When I first studied human rights, my then supervisor, Professor Conor Gearty pointed me to an article by Michael Mandel, called “A Brief History of the New Constitutionalism, or “How we changed everything so that everything would remain the same””. The article, to a great extent about the effective conservatism of the US Supreme Court over history, starts by referring to the novel The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa. This is from Mandel’s piece:
“The novel is about a noble Sicilian family at the time of the unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century. Italian unification was mainly a matter of the northern Savoy monarchy of Piemonte conquering the peninsula and vanquishing the various other monarchs, princes, etc., including the Bourbon rulers of Sicily and Naples. But there were other elements about and stirring up trouble, anti-monarchist and even socialist elements. In a scene early in the novel, the Sicilian Prince of Salina, the main character, is shocked to learn that his favourite nephew, Tancredi Falconeri, is off to join the invading northerners. He remonstrates with the boy:
You’re crazy, my son. To go and put yourself with those people … a Falconeri must be with us, for the King.
To which the nephew answers:
For the King, certainly, but which King? If we’re not there with them, that bunch is going to make a republic on us. If we want everything to remain the same, then everything is going to have to change. Have I explained myself?”
The point is pretty direct. When people with power see that power threatened, and they see that people without power are demanding change, then they have to find a way to bring about change – satisfying the demand for change – whilst ensuring that this change actually maintains their power.
We’re in the same position now after the independence referendum in Scotland. Everyone – all the political leaders in particular – are acknowledging the need for change. Many are suggesting that what we need is constitutional change in some form or other – regionalism, devolution, devo-max and so forth. All very laudable – but we need to be very careful or we’ll find that the same happens again, and we change everything so that everything remains the same. We’ll have some nice new political structures, but the power will effectively remain in the hands of the same people, we’ll have the same inequalities, the same social injustices, the same blame-games and the same suffering. We’ll spend our energy on what are actually mere window dressing, without dealing with any of the substance.
It’s the substance that needs to be changed. And it’s the substance that’s least likely to change.
The picture above is of Burt Lancaster, in the film version of The Leopard. A great film!
For those that are interested and have access to academic journals, the Mandel piece is in the Israel Law Review from 1998: 32 Isr. L. Rev. 250 1998