As the American Primary/Caucus season cranks into a frenzy of campaigning, claim, counter-claim, low blow and moments of pathos (or, in the case of Hillary Clinton, a carefully contrived moment of pseudo-lachrymosity), take heed of the rude good health of American democracy. How unlike some aspects of our own but more particularly European democracy, it is.
I have always loved the language of the American Constitution and of its siblings, the constitutions of the original American colonies that formed the earliest of the United States. As we have just witnessed the Primary in New Hampshire (motto: ‘Live free or Die’), this gem of a Preamble from its 1776 constitution will suffice to demonstrate their lustre:
WE, the members of the Congress of New Hampshire, chosen and appointed by the free suffrages of the people of said colony, and authorized and empowered by them to meet together, and use such means and pursue such measures as we should judge best for the public good; and in particular to establish some form of government, provided that measure should be recommended by the Continental Congress: And a recommendation to that purpose having been transmitted to us from the said Congress: Have taken into our serious consideration the unhappy circumstances, into which this colony is involved by means of many grievous and oppressive acts of the British Parliament, depriving us of our natural and constitutional rights and privileges; to enforce obedience to which acts a powerful fleet and army have been sent to this country by the ministry of Great Britain, who have exercised a wanton and cruel abuse of their power, in destroying the lives and properties of the colonists in many places with fire and sword, taking the ships and lading from many of the honest and industrious inhabitants of this colony employed in commerce, agreeable to the laws and customs a long time used here.
The sudden and abrupt departure of his Excellency John Wentworth, Esq., our late Governor, and several of the Council, leaving us destitute of legislation, and no executive courts being open to punish criminal offenders; whereby the lives and properties of the honest people of this colony are liable to the machinations and evil designs of wicked men, Therefore, for the preservation of peace and good order, and for the security of the lives and properties of the inhabitants of this colony, we conceive ourselves reduced to the necessity of establishing A FORM OF GOVERNMENT to continue during the present unhappy and unnatural contest with Great Britain; PROTESTING and DECLARING that we never sought to throw off our dependence upon Great Britain, but felt ourselves happy under her protection, while we could enjoy our constitutional rights and privileges. And that we shall rejoice if such a reconciliation between us and our parent State can be effected as shall be approved by the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, in whose prudence and wisdom we confide.
Accordingly pursuant to the trust reposed in us, WE DO Resolve, that this Congress assume the name, power and authority of a house of Representatives or Assembly for the Colony of New-Hampshire […]
It is interesting to note that, though a formidable casus belli is set out at first, there remained, at least with the denizens of New Hampshire, a strong desire to seek some compromise with Britain. Though events and the effluxion of time would soon sweep this away, one does wonder if there had been a more emollient response from Parliament and the British Government and greater willingness to compromise whether matters might have turned out rather differently.
Today we might expect with modern communications that the problem would not have been allowed to fester and grow but then, when a letter or petition would take many weeks to cross the Atlantic and many weeks to garner a reply, those with a mind to do so had much time in which to preempt any response which might then be made to seem niggardly when it finally did arrive.
One feature of American democracy is that a considerable amount of political discourse is founded on the Constitution which thus remains a living and breathing embodiment of both the spirit of a Revolution and of the modern United States.
For example, the rights of states to conduct and legislate upon their own affairs is something which continues to engage politics and trouble the Supreme Court, with States fiercely protecting their own rights as against the Federal power with terrier-like tenacity. Or one might think of the current arguments which revolve around the highly contentious (and to the rationalist, bizarre and worrying) issue of whether the ‘theory’ of intelligent design (or ‘creation’ science) might be taught in schools which, despite the ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987), its advocates still seek to achieve, notwithstanding the apparent separation of Church and State which the Constitution enshrines.
The point is that Americans set great store by the terms of their Constitution and it remains the touchstone by which so much of what is done has to be measured. It is tested time and again by political discourse and yet remains a thing of great facility, simplicity and beauty. I bet that many Americans can recite much of it by heart, not something you could do with the Treaty of Lisbon and its many thousands of words of gobbledygook.
In contrast the bombastic overblown popcorn rhetoric of the Constitution of the European Union is routinely debauched by a largely self-perpetuating oligarchy which mouths the mantras of democracy and transparency but which behind closed doors subverts that very same democracy. And given the deliberate obscurity and bloated nature of its language, no citizen of the Union will find himself inclined to use the Constitution as a touchstone for anything: he is, given its sheer size and weight, more likely to use it as a door-stop.
