The unionist Edward Carson signs the Ulster Covenant in 1912, protesting against Irish home rule. Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Vernon Bogdanor: The crisis of the constitution

Although the spirit of British democracy is in good health, its mechanisms are under threat. The task now is to transform crisis into opportunity.

We tend to think of single-party majority government as the norm in Britain. And so it has been in the postwar era. But from 1885, when the single-member constituency became standard, until 1945 such governments were rare – indeed, there were just three, one of which lasted for only a year – the 1906-10 Liberal government, the 1922-23 Law/Baldwin Conservative government and the 1924-29 Baldwin government. Every other government was either a minority administration or a coalition.

Until 1914, the prime reason for this was the return of a solid bloc of Irish nationalists to Westminster – at least 80 in every general election from 1885 to 1910. In 1885, 1892 and from January 1910 the Liberals, the leading party of the left, were dependent on the Irish nationalists for their majority.

The Irish nationalists (who formed the Irish Parliamentary Party), unlike the Scottish National Party and unlike Sinn Fein, which supplanted them in 1918, were not explicitly separatist. They claimed they wished to remain within the United Kingdom and sought no more than home rule – large-scale legislative devolution. But as Charles Stewart Parnell, the IPP’s greatest leader, had put it in 1885, while home rule was the most that could be demanded under the British constitution, “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’ . . .”

Had it been implemented, therefore, home rule might well have evolved into something like dominion status – independence for Ireland within the Commonwealth – but peacefully, without the repression and civil war that marked the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Home rule, however, required the consent of not just the Commons but also the House of Lords, then composed almost entirely of hereditary peers and with a permanent Conservative majority; and before 1911, the powers of the Lords were unlimited by statute. After the House of Lords had rejected Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” in 1909, the Liberals decided to reform it, but following the sudden death of Edward VII in May 1910 they sought a “truce of God”, a compromise with the Conservatives.

The two parties came together in a constitutional conference, which sat from June to November 1910. This conference attempted to distinguish between different categories of legislation – ordinary, financial and constitutional – proposing different procedures for each and with the powers of each house to be laid out in statute. Use of the referendum was also discussed. The conference was attempting, in fact, nothing less than the production of a written constitution for Britain.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it broke down, primarily because the parties could not agree to which legislative category home rule belonged and whether special procedures were needed to implement it. Instead of an agreed solution, therefore, the Lib­erals, prodded by the nationalists, decided to replace the absolute veto of the Lords with a suspensory veto of two sessions – reduced to one session in 1949 by the Attlee government.

During the constitutional conference, Lloyd George, the Liberal chancellor of the Exchequer, made a startling proposal – nothing less than a Liberal/Conservative coalition, which would impose on both Irish nationalists and unionists a system of “home rule all round”, a quasi-federal solution for the whole of the United Kingdom. If the Irish demurred, then (so Lloyd George predicted), the Liberals would “wash their hands of the whole affair and leave the Irish to stew in their own juice”. But the coalition proposal got nowhere; nor did home rule all round. It involved pulling up the British constitution by its roots to solve the Irish problem and imposing upon England a form of government it did not want purely to satisfy the Irish nationalists.

Once the Irish left Westminster in 1918, declaring their independence and setting up their own parliament in Dublin, pressures for constitutional reform faded away. “The two supreme services which Ireland has rendered Britain,” Winston Churchill wrote mischievously in 1929, “are her acces­sion to the Allied cause on the outbreak of the Great War, and her withdrawal from the House of Commons at its close.”

The SNP has now resurrected the constitutional debate. The Scottish Nationalists, could well, after next month’s general election, exert a stranglehold over British politics similar to that of the Irish nationalists in 1910. But whatever the outcome, the Scottish Question and the English Question will come to the fore.

A second Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition or a Conservative majority government will lack, as the 2010 coalition lacked, legitimacy in Scotland. Scotland will once again have a government it did not vote for. A government of the left, by contrast, will almost certainly lack a majority in England, and the issue of “English votes for English laws” will be raised with even greater intensity. Either way the Union will again come under threat.

