Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Handing it down

So Kim Jong-il is gone in North Korea, and the new ruler will be his son, Kim Jong-un. According to the most primitive method of selecting a ruler of a tribe, possession of the whole nation is just handed on lock, stock, and barrel to the heir by birth, as if it were an estate, or a bureau, or an old bike, or any other material object that can be inherited. The lives and fates of millions and the wealth of the whole nation just handed on by "divine" right of the possessor, to his closest genetic copy. If property is theft, then the greatest theft of all, one of the greatest evils of which people are capable, must be the dynastic, undemocratic handing on of a nation on the death of its ruler.

It's good that the more advanced parts of the world have evolved their constitutions beyond this. But we do have a hereditary monarchy in the UK. Of course, any direct comparison between out Queen and Kim Jon-il would be crass and stupid. Our Queen has merely continued the constitutional system handed down to her. She has not meddled in every aspect of public life (so far as we know), and has definitely not caused a famine of millions of people.

We have a constitutional monarchy. But how constitutional is it? The constitution is not written down anywhere that we can definitively and easily read. I am not all that happy with our constitutional monarchy as it is. In theory, Parliament has been the sovereign body since 1689, and can choose who is to be monarch. It last did this in 1688. Since then it has allowed the succession to continue in the traditional way without interference. It also has not removed all the powers of the monarch over our government and law-making.

The Queen has a weekly conversation with the Prime minister. This is secret. We do not know what they discuss, or how she uses her influence. Probably more seriously, Prince Charles has been interfering in legislation – over "at least 12 bills since 2005" – but the details are obscure. The lack of transparency and explicitness in the relationship between the British monarch and constitution is not good for a supposedly modern democracy. We have a special breed of person in the UK (always an upper-class white man high up in the establishment) called the "Constitutional Expert" who can explain fine points to us about "The Monarchy", "The Queen" "The Crown", "Parliament" and "The State". This is a thing that appears to be unique to the UK. In the Irish Republic, for example, they don't need any "Constitutional Experts"; every schoolchild knows as much about the constitution as anybody does, as it's in a little book that they are all given. It's all written down. That's a real constitution, and real democracy.

I don't think the monarchy is the biggest problem with the British constitution. The biggest problem is the lack of a fair voting system for Parliament. But it's all embroiled in the general antiquated mess. Looking into the British constitutional system is like looking into the cobweb-filled electrical cupboard of a house where the system has not been overhauled by a qualified electrician in 100 years. It may have continued working, after a fashion, for all that time, with ad-hoc solutions and mucking about, but it's an inefficient,  dangerous mess that nobody understands and nobody is proud of. And I think it reduces Britain's standing in the world, its influence, and its authority to be able to criticise corrupt, dictatorial and mediaeval political systems elsewhere. Handing over power in the state to the son and heir –"Well, that's what you do in Britain, isn't it?"

The London Cycling Campaign and London cycle bloggers have organised a vigil at 6pm tonight (Tuesday 20 December 2011) at Kings Cross, to remember the 16 London cyclist deaths of 2011 (twice the total for 2008, the year our current Mayor took over), and protest over the lack of action from him and Transport for London in making the streets of London acceptably safe for those on foot and bike. I hope you can join me there.


  1. That's something you don't expect to read in a cycling blog!

    I agree that many things about the parliamentary system in UK look unusual or even a bit weird comparing to other countries, especially to a foreigner like me. On the other hand, the parliament in this country is a very old institution and it just bears the features which were very progressive and innovative back in the days.

    Younger democracies had an opportunity to start for a scratch employing the best practices and avoiding some mistakes, but those nations have been enjoying the democracy for a rather short time comparing to British people.

  2. Sounds like a cycle protest is needed at the Diamond Jubilee!