The Constitutional Question. Conscience Politics.

by Barbara Gardiner

The ordinary citizen in Britain is not a member of a political party, is not a paid politician nor earns a living from studying politics. There are more ordinary citizens than there are `political' citizens. Ordinary citizens are not devoid of social conscience but we are increasingly disillusioned with politics. When it suits politicians they would like us to believe that politics is an extremely complex business. Yet we know that politicians require no particular qualifications to engage in this very complex activity, and in Britain today it requires more academic qualifications to be a nurse than to be Chancellor of the Exchequer or Prime Minister. Modern British politics is not so much a complex activity as a confused and confusing activity.


Before we become further embroiled in whether we need constitutional change or not, and if so of what kind, we would do well to try to clarify the nature and function of politics, since it is in politics that the ordinary citizen feels most let down. Any constitutional change will only be delivered to us by politics, is this not the great lesson of Ulster? If it is our politics that is ailing, however, then constitutional change will not of itself guarantee improvement in the quality of our democracy.

Shorn of all the party political trappings, mystification , ideology and rhetoric, politics is simply a kind of decision-making for community. In practical effect it is a community-building activity. Political power can of course be used to create exclusive communities within the body social. The fact that politics is community-building in its effects does not mean that it produces fair, just or equitable communities, only that it has the capacity to do this. Politics is by no means the sole builder of community within the body social, shared belief can build community. Part of our current malaise is that we are being led to think that politics is fundamentally to do with beliefs, and we are encouraged strongly in this direction by politicians themselves reciting litanies of their respective party beliefs.

Churches, mosques and temples build community on the basis of belief, politics builds community on the basis of rights, whether these rights are constitutionally enshrined or not.

British politics has become belief politics, not just in content but through an electoral system the sole function of which is to legitimise the belief that adversarial politics, the clash of beliefs, produces better government. The fact that the majority of us do not have political beliefs strong enough to prompt us to join a political party seems to convey nothing to politicians. This lack of belief among ordinary citizens does not make us devoid of social conscience, it merely says that belief politics is not our kind of politics.

The end of the cold war, a war of belief politics, has provided us with an opportunity to progress to a development of the community-building power of politics in which democracy and social conscience alone construct and safeguard rights, to progress from belief politics to conscience politics.

The constitutional question is therefore what constitutional change, if any, will increase our understanding of the community-building task of politics and enable us all, politicians and citizens, to participate more consciously in this political activity?

It may be argued that social conscience is vague and cannot be measured, while political beliefs are clear and have a pseudo scientific pedigree. Nevertheless it is social conscience which can transcend party political divisions. It is social conscience that has abolished some forms of slavery, some forms of poverty, and some forms of injustice in democratic societies. Democracy has offered us the chance to develop social conscience in ways inconceivable to earlier societies.

The fundamental democratic deficit of the twentieth century is that democracy is not considered by politicians to be a measure of social conscience but a measure of belief in party political agendas. Ordinary citizens can only with difficulty express social conscience through a vote which is taken to measure something else. The voter may share very few of the beliefs and none of the dogmas on offer yet that is all that is available for expressing genuine social concern through the national political process.

Belief politics has the capacity to destroy not just democracy but civilisation. We have survived a cold war of dogmatic belief politics that brought us to the very brink of that possibility. Democracy is not the winner of the cold war for despite the collapse of communism we have not yet solved the paradox of democracy. If the majority are led to believe that a fascist party will deliver prosperity by abolishing democratic accountability then no democrat can oppose this without self contradiction. Russia might yet travel this path. If we in Britain, but particularly in Scotland, effect constitutional change without scrutiny of the nature and function of politics it is not an automatic result that we will become more democratic. Democracy without politics is only mob rule.

Sir Karl Popper's defence of democracy in The Open Society and Its Enemies gives us a far more robust concept of democracy than just majority rule. An open democratic society consciously constructs free institutions, particularly those which allow the ruled to remove their rulers without bloodshed. This is a solution to the paradox of democracy. We are a democratic society not solely because we have majority rule but because we construct free institutions and these we can defend against majority or minority attack without self contradiction. The conscious construction and safeguarding of free institutions is the mark of an open society.

A written constitution and statement of basic rights is such an institution. It allows all of us to see what it is the function of politicians to protect. At present we have no such institution and it appears to us from their actions that the function which politicians best carry out is defending vested interests, regardless of any rights involved.

I suggest that the only belief required of us as citizens is in a robust democracy, thereafter politics has nothing to do with beliefs but a great deal to do with the conscious construction and safeguarding of free institutions. The task of political life is to community-build on the basis of rights which are formed by social conscience rather than party political belief and dogma. We ought to be communally engaged in this task. As ordinary citizens our role as an electorate is to judge political parties on their technical ability to community-build, not their ability to waffle, since it is we who live the consequences of the misapplication of the community-building power of politics. A written constitution and statement of the basic rights of the British citizen is not a masterplan for the perfect society. However it lets the ordinary citizen judge the technical ability of the party of government to community-build on the basis of these rights, and it makes the politician's task one of consciously constructing an open society on a visible foundation.

