Constitution and the Nation

Alongside these political and economic changes, which have had a bearing on the weakening of British identity, are certain constitutional questions. Several authors, among them Barnett (1997), McCrone (1997) and Nairn (1977), have suggested that the British state represents a flawed and incomplete democracy. Nairn in particular argues that the historical absence of a ‘social revolution’ has meant that Britain has retained an ‘archaic’ form of state and society. McCrone’s argument centres on the view that a British state-nation never developed into a nation-state. The political reforms which might have achieved this—abolishing or further reducing the role of the monarchy, reform of the House of Lords or replacement by an elected upper house, changes to the voting system— were unlikely in a highly centralised, conservative state:

[Britain’s] political development had been arrested, possibly because its route to modernisation was much more conservative than is usually made

out—a kind of conservative liberalism in which, by means of that ‘antiquated compromise’, a thoroughgoing reform of constitutional and political structures did not take place (McCrone 1997: 586)

Nairn has long led the way in seeing Britain as a ‘pre-modern state’ or an ‘ancien regime’, incapable of developing either a proper democracy or a modern nationalism (Nairn 1981). Similarly Marquand argues:

The UK is not a state in the continental sense. It is a bundle of islands (including such exotica as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man which are not even represented at Westminster), acquired at different times by the

English crown, and governed in different ways. Its inhabitants are not citizens of a state, with defined rights of citizenship. They are subjects of a monarch, enjoying ‘liberties’ which their ancestors won from previous monarchs. (Marquand 1988: 152, cited in McCrone 1997: 585)

Upon the election of Blair in 1997 a veteran reformer for constitutional change, Anthony Barnett, may well have thought that the hour had come. His This Time: Our Constitutional Revolution was written in heightened expectation of constitutional reform. Some of the reforms were achieved. After referendums held in 1997, the government passed devolution acts for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, each being passed in 1998. In 2000 Freedom of Information legislation was passed, but anyone reading Barnett’s This Time in 2016 would be more struck by how little has changed. When Scotland appeared to be on the brink of leaving the British state in September 2014, it was reported that the prime minister was ‘under growing pressure’ to ask the Queen to speak out in favour of the Union (Rayner et al. 2014, The Daily Telegraph). When the No vote (on Scottish independence) subsequently prevailed over Cameron (the prime minister) told former New York Mayor Bloomberg that he (Cameron) had reported the result to the Queen and she had ‘purred down the line’ (Mason 2014). In the USA, a president would report to ‘my fellow Americans’; in Britain the prime minister reports to his Queen. Barnett no doubt welcomed the devolutions and the Freedom of Information Act of 2000; much else remains virtually unchanged.

 
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