As in 1910, there are many who suggest a federal solution. But that implies some similarity between the wants and desires of all four parts of the UK and the imposition of a new and probably unwanted system of government in England purely to accommodate the Scots. Plus ça change.

Kenneth Baker, the former Conservative education secretary, has suggested another way out of the deadlock – a grand coalition of the Conservative and Labour Parties that might, as was hoped in 1910, impose a solution to Britain’s constitutional problems. Yet that, too, is an unlikely development.

 

***

 

The 2015 general election, then, is likely to raise a question mark over the very future of the UK. But the difficulty we face in confronting our constitutional problems is that they are interconnected. The Scottish Question is intertwined not only with the English Question but also with the question of whether Britain remains in the EU, and with the electoral system. It would in fact be easier to resolve the Scottish Question, were there to be electoral reform.

In the 2010 election, the Conservatives won just one seat in Scotland. Yet they won one in six of the votes – around 17 per cent; just 3 percentage points fewer than the SNP – while Labour won 41 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies on just 42 per cent of the Scottish vote. A proportional system would have given Labour 24 seats and the Conservatives ten. In May, the SNP could make a clean sweep in Scotland on less than 50 per cent of the vote. First-past-the post makes Britain appear more divided than it really is and exacerbates the West Lothian problem because it exaggerates the imbalance in strength in Scotland between Labour and the Conservatives. First-past-the-post therefore threatens the unity of the country. Proportional representation, by contrast, would alter the dynamics of the conflict between England and Scotland and make it more manageable.

Resolving the English Question is also intertwined with other constitutional questions, and in particular with the status and reform of local government. George Osborne’s commendable attempt at devo-max to Greater Manchester requires, if it is to be successful, the devolution of real taxing powers to local government and of ministerial powers over such matters as health. But above all, a successful policy of devolution and decentralisation requires a clear understanding of what matters are fundamental to the UK as a whole – what are the basic constitutional, social and economic rights that should be enjoyed by every citizen – and what matters are capable of different treatment in different parts of the UK. That understanding is best embodied in a written constitution.

It is indeed because our constitutional problems are so interconnected that there is so strong a case for a constitutional convention. Speaking in Edinburgh in 2013, Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, called for a Scottish convention to consider the future of the Scottish constitution, similar to that of the convention of 1989 which paved the way for devolution. But the future of Scotland should not be seen in isolation from that of the rest of the UK; nor can further devolution be considered in isolation from such matters as reform of local government and electoral reform. What is needed is a UK-wide convention, with popular participation, to consider the constitution as a whole.

In 1910, the crisis of the constitution was resolved in an ad hoc manner and the chance for a real constitutional settlement was missed. Will the same happen in 2015? Or are we, on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, approaching a genuine constitutional moment?

If we are, as I believe, approaching such a moment, it is because our constitutional problems have not arisen in a vacuum but reflect real pressures of social change – in particular, the end of deference and the breakdown of old class and party loyalties. There is a growing conflict between new social forces and our traditional constitutional forms. It is becoming increasingly clear that these constitutional forms are relics of a past era. Our political system needs to become more congruent with the public philosophy of what David Cameron has called a post-bureaucratic age, whose watchword is fluidity and whose leitmotif is a politics of openness and transparency. This means publicly stated constitutional rules rather than the tacit understandings that have hitherto served us as a substitute for a constitution.

The democratic spirit in Britain is not unhealthy. The Scottish referendum showed that there is a huge reservoir of civic potential that the political parties have largely failed to tap. It is the institutions and the mechanisms which seek to represent the democratic spirit that are at fault. Disenchantment with politics flows from the conflict between a maturing democracy, in which voters are accustomed to wider choices than in the past, and a political system that still bears all too many of the characteristics of a closed shop.

