Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Iain McLean's "What's Wrong with the British Constitution?"

Iain McLean is Professor of Politics at Oxford University, and a fellow of Nuffield College. He has previously worked at Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Warwick, and held visiting appointments at Washington & Lee, Stanford, Yale and Australian National universities. He has written copiously about UK public policy, political history, and historical applications of rational choice theory. McLean is a Fellow of the British Academy. His book State of the Union was awarded the W. J. M. McKenzie Book Prize.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, What's Wrong with the British Constitution?, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book, What’s wrong with the British constitution? begins alas with a tired metaphor, but as it happens gets to one of my main themes. The book is an attack on the heirs of Sir William Blackstone and A. V. Dicey, who argue that the British constitution is (and/or ought to be) based on unlimited parliamentary sovereignty. If Diceyan parliamentary sovereignty is correct, then the parliament of the United Kingdom can do anything except bind its successor; and if later statutes contradict earlier ones, the later repeals the earlier even if it does not explicitly say so.

I contest this on various grounds, one of them being that this view is determinedly English, and ignorant of Scotland and Ireland. As regards Scotland, the Acts of Union 1706-7 are three fundamental constitutional documents, which contained provisions for their own entrenchment. They are still in force. As regards Ireland, my book studies the constitutional crisis of 1909-14 at length. The elected house of Parliament, the House of Commons, wanted to tax land values and to grant ‘home rule’ – that is, a measure of devolution – to Ireland. But the two unelected houses, the House of Lords and the monarchy, blocked the elected house with all their might and main. One of the main blockers was the same A. V. Dicey, who primordially hated home Rule. He therefore did all in his power to ensure a deadlock such that Parliament could not be sovereign. Page 99 explains the contradiction in the thought of Dicey and other Unionists (as those opposed to Irish Home Rule were called):
The elephant in the room was the Irish Party – the partisan veto player in the Parliaments of 1910-18. That party, although internally fissile, had totally dominated parliamentary representation in Ireland since the franchise extension of 1884. Its bloc of at least 80 seats gave it partisan veto power in the Parliaments of 1885-6, 1892-4, January - December 1910 and 1910-18. That is no disproof, but rather a confirmation, of Duverger’s Law. Understood properly, Duverger’s Law operates at district level, not at national level. In the Catholic five-sixths of Ireland (and the Scotland division of Liverpool), Duverger’s Law delivered such hegemony to the Irish Party that many of its seats were uncontested (hence the apparent, but not real, over-representation shown in Table 4.1). Given that, all the responsiveness of the plurality electoral system was insufficient to deliver a single-party Commons majority in these four Parliaments. The Unionists were determined that Ireland must remain in the Union; but they overlooked the fact that as long as it remained in the Union, it would send a disaffected bloc of 80 MPs determined to weaken the Union and in a position to insist on their programme in every hung parliament. Despite their three election victories, Liberal and Irish Party voters remained beggars with the ballot in their hands. Land value tax, the subject of this chapter, was but one of several policies vetoed or delayed, because they threatened the material interest of the landowning class.

Thus, while the Lords’ victory over the 1909 Budget was Pyrrhic, their victory over land taxes was real. The conventional, ‘forward-marchish’ view of British political history holds, in caricature, that the bad guys won in 1909; the People then intervened and the good guys won in 1911, putting the bad guys back in their red padded box. Actually, the Lords, and the landed interest that they represented, did better than that. We return to this in Chapter 7. Meanwhile, we turn to the even bigger upset of Ireland.
Learn more about What's Wrong with the British Constitution? at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue