Friday 21 January 2005

Tom Utley is wrong.

Mark seems to think that this piece by Tom Utley is rather brilliant. Well, it isn't.

Mr Utley's trying to make the point that we don't need a special state-sponsored citizenship rite of passage, and, on that count, he is right: of course we bloody don't. He makes the point that these

proposals really do represent an attempt by the state to march into territory traditionally occupied in Britain by religion

and I reckon he's right about that too. He then gives a pretty good summary of the difference between citizens and subjects:

The difference between a citizen and a subject, as I understand it, boils down to a question of the legitimacy of a sovereign authority. A citizen is a party to a contract with the state. The state derives its authority to rule from that contract, which is at all times negotiable between the citizenry and the government.

In a monarchy, however - even a watered-down monarchy such as ours - the authority of the sovereign is completely non-negotiable. The Queen derives her right to rule, not from any contract with her subjects, but from a thousand years of very complicated history. From the moment of birth, like it or lump it, a British subject owes allegiance to the reigning monarch, just as his or her forefathers owed it to the ancestors of the Queen.

And then his common sense flies out of his ears.

It is more than 300 years since Britain suffered a civil war, a revolution or a dictatorship.

No, it isn't. The American Revolutionary War didn't end till 1783, and the thing about the American Revolutionary War is that it was the British Revolution. Britain's unique in that regard: we had such a large empire that we were able to have our revolution overseas, with the interesting result that both sides ended up in power. Since then, we've had an ongoing revolution in Northern Ireland that I would have thought Mr Utley had noticed. Apparently not.

For the purposes of this argument, I'd also include every single one of the wars of independence that broke up the Empire. While I have time for the argument that Indians, Zimbabweans, Kenyans, etc were not exactly British (and have equal time for the argument that they were), the point that Utley is trying to make is that being a subject of the all-powerful Crown, rather than a mere citizen, is some sort of check against revolution. Well, many tens of millions of subjects of the Crown revolted, with much bloodshed.

Who would want to be a citizen, surrounded by millions of other citizens, all with the right to overturn the state and throw everybody's life into turmoil? How much happier it is to be born the subject of a benign constitutional monarch, who keeps the politicians, with all their sulky ambition, their prattle and spin, in their place.

I'd agree, if our monarch did keep our politicians in their place. But their informal and never-broken constitutional arrangement — we'll acknowledge your absolute power over all of us as long as you never even think about wielding even the tiniest bit of it — has resulted in quite an appalling system. People sometimes criticise Tony Blair for being too "presidential" in the way he wields power, but they miss the point: the only reason why the US President is more powerful than the UK's Prime Minister is that the US is so much more powerful than the UK. If the nations were equally powerful, the Prime Minister would be by far the most powerful of the two men, because he wields more power over Britain than any president could ever dream of wielding over America. If Tony Blair wanted to act presidentially, he'd have to give more power to Parliament and stop wielding so much of it himself. The problem with Tony Blair is not that he's presidential: it's that he's prime-ministerial. The absolute power of the Crown over every British subject is vested in him, the Crown has agreed never to take any of it back, and the most we the people are allowed to do is to give all that power to a different Prime Minister — we're certainly not allowed any of it for ourselves.

One of the very reasons why we can get rid of governments that we dislike, with so much ease, is that ministers are subject to the same non-negotiable authority as the rest of us.

There are so many examples of just how little authority our ministers are subject to that it's difficult to know which one to pick. Because it happens to be close to hand, I'll go with this example from Tom Utley, writing in the same article, a couple of paragraphs further down:

Why, when our own constitution has proved superior to any other in Europe, is Tony Blair so besotted by the Continental model? Why does he want to hand over so many of Parliament's powers to an unanswerable, virtually unsackable judiciary? Why is he so determined to surrender control of our laws and our currency to European institutions that have no place in our hearts?

Why, in other words, is Tony Blair doing things that, according to Tom Utley, are impossible, thanks to the Queen, for any British politician to do? The trouble with an unwritten constitution is that it's far too bloody easy to rewrite it.

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