The task now is to funnel the democratic spirit down constructive channels so that crisis can be transformed into opportunity. That is the fundamental case for a constitutional convention and, if it comes about, it will repay a debt of gratitude that we owe to the Scots for voting to stay within the UK.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College London. His pamphlet “The Crisis of the Constitution” has just been published by the Constitution Society

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Andre Carhillo
Show Hide image

The decline of the Fifth Republic

With the far right and far left surging in the run-up to a defining presidential election, the French seem intent on blowing up the political establishment.

On a cold Saturday evening in late February, cycling back to my flat in southern Paris, I accidentally ran into a pack of lads on a rampage. They were turning over bins, kicking over expensive motorbikes parked on the street, and obviously looking for someone to fight.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen this sort of thing, even in this relatively gentrified part of the city. Usually the best course of action is to stop, let them swarm past and allow the police to do their job. But on this particular night, although I could hear the buzz of a police helicopter above us, there were no officers on the ground. As I nervously became aware of this, one of the lads, no more than five yards away, looked at me and screamed: “T’es qui toi?” (“Who the f*** are you?”). His mates turned and gathered round. Now panicking, I saw that he was pointing a screwdriver at me.

I pelted down the street, heart racing as the young men followed me, so shocked that when I reached my apartment building I twice tapped in the wrong entry code. It was only once indoors, now safe but genuinely scared and sweating, that I understood what had happened.

This was a gang from one of the local ­cités – council estates – that border this part of Paris. They had been flushed out of their normal dens, where they deal in weed and mess about, by police using helicopters and unmarked cars, and were now taking their revenge on these unfamiliar surroundings. When they saw me, a tall, white, male figure, watching in the dark on my bike (stupidly the same dark blue as a police bike), they assumed I could only be one thing: a police spotter. In other words, their most hated enemy.

In the past few weeks, in Paris and across France, there has been a new and special danger in being identified by such gangs as a lone policeman. This is because the ever-present tensions between police and the youth of the cités have become particularly acute following the so-called Affaire Théo. On 2 February in Seine-Saint-Denis, north-east of Paris, four police officers violently attacked an innocent black man, identified only as Théo. The assault was caught on camera and allegedly involved the man’s “rape” with a telescopic baton.

The details of the case caused widespread outrage, right up to the highest level of ­government. In the banlieue, the suburbs where many young people feel excluded from mainstream French life, some felt a desire for revenge. And though their anger related to a specific incident, it was in keeping with the emotions sweeping across France, at all levels of society, in the lead-up to the first round of this year’s presidential election on 23 April.

***

France is in a state of political disarray. This much was obvious during the first live “great debate” on 20 March, organised by the television channel TF1, featuring five front-runners for the presidency.

Probably the greatest loser on the night was François Fillon of the centre-right party les Républicains, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012. Fillon has gone from being a sure favourite to outsider in the presidential contest, following allegations of dodgy financial dealings. Most damagingly, a formal judicial investigation has been launched into reports that he paid upwards of €800,000 of taxpayers’ money to his wife and other family members for jobs they didn’t actually do. Fillon, who denies any wrongdoing, has also been accused of failing to declare a €50,000 loan from a French businessman in 2013 (which he has since repaid). He held himself in check during the debate, trying to look dignified and presidential, but he has become the object of scorn from all sides, including his own.

Benoît Hamon, the candidate for the Parti Socialiste (PS), the party of the outgoing and discredited president, François Hollande, did not perform much better in the debate. Hamon identifies with the far left and green wings of the PS and favours a basic income, the legalisation of cannabis, and euthanasia. He resigned from Hollande’s government in 2014 claiming that the president had abandoned socialist values. But at every public appearance Hamon still looks surprised to be in the race. Although he has positioned himself as the “anti-Hollande” candidate – no surprise, as Hollande has the lowest polls ratings of any French president – even Hamon’s supporters concede that he has no reach outside the party faithful, and his dismal poll ratings reflect this.

