Note: Little has changed since I wrote this, except that England has now become a soft totalitarian police state. