The trap of the demand for constitutional change…

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 11.12.49When 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

8 thoughts on “The trap of the demand for constitutional change…

  1. Astute, pertinent, clearly put and above all so right. Would that those in power were as open and forthright and that they were really interested in the reform that is so badly needed. Thank you.

  2. Once Labour get a handle on Tory intentions I wonder if they may have to start thinking along the lines of a much fairer voting system such as Proportional Representation. It cannot be right that you could possibly have ‘proportional’ MP’s with different voting regions in parliament yet the people who elect them still have the unfair first past the post system.

  3. You may be right, and thank you for the insight.

    However, the picture that’s starting to emerge is that there will be NO constitutional change. The ‘infighting’ within Tory ranks alone means that there is unlikely to be a meaningful constitutional convention, whilst the Labour Party have become conscious that they depend on Scotland for anti-Conservative (not necessarily Labour, btw, MPs). Labour will not therefore support any constitutional measure that seems likely to weaken their ability to form a government. The LibDems, having tasted the privileges of government (though not the power), will have similar concerns – although they will be the most enthusiastic of the three current mainstream parties about the appearance of concern for constitutional niceties of the sort you’re talking about. UKIP, of course, will be aiming to sabotage any change altogether, and will gain more Tory defectors the more Cameron et al appear to give to Scotland.

    All of the above parties will stand to gain votes (or think they will) by preferring the agenda that appeals to voters and party donors who identify their interests with the south-east of England, the City of London, or both. Hence they will new politics, excitement and positivity generated by the referendum will dissipate at Westminster, whatever the SNP and Plaid Cymru do in purely parliamentary terms.

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