In recent weeks, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran left-winger and now leader of his own party, France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), has surged in the polls. He has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn but is more like George Galloway, in that he can be trenchant and biting and speaks fluently without notes. Some of his views – anti-EU, anti-Nato, pro-Russia – are close to those of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (FN). The candidate of the centre or centre-left is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker and protégé of Hollande, under whom he served as minister of the economy, industry and digital data. Macron broke with the PS in 2016 to set himself up as an independent candidate with his new movement, En Marche! (“onward”). He presents himself as a voice of moderation and common sense. He defends the EU and the eurozone and is an unashamed liberal globaliser. But Macron is also hard to love: his enemies claim that he is self-serving, an opportunist who cannot be trusted, and, worse, that he lacks experience of high office. On television he can be vain and testy – as was the case when he came under attack from Marine Le Pen, during the TF1 debate.

In many ways, Macron was a gift to Le Pen. She accused him of being out of touch and of not knowing what he was talking about. Even non-FN supporters, who didn’t necessarily agree with her views on security and immigration, conceded that Le Pen was the most convincing speaker. As I was told by a neighbour with an impeccable PS background, it was as if she was the only politician on the night of the debate in charge of what she believed. Le Pen’s popularity increased as a consequence.

So is it now possible to think the unthinkable: that Marine Le Pen could triumph not only in the first round of the presidential election but in the second as well? If that happens, not only would she become the first female president of France but she would transform French politics and further destabilise the European Union.

***

When I put this to Jean-Pierre Legrand, the leader of the Front National in Roubaix, a town of 90,000 inhabitants in the north of France, he shook his head. He wishes Le Pen well but fears that in the second round the mainstream parties will gang up and back whoever her opponent is. “This is what always happens,” he told me. “This is why so-called French democracy is actually a form of dictatorship. You can never really get your hands on power. It belongs to an elite, people like Emmanuel Macron.”

Legrand, 69, has been a supporter of the FN for decades. He smiles a lot and can be witty, but he also likes talking tough, like the hard-headed factory boss he used to be. He admires the way Le Pen has reinvented the party, shedding some of the old-school neo-Nazi trappings. But he is also faithful to, maybe even nostalgic for, the old FN of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election (he lost to the centre-right Jacques Chirac). So I asked him if he was not really a democrat but, like Le Pen père, basically a fascist. “I am not afraid of being called a fascist, or even a Gaullist,” he said. “But all I really believe in is order and authority. And that is what France needs now.”

I had come to Roubaix because it is officially the poorest town in France. It is also, according to most media reports, one of the most troubled. It’s not far from Paris – just over 90 minutes on a fast train – but when you get there it feels like a different, distant place. The train station is scruffy and there is little sense of the usual Gallic civic pride; the stroll down the main boulevard to the Grand Place is drab and quiet, unlike in most French towns.

Roubaix has a large immigrant population, mainly from North Africa but comprising more than 60 nationalities. It has a reputation as a refuge for illegal migrants making for Calais and then the UK, and as a hotbed of Islamist radicalisation. In May last year the conservative news weekly Valeurs actuelles described Roubaix as “le Molenbeek français”. The magazine was referring to the suburb of Brussels where several of the terrorists and sympathisers involved in the November 2015 attacks on Paris, which killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan concert hall, grew up.

Legrand and his FN colleague Astrid Leplat offered to show me around the town, just as they had done with the writer from Valeurs actuelles. The article was criticised by the local newspaper La Voix du Nord as depicting a fantasy version of France conjured up by the FN. I was aware of this argument, but also keen to take up the offer of a tour: it was a rare chance to see an ordinary French town through the eyes of the FN.

I quite liked Roubaix. With its sooty terraced houses, empty textile mills, iron bridges and dirty canals, it reminded me of Salford in the 1970s. The town is neatly laid out even if the streets are scruffy. It is also busy with small businesses – Arabic-language bookshops, kebab houses and tea shops, as well as traditional French cafés and bistros. It looked no more menacing than Bradford or Rusholme in Manchester.

