I consider I’m pretty well-versed in British constitutional history. It was the only compulsory course we had to follow at my university (this was sixty years ago). It was a bit of a bore, and of course very exclusive, in the sense of concentrating on ‘high’ domestic politics, and finding no place in it for the proles (‘social’ history came in only later); or – believe it or not – for the British empire and imperialism. (There was a second-year option on what was called ‘The Expansion of Europe’; but – as I’ve written before – that was only taken by dum-dums who couldn’t cope cerebrally with the history of political philosophy, which was the alternative. I took the latter, not wishing to be classed as a dum-dum; so my Cambridge undergraduate course was not where I was introduced to my later specialism. That came through my interest in political philosophy: in this case ‘anti-imperialism’. But I digress…)
My point is that I consider that my education in constitutional history, much as it bored me initially, has served me pretty well over time. There was a broad theme running through the course in Cambridge, a ‘Whiggish’ one; which taught that England’s (and later Britain’s) political development was one of steady progress via various reforms and one revolution (two if you count the ‘Glorious’ one), towards the happy quasi-democracy that we enjoyed in the 1960s. If this syllabus had a hidden function, it was a ‘patriotic’ one. Britain deserved our loyalty because of this liberal progression, achieved with very little violence, because we were, as a nation, so smart and moderate. Not, note, because of the Empire; which only came into this picture at the stage of ‘decolonisation’, which was supposed to fit the general pattern of democratic ‘progress’.
That aside, the point I want to make here with regard to our present political situation is that my early grounding in the history of the (unwritten) British constitution is probably what has alerted me to the violence that is being done to some of our fundamental national traditions by the government today; especially to the principles of the separation of powers, checks and balances, the primacy of parliament, probity, the independence of the civil service, and many others. This was highlighted the other day by Peter Hennessy, probably our leading present-day constitutional historian, in his castigation of Boris Johnson as ‘the great debaser in modern times of decency and public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions – our very system of government’.
I imagine that Boris and his pals, not having been brought up on Tanner and Elton as I was in the ’sixties – maybe not having studied British history at all, only ‘Classical’ – may not be fully aware of this. If they are, they may want simply to dismiss Hennessy as one of Michael Gove’s derided ‘experts’. In either case, they are clearly departing from the form of ‘patriotism’, and even ‘conservatism’, that was inculcated in those of us reading History at Cambridge in the 1960s.
Recent events have clearly shown how flimsy and inadequate our constitutional conventions are proving today, in the face of these ignorant Borisian assaults. This has left us poorly protected by our ‘constitution’. What this situation requires now, I should like to suggest, is a major public enquiry into all aspects of Britain’s government; embracing the relations between the three classical pillars of the constitution (executive, legislature, judiciary); our electoral system; the funding of parties; the civil service; devolution; the power of the media; class and gender, insofar as they relate to politics; the ‘Public’ schools (of course)…. and so on. It might take many years; but if so, then so much the better. It would require long and deep thought. Perhaps Lord Hennessy could be its Chair. – On the other hand, this wouldn’t suit those who are exploiting the weaknesses and vagaries of the present ramshackle system, to their own undemocratic advantage. So it’s probably a no-no; certainly under the present government.
PS. Another thought – rather more trivial. It relates to Boris Johnson personally. We all know about his vaunting ambition; and that he only ever wanted to ‘be’ prime minister, not to ‘do’ anything in the job. Well, he’s managed that, by playing the crooked game that our tattered constitution has left us with; but is now well on track to become Britain’s worst and most reviled prime minister ever. Does this matter to him, I wonder? After all, he’s cemented his place in the history books. Is that good enough; to feature prominently as a failure and a rogue in the main texts of our future histories – perhaps even have a chapter devoted to him – rather than appearing as merely a footnote? Would he prefer notoriety to marginalisation? At least now he is noticed. That may be all he ever wanted. It fits with his own personal history, right back to Eton and before. But that’s not for us – least of all constitutional historians – to know.