of the State. In short, what is normally accounted the emergence of democracy.

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[*] Constitution of the United Kingdom, discussed by Peter Pulzer in the LRB (5 December 1991).