Legrand is proud of Roubaix, or at least of what Roubaix used to be, and has chosen to live here rather than in nearby Lille. Having been a blue-collar worker, too, he admires the noble ambitions and graft of the people who built the town. These were the original indépendants – the aspiring working class, much cherished by the FN, who believe in the values of hard work and public service. But Legrand told me that when he looks at the streets today he sees not the cluttered life of 21st-century, multicultural France but what he called “conquered territory”.

There are problems in Roubaix: 45 per cent of the town’s residents live below the official French poverty line of €977 a month. Describing the local poverty, Legrand used the term “misère”, a word that also translates as “wretchedness”. The unemployment rate is high (40 per cent in parts of town) and on a typical weekday afternoon there are many young men sitting around with nothing to do.

As we drove through some of the tougher areas, Legrand pointed out so-called Salafist mosques, most of them shielded from the streets by the high walls of disused factories. It is these places, unknown and unvisited by outsiders, which have given Roubaix its reputation for radicalism.

It is true that in the recent past Roubaix has produced many extremists. The most notorious is Lionel Dumont, a former soldier who is white and working class, and is viewed as the leader of radical Islam in the French prison system, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for terrorism offences that include trying to set off a car bomb during a G7 meeting in Lille in 1996. Islamists such as Dumont are, in effect, beyond the control of the penal authorities because French laws forbid the monitoring of prisoners on grounds of race or religion. One frustrated director of prisons in the Paris region complained to me that the French penal system was “the real engine room of radicalisation”.

The main reason why Roubaix has produced so many terrorists – including Mehdi Nemmouche, the gunman who fired the shots at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 that killed four people – is not immigration, as the Front National would have it, but geography. This part of France is depicted in the media as “a security black hole”, partly because of its proximity to the Belgian border. You can drive into Belgium from Roubaix in ten minutes, as I did with Legrand; the border is just a roundabout and unmonitored. The French and Belgian intelligence services are minutes away from each other but do not share information or collaborate properly. This allowed some of the terrorists who led the 2015 Paris attacks to escape after the killing spree.

***

Crossing the border to Belgium, you notice that the roads are lined with gleaming new warehouses belonging to Amazon and other technology companies. ­Roubaix suddenly seems like a ruin from the early 20th century. It must be difficult for its people not to feel trapped and abandoned – by the French elite to the south and the new economy to the north.

“If you live in Roubaix it is hard to feel connected to the rest of France,” said Hélène Robillard, a junior civil servant. I had come across her in the centre of town. She was leading a group of young women, merrily banging tambourines, blowing whistles and chanting slogans outside one of the
offices of the local council. They were striking against work conditions at the council, but having a laugh, too, in the best Made in Dagenham style.

I asked the women about the film Chez nous (This Is Our Land), which had been released only a few weeks earlier and was playing to packed houses across France. Set in a fictionalised town much like Roubaix, it tells the story of a young woman, Pauline Duhez, a nurse who is seduced into joining the FN and standing for a seat on the council. As she learns the party’s true positions, she becomes disillusioned and angry. The film ends with Pauline returning to the socialist values of her unemployed father, a former steelworker, culminating in a family trip to watch a game featuring the local football team Lens.

The women protesting with Robillard were all determinedly anti-FN. Those who had seen the film were full of enthusiasm. “It is our real life,” said one of them, laughing. “It shows our true values – not fascism, but football, beer and chips.”

Like Pauline in the film, the FN’s Astrid Leplat is a nurse. Jean-Pierre Legrand explained to me that this was why she had been hand-picked by Marine Le Pen to stand
as a regional councillor. The party has adopted a policy of recruiting fonctionnaires (civil servants), especially those who work in the health and support services. This is partly to demonstrate that the FN has left behind its neo-Nazi origins and is now the party of everyday folk, but also to undermine PS dominance of the public services.

When I asked Leplat why she supported the FN, she said that she had witnessed the disastrous effects of repeated budget cuts on hospitals, with overstretched departments and increasingly run-down facilities. “The Front National are there to protect us,” she said.