If you bridle at the phrase ‘self-perpetuating oligarchy’, just ask yourself what the current government of Belgium, which lost the general election in June 2007 but has recently been reappointed is if it is not such?
And given the general tendency for European States to have systems of election which favour, indeed encourage, ever-revolving coalitions, it is no surprise that most governments within the Union are, for the most part, elaborate games of Buggin’s Turn with the same tired old faces turning up time and again in this or that post over twenty or so years of active political life. Even Germany has lately succumbed to the politics of emollience, compromise with policies predicated on the basis of being the least offensive to everyone, with an effectively oppositionless administration.
And as for the practice of subverting democracy behind closed doors, what better example could you have of that than the bullying by Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel of the hapless José Sócrates, the Portuguese Prime Minister, who had apparently been entertaining hallucinatory thoughts of holding a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon?
As the Times reports today:
A referendum on the controversial redrafted EU constitution was ruled out by Portugal yesterday after pressure from Gordon Brown and President Sarkozy.
The Prime Minister and Mr Sarkozy called José Sócrates, the Portuguese Prime Minister, to insist that a popular ballot was not necessary.
The decision by Portugal not to hold a referendum but to ratify the treaty through its parliament will come as a huge relief to Downing Street and the Élysée Palace, which feared extra pressure on them to hold a public vote. The revelation of top-level phone calls will, though, only increase suspicions that the European political elite have coordinated efforts to avoid a repeat of the referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005 that sank the proposed constitution and plunged the EU into a two-year crisis.
Mr Sócrates is also understood to have called Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, to ask her view before announcing his decision.
He told Portuguese MPs: “A referendum in Portugal would jeopardise, without any reason to do so, the full legitimacy of the ratification by national parliaments that is taking place in all the other European countries.”
This weak-minded individual has lately been weaned off that particular drug by some less-than-democratic boot-boy tactics by two of the men with most to lose if anything should go wrong with the process of ratification: Brown, because if the Portuguese hold a referendum, it makes his resistance to one in the UK all the more weak and Sarkozy because he wants nothing to get in the way of a Union constructed according to the model of his predecessor Giscard d’Estaing which France intends to dominate and operate for its own benefit.
Richard North has already commented on the topic at EUreferendum as has Tony Sharp at Waendal Journal and I shall not here go over again greatly the ground upon which they have so usefully trod.
But I do add this: unlike the American Constitution which is, as I have described it, the touchstone of political life in the USA, the Constitution of the European Union is something which the Gauleiters and Préfets such as Brown and Sarkozy think of as to be ignored, evaded, manipulated or just plain overthrown at will whenever the need arises. When the Constitution speaks thus:
The Union is founded on the values of respect for […] freedom, democracy, […] the rule of law and respect for human rights,
Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen.
those are mere empty words on the page which must never, ever be allowed to get in the way of the aims of the powerful oligarchs who now decide upon our fate, which is to have unfettered power over the lives of us all.
How else, pray, could you describe the process by which, instead of the eleven million citizens of Portugal deciding on whether they wish to be bound by this Treaty, it was done for them by José Sócrates, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel, only one of whom is Portuguese, in a series of telephone calls? The Portuguese people?: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” [Let them eat cake!]
Or to put it another way, we shall soon be forced to admit, as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once declared in the wake of the Revolutions of 1848, that:
We have been beaten and humiliated […] scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands.
We must not allow democracy to slip thus from our hands.
In Britain we do not do revolutions. That messy business has been avoided by hundreds of years of careful, progressive evolutionary development of democracy. What we called the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was, in reality, a carefully scripted transfer of power and rule from one régime to another and our only serious flirtation with dictatorship, that of Oliver Cromwell, was booted out with sighs of relief but no great revolutionary bloodletting.
But whilst we are not revolutionaries, we do now, after proper reflection, share many of the sentiments which gave birth to the American Revolution and most of us now would acknowledge that the thirteen colonies were being given a raw deal by the home country and that their bid for redress or freedom was entirely justified.
Which is why, if this is how our masters intend to do business from now on, our abjuration of revolution might yet change. Nothing is forever.