State of the union. The European elite's commitment to federalism is a smokescreen behind which lurks a bureaucratic state, writes Edward Skidelsky

Democracy in Europe

Larry Siedentop <em>Penguin, 254pp, £18.99 </em>

ISBN 0713994029

For most people, the British constitution is a subject on a par with heraldry or ecclesiastical law. "Constitutional expert" implies a courtly and somewhat camp old gentleman, the sort who is occasionally wheeled on by the BBC to judge whether or not Camilla is entitled to be Queen. Constitutional reform, even that as serious as Welsh or Scottish devolution, is seen as a mere substitute for genuine radicalism. Our interest is aroused only by "issues of substance", which in practice usually means issues involving money. Constitutional questions are dismissed as an empty formality.

But constitutional questions are not irrelevant; rather, we are blind to their importance. The recent rumpus over snobbery at Oxford provided a good demonstration of this blindness. The newspapers all focused on whether or not Oxford is biased in favour of private school applicants. But that is, in fact, a trivial issue; the deeper question raised by the Chancellor's intervention is whether universities should be considered as autonomous institutions or as departments of state. And that question is constitutional; it is a question about the way power is distributed. "What is to be done?" matters less, in this case, than "Who is to decide what is to be done?"

In the past, such problems were resolved with informal understandings. It simply wouldn't have been "done" for a Chancellor to intervene publicly in the internal affairs of a university. But these informal understandings were destroyed by Margaret Thatcher, and nothing has arisen to replace them. Our traditional constitutional blindness has never been more dangerous, because we can no longer rely on the tact of our rulers to protect us against despotism.

Democracy in Europe is a call for the revival of serious constitutional thought. Its focus is Europe, because it is in relation to Europe that the British indifference to constitutional forms has been most damaging. Larry Siedentop has a good deal of sympathy with the anxiety, strongest on the right, that power is gradually passing into the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats. But the standard response to this anxiety has been to fall back on an outdated legal punctilio - the absolute sovereignty of the "Crown in Parliament". This is indeed the only response available to our Eurosceptics, given their hostility to any form of constitutional federalism. A sound democratic instinct has been pressed into the service of jingoism, because there was no other language in which it could be expressed.

This leaves the field open to the enemies of democracy. The European elite's commitment to federalism is a smokescreen, argues Siedentop, behind which lurks a centralised, bureaucratic state in the French tradition. This is a dangerous development, because such a state is unlikely to win the consent of peoples with long traditions of self- government. It will come to be seen as something alien and imposed, as "government by strangers".

A European state on the French model may bring in its wake another French tradition, that of revolutionary violence against the state. "The tutorship of a bureaucratic state will be rejected from time to time by European citizens angry at being treated like children, but unused to the disciplines of citizenship." Siedentop's remedy is the creation of a European Senate, recruited by indirect elections from existing national parliaments. Such a body would, he hopes, restore legitimacy to the federal project by involving the nations of Europe in their own fate.

This is the political argument of Democracy in Europe. But the real novelty of Siedentop's book is the way in which he weaves this political argument into a sophisticated historical narrative. The details of contemporary politics are juxtaposed with speculations on the progress of liberty over centuries, as well as sideways glances at theology, art and literature. This style of writing will be new to most English readers. It is not political journalism, nor is it academic philosophy. It is more profound than the former and less systematic than the latter. Democracy in Europe is a conscious revival of that almost defunct genre, the political essay. It is, among other things, a polemic against academic specialisation.

At the heart of Siedentop's philosophy is a belief in the constructive power of political forms, in their ability to mould the character of society and the individual. This places him in the tradition of Continental rationalism, the tradition of Kant and Rousseau. The state, in his view, is not a mere mechanism for reconciling warring interests. Its influence reaches down into the depths of the self; it establishes us as individuals. In societies prior to the invention of the modern state, the individual was submerged in his various social roles. He was a father, a nobleman or a priest; but there was no identity common to all, no standpoint from which these social roles might have been criticised or rejected. The modern state creates such an identity. One is no longer just a father, nobleman or priest; one is first and foremost a subject or a citizen. Thus a radical break with tradition, or at least the possibility of such a break, is insinuated into the texture of social life. The individual comes into relief; he emerges from behind his masks. This is the great theme of Shakespeare's plays, and it is no accident, Siedentop points out, that the writing of those plays coincided with the period of state formation in England.

But if the modern state finally establishes the individual in his entirety, the groundwork for this achievement was laid centuries before by Christianity. St Paul was the first to proclaim that the individual is more than whatever social position he happens to occupy, that the new life in Christ transcends social divisions. "There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all." But this ideal remained strictly heavenly. It was imperfectly realised in the Church, and not at all in the secular realm. Nevertheless, the seed was sown. There is continuity between the ideals of Christianity and the practices of modern democracy. The kingdom of heaven is the ghostly precursor of the modern state, and constitutional liberalism is the "latest frontier of European Christianity".

There is much here that will bemuse secularists and offend Christians. This whole manner of thinking about history has become strange to us; we are unused to such grand perspectives. Siedentop should be applauded for his boldness, for his disregard of conventional categories. But there is a lot that remains to be filled in. How, exactly, are the moral intuitions of Christianity translated into political liberalism? Weren't other traditions also at work? Religious tolerance, one of the outstanding achievements of liberalism, received little encouragement from Christian tradition. A few remarks from St Augustine about "Christian liberty" can be discounted; the revival of ancient scepticism, as well as sheer fatigue, was a far more important influence here.

Siedentop refuses to be pinned down on one crucial question: did Christianity invent the individual, or did it discover him? Is individualism logically parasitic on Christian theology, or is the relationship between the two merely historical? The same question can be repeated with regard to the state: do civic rights create the individual, or do they merely acknowledge his existence? In short, is the individual a natural or an artificial category?

Siedentop tends towards the view that the "individual" is no more than a construct of European civilisation. But in that case, what sense can be made of the universal aspirations of Christianity and its secular successors? Liberty and equality are simply our inheritance; there is no point in holding them up as ideals to the rest of the world. Siedentop is in danger of reintroducing the ancient notion of liberty as a caste privilege.

Liberty as a universal ideal makes sense only if it has some basis in human nature. If there is no inherent bent towards freedom, then our espousal of it is mere self-aggrandisement. Siedentop is reluctant to adopt this position, perhaps because it would compromise the central place of Christianity in his narrative. But it has a basis in Christianity itself. St Paul holds the gentiles responsible for their moral failings, because even though they have been denied the law of Moses, they have the law of God "written on their hearts". Christianity did not invent the personal relationship of the individual to God - it discovered it already in existence. This relationship can exist outside the framework of Christian doctrine and Christian institutions. Otherwise, we have no right to promote principles that have their basis in Christianity outside the boundaries of the Christian world.

Edward Skidelsky's reviews appear monthly in the NS