Leplat told me she hadn’t seen Chez nous and that she probably wouldn’t, because it would upset her. There were also political reasons why she didn’t want to see it: it had been financed with public money from Hauts-de-France, the northern region that covers Roubaix, as well as the television companies France 2 and France 3. When I pointed out that most French cinema relies on public subsidy, she argued that the film’s release had been deliberately timed to undermine the February launch of the FN’s presidential campaign.

“How else can this be explained?” she said. “The Front National is always persecuted by the establishment elites in culture and politics.”

***

Back in Paris, as part of a documentary I was making for BBC Radio 4, I interviewed Émilie Dequenne, the actress who plays Pauline in Chez nous, and the film’s director, Lucas Belvaux. We met at the production company’s office just off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the swish heart of Paris – a corner of the city that couldn’t be further removed from the streets of Roubaix. But both Dequenne and Belvaux are intimately connected with the region and the northern working-class life, because they grew up near the Franco-Belgian border and still have family ties there. I asked them whether the FN had a point about the film.

“The film is not ambiguous,” Dequenne said. “It is clearly a warning about being ­seduced by the far right. But it also has lots of [different] ambiguities. The main character, Pauline, is a good person, and not stupid. She wants to help people. She thinks that this is not the case with the main pol­itical parties. So she is attracted by a party that seems to care.”

“I agree it is a warning,” Belvaux said. “We are not yet a fascist country, but I do fear that this could happen.

“There are big social and cultural divisions in France. Not everybody who will vote for the Front National is a bad person, but there are many angry people in this country who feel hurt and damaged. When this is the case, fascism can arrive much more quickly than you think.”

Until now, voting for the FN has been a sign of protest, historically a safety valve for releasing discontent. Whenever the FN has got near to victory, right and left have come together as a bloc to exclude it from power. This is what happened in 2002, of course, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the then leader of the FN, made it through to the second round of the presidential elections. Jacques Chirac won the run-off with 82 per cent of the vote, despite accusations of corruption. The rallying cry across all non-FN political lines was: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!” Yet there is no guarantee that this will happen again, because Marine Le Pen has successfully reinvented and rebranded the FN, making it more acceptable to mainstream voters.

Even if Marine loses, there is another danger. If those French parties of the left and right which historically have been strongest continue to implode, there will be a new constituency of voters who in future will be “homeless”. Even if Macron wins – having blurred the lines between right and left – he will disappoint at some stage. When this happens, those who supported him may not find their way back to the established parties, thus opening up an avenue to power for the far right. Sylvain Bourmeau, an associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, told me that this was part of the Front National’s long-term strategy.

The withering of a historically strong party has already happened in the UK, where voters’ movement to Ukip and the SNP has undermined, if not destroyed, Labour as a national force. Marine Le Pen has already voiced her admiration for Ukip for “breaking the mould”. However, it is important to remember that the FN is not “populist” in the way that Ukip, or indeed Donald Trump, is. Nor are Roubaix and the north of France the same as the “rust belt” of the United States.

Rather, the present conflicts in France are ideological, with roots in the antagonisms and turmoil of French history. The FN’s ultimate goal is to get rid of the present French Republic – the result of the “mistake” of the “liberal revolution” of 1789. In other words, the promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité is to be replaced by an “awakening”, which would lead to a “national movement”: that is, the rebirth of the French nation. The FN is not just about racism, immigration or identity: it wants to send French history into reverse gear.

That is how high the stakes are, and why the coming elections are the most important in France since the Second World War. There is a generalised tension right now – the tension that I encountered on my bike on my own street in southern Paris – which sometimes finds expression in gang violence, anti-police riots and even terrorism, all fuelling the rise of the FN.

For all the polls, signs and omens, it is ­impossible to predict the election result. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, with the old political certainties melting away, it seems more than ever that France is set on a long and unstoppable journey into darkness. L

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada” (Granta Books). He lives in Paris. His documentary “Culture, Class and Le Pen” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 April (8pm)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496