No one expects the British Constitution (part 1)

“Happy” Jack Straw has finally given us an overview of his proposals for ‘constitutional renewal’ – I do wish he’d lay off the ‘renewal’ thing as it only makes me think of 1976 film version of Logan’s Run – which includes one obvious crowd-pleaser:

Our view is that Parliament itself is best placed to decide what needs to be secured to ensure Members are able freely to discharge their responsibilities. Clause 1 of the draft Bill therefore repeals sections 132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. We invite the views of Parliament on whether additional provision is needed to keep open the passages leading to the Palace of Westminster and to ensure that, for example, excessive noise is not used to disrupt the workings of Parliament.

…but otherwise looks to be the usual mix of feeble concessions on relatively unimportant and largely cosmetic points and intense prevarication on anything that looks a bit more difficult, although I should make special note of his comments on the future status of the Anglican Church:

Mr Speaker the government remains committed to the establishment of the Church of England, and greatly values the role played by the Church in our national life. Appointments to senior Church positions will continue to be made by Her Majesty the Queen, who should continue to be advised on the exercise of Her powers of appointment by one of Her Ministers, which will usually be the Prime Minister.

All which can be interpreted as meaning that he couldn’t come up with any actual solid reasons for continuing to privilege the Church with guaranteed seats in the House of Lords so he’ll just day that the government prefers to keep things on a ‘business as usual’ footing and hope no one asks too many hard questions, as if there’s any chance of the latter round here.

However the part I’m most interested in is passed off in a single sentence:

Over the coming months we will be publishing a Green Paper on a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and on the values which should bind us together as citizens.

Well there’s the bread but where’s the meat in Straw’s sandwich? Actually its more or less over here in this speech by Michael Wills MP for the time being, although it gives few clues as to the what the actual content of this Bill of Rights and Responsibilities will be. To be fair, however, it does tell us something about what won’t be in it and its that that’s perhaps most interesting.

Let’s take this is reverse order and start with this idea of a statement of ‘values which should bind us together as citizens’.

On the face of it, that’s not an unreasonable proposition and certainly not without precedent when it comes to  the business of framing constititions. The French have ‘Liberte, Egalité, Fraternité’ while the American Declaration of Independence admirably declares that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

All good values and all, in legislative terms, essentially meaningless because these values are so broad in meaning that they can pretty much mean all things to all people even if their individual conceptions of what things like liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness actually mean are very different.

In his speech, Wills states that this Bill will, when published, ‘express the most fundamental values we share as a nation and help bind us together, enabling the individual to flourish within a common framework of dignity, equality and liberty and mutual respect.”

There you go. Dignity, Equality, Liberty and Mutual Respect – chuck in ‘Justice’ and there’s as good a statement of ‘British’ values as any you could come up with, for all that it has no significant meaning in law – and that’ll be a £10,000 consultancy fee, Michael, cheque made payable to… (well you have to try, don’t you).

Of course, none of those values are uniquely ‘British’ – if you wanted something that’s actually British you’d have to resort to ‘Standing in Queues, Drinking Tea and Talking about the Shitty Weather’, but that’s hardly inspirational stuff. Talk to any American and they’ll happily tell you that, as values go, dignity, mutual respect and justice are as American as Mom’s Apple Pie™ even thought their Founding Fathers forgot to give them a name-check – and ‘Justice’ made the preamble to the US Constitution anyway, so that’s already explicitly covered.

Then again, Gordon’s also but his oar in and come up with a few more ideas for ‘British’ values:

But what matters even more are the common values we share across the United Kingdom: values we have developed together over the years that are rooted in liberty, in fairness and tolerance, in enterprise, in civic initiative and internationalism.

These values live in the popularity of our common institutions from the NHS, the BBC, to the Queen – and even more recently in UK-wide support for the Olympics, Children in Need, Comic Relief, Make Poverty History and action on climate change.

So now that’s dignity, equality, liberty, mutual respect, justice, fairness, tolerance, enterprise, civic initiative and internationalism.

At the rate this is going I can just picture how Brown’s eventual announcement of what ‘British’ values are, to the House of Commons, is going to go something like…

With permission Mr Speaker I should like to make a statement about the results of our deliberations on the values that this government considers should bind us all together as British citizens.

I am pleased to be the the position, today, of being able to inform the House that Britain’s chief value is dignity…

Dignity and equality, errm, equality and dignity

Our two values are dignity and equality…

And liberty….

Our three values are dignity, equality, and liberty…

And an unshakable devotion to Justice….

Our *four*…


Amongst our values….

Amongst our British values… are such elements as dignity, equality….

I’ll come in again.

On the whole, Jamie K says it best

[T]he most depressing thing about New Labour’s national identity monkeyshines isn’t just the implied authoritarian paternalism, but the sheer small time, low rent tinpottery of it all. It makes me think of Paraguayan Admirals, of the fifty third verse of the Swaziland national anthem, of the rotary club improving lecture, of correspondents to local newspapers who write under pig latin pseudonyms, of community singing by inmates of methodist Sunday schools accompanied by kazoo and triangle, of Tubman bids us toil:

Tubman bids us toil in the gleeful way,
Saving every moment of the precious day,
Whether big or little we must work,
So in your small corner don’t shirk and lurk!

(In part 2, I’ll get to the business of rights and responsibilities)

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