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. The only visible expression of our constitution is the person of the monarch and the pageant of Parliament paying allegiance to the Crown.

The constitutional question is whether a written constitution and statement of citizen's rights would enable us all, political citizens and ordinary citizens to community-build with a greater degree of consciousness than our present constitutional monarchy allows. I think it would. If we are prepared to acknowledge that the power inherent in politics is and always has been a community-building power however chaotically or unconsciously used and misused, then to control it democratically is the only means available to us to develop fair and just societies. The autocratic or benign ruler of old, ruled on the basis of Divine Right. The community-building power of politics shapes society through rights whether divine or human, whether those rights are enshrined or simply ad hoc. It is not politics that has become more complex, but life.

Democracy is not immunity from tyranny, it can itself be overthrown, belief that this could not possibly happen in Britain is just that, belief. We need more than belief, we need to solve the paradox of democracy and we need to solve the paradox of politics. The paradox of politics is that while it is community-building in its effects it does not produce communities in which everyone, regardless of their beliefs or any other differences, has a place unless we consciously will it to do so. Enshrined rights constructed on the basis of democratic social conscience give everyone an equal place, so that political power cannot be used for anti-social ends without it being seen by all to be so used.

If we view democratic political power as the power to community-build on the basis of rights, then we can see that in reality the monarchy is no longer a political institution unless we accept Divine Right, which clearly we do not. We cannot build an open society based on rights when we allow political power, in principle, to remain in heredity and privilege (The House of Windsor and The House of Lords).

Looked at from a social conscience point of view, the institution of British monarchy denies the monarch the right to speak freely and publicly on political matters, the right to religious freedom, the right to marry freely and to vote. It denies to the monarch what once monarchy had the power to deny to its subjects. The person occupying the position of monarch is denied basic human rights. Nevertheless one of the compelling arguments of monarchists for keeping a hereditary group of people in this position is that the monarchy is community-building in its effects.

Community-building is not confined to politics; politics builds community through rights and it is not on this basis that the monarchy community-builds. If indeed the monarchy is a community-building institution it does so on the basis of personality. Our current dilemmas over the constitutional position of the monarchy would be radically different were the monarch a drunken sot.

Nevertheless there is great resistance to the abolishing of an institution which many people in Britain do feel builds community spirit even if they are unsure of the basis on which it does so.

Sovereignty, supreme power, in this constitutional monarchy lies somewhere between parliament and the crown, behind the throne and hidden from view, in other words in a hiatus. This makes real constitutional change almost impossible to achieve in Britain without a great many people feeling it would be a revolution rather than democratic evolution.

Conscience politics does not require us to believe in the monarchy or in the abolition of the monarchy as articles of faith. If the monarchy is to be disentangled from political life this is because it is in actuality no longer an institution of political life, its community-building power is in the personality of the incumbent. We can free this power from the modern slavery imposed upon it by our political life. Humanity's understanding of 20th century political history could be immeasurably enriched were the present monarch free to speak and write openly on the subject.

However, this is the end result of a process that seems to have no starting point but the apparently revolutionary one of abolishing the monarchy. This feat was actually accomplished in our political life long ago. We abolished monarchy as a political institution by setting off on the path from divine right to human rights. The Declaration of Arbroath (1320), which pre-dates the formation of the United Kingdom, is the first decisive step on this path in British history.

What we would really be abolishing in the present is a hereditary slavery, albeit imposed on only one family in Britain. This can be done in an evolutionary way.

Since we have no written constitution and supreme power in our constitutional monarchy lies somewhere between Parliament and the Crown there is nothing to prevent Parliament and the Crown together producing a written constitution and statement of rights and permitting the monarch to fulfil the first term of office as Head of State and thereafter to be Head of State only if democratically chosen. It is then up to that family itself freely to choose whether it would wish to enter political life in this way and which of its members it might wish to forward. The Royal Family would remain a feature of our cultural life but not our political life unless it freely chooses and was freely chosen by us.

We need constitutional change which will enable us to solve the paradox of politics and we need to change how we understand and practise politics in order to solve the paradox of democracy. The only constitutional change which will allow us to do this is the change to a written constitution and statement of rights. The evolutionary way to achieve this by having Parliament and the Crown produce a document that is then put to the people. Devolution as a primary constitutional change leaves the real problems of politics and the constitution untouched. As Scots we ought to give a lead in this question by focussing on the fundamentals, on politics, on the role, function and limits of political activity. It would surely be a tragedy if we were to be robbed of our capability to contribute to the world-wide problems facing politics and democracy by neglect of the fundamentals.

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