What Constitutional Crisis?

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Even the middle-brow British press are now havering about a supposed ‘constitutional crisis’ in the UK.  The Speaker of the Commons has given notice that, if Theresa May attempts to bring her twice-rejected Brexit deal back for a third (or fourth…) vote, he will be forced to rule on whether that violates the established convention that Parliament may not be asked, in the same session, to vote again on a proposal it has already rejected.

This may be a crisis, but it is not a crisis in or caused by the constitutional order.  It is a political crisis of the government’s making.

How do these differ?  Almost any constitutional crisis brings a political crisis, but not every political crisis flows from a constitutional crisis.  It would be a constitutional crisis in the UK if the Queen refused to give royal assent to a bill that had passed Parliament, or if Scotland unilaterally declared independence, or if owing to austerity cuts the courts ceased to function.

It would be a political crisis if we left the EU without any deal providing for an orderly exit, or if border checkpoints were to be set up again in Northern Ireland, or if the National Health Service collapsed owing to immigration quotas.

In a non-constitutional crisis there can be profound social and economic dislocation, but if the constitution remains broadly effective and regulates the major political organs there is no constitutional crisis.   In the present case, the integrity of the UK constitution is not in doubt.  Just the opposite: a pre-existing political crisis—a failure of government—has been heightened by the Speaker signalling that he will, if needed, enforce one of the basic rules of the constitution.  Moreover, the government acknowledges that Parliament may not evade or abrogate his ruling except by lawful measures provided by the constitution itself.

Of course, no law or convention is black-or-white; they all have vague margins.   But there is no doubt that the government may not ram a rejected and unmodified bill through Parliament by bringing it back, week after week, hoping that intervening threats or bribes will eventually bend the house to its will.   In that scenario, votes in Parliament would not amount to decisions at all.  The rule exists precisely to ensure that does not happen, and it is one of the functions of the Speaker to apply the rule.

However, even in its core, one constitutional rule may conflict with another.  Sir Stephen Laws emphasizes such a conflict when he argues, for the conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, that the right of a government to get its way over money bills is also of great constitutional importance.  As indeed it is.  But that rule presupposes a government that can command a majority in Parliament.  To give absolute control over Parliament to a minority whose very survival is in doubt from week to week would be a grave constitutional error.

(Incidentally,  Policy Exchange has one of Britain’s very worst records for financial transparency, and it also funds the Judicial Power Project—a parliamentarist’s answer to the far-right Federalist Society in the US.  Actually, since Policy Exchange keeps its funders out of public view,  it may simply be a branch of the Federalist Society.  Or worse.  Charity Commissioners, please?)

Behind all this posturing about a ‘constitutional crisis’ is, of course, the fear that Brexit will be lost through delay.   There is rank hypocrisy here.  Those who say the referendum on leaving the EU must never be revisited, now say that a Parliamentary vote rejecting the Brexit plan—by the largest margin in modern history—must be revisited, and revisited, and revisited, until Parliament gives the answer that a weak and divided government wants to impose on an unwilling country.  To allow that really would be a constitutional crisis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Michael Jackson and Martin Heidegger

 

Michael Jackson had three qualities that would have made him comfortable with some members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  He loved an audience, he wore astonishing garments, and he pretended that young boys consented to be his lovers.

Martin Heidegger had three qualities that would have made him comfortable with some members of Alternative für Deutschland.  He loved his country, he had an astonishing way with the German language, and he pretended the Holocaust was not happening.

For work/life separatists what should engage our attention about Jackson and Heidegger is solely their work.  Yes, their lives were entangled with evil—and of course the work/life separatist concedes that merits a preface or a footnote–but no one interested in popular music of the last century can ignore Thriller and no one interested in post-Kantian German philosophy can ignore Being and Time, and that is what matters.

The separatist is correct to this extent: any suggestion that we should now stop listening to Jackson, or stop reading Heidegger, would be seriously wrong.  There are things of real value that we would lose.  Anyway, where would it stop?  Oscar Wilde may have been a brilliant writer and gay hero, but his rent-boys were boys.  Charles Maurras may have been a critic of ‘scientific racism’, but he was an enthusiast of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.   And exactly how old was Alcibiades during those early, flirty afternoons with Socrates?  And what exactly did the writer of Matthew’s gospel mean when he had the Jewish crowd chant, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

So you see the appeal of work/life separatism.

And yet:  We cannot rule out of hand the possibility that we will have a deeper understanding—musicological, not just historical—of Jackson’s work if we keep front and centre the fact that the loves in his lyrics may be pederastic.  We cannot dismiss the possibility that we only appreciate Heidegger’s disempowering metaphysics of ‘Being’ if we see it as a screen for contemptuous attitudes towards actual human beings.  But note: whatever merit there may be in such conjectures, it argues, not for erasing the works from the canon or boycotting them, but for keeping the lives conjoined to the works.  It argues against separatism, but in favour of inclusion.

However, another point also needs to be made.  Jackson and Heidegger are dead.  Jackson is not engaging in the orgy of boy-rape sheltered by misogynist religions.  Heidegger is not torching synagogues or introducing the Führerprinzip into university governance. (Though plenty of non-Nazi Vice-chancellors of English universities appear to think it has attractions.)

We would have reason to feel differently if the rapist was not a dead singer but our brilliant, energetic colleague down the hall; or if the anti-Semite were the smiling, emollient leader of our laboratory.  In such cases we have a positive duty to speak up and to speak out.   Academic freedom and tenure, where they exist, are not only there to ensure we can flog some abstruse doctrine hardly anyone cares about. They are also there to ensure we can do our other duties to the university and to our students.  In most cases, we will also have a reason (though not a duty) to deny the rapist or racist what JS Mill called our ‘good offices’—our collaboration, our collegiality, our company.

But what about the works that make them famous, or the lectures that bring them prizes?  Is their value somehow diminished by the rape, or tainted by the racism?   In most cases, no.  Nonetheless, while the rapists and racists are still alive, it is difficult for us to honour the work without also, to some extent, honouring the worker.   So there are matters of moral consequence and proportion to attend to.  And we can always return to give the work its due when the worker, like Jackson and Heidegger, is no longer in any position to derive influence from the honour.

Great artists and great thinkers often crave immortality through their works.  Some of them believe their works will bestow it.  They can hardly complain if we decide to wait before kick-starting their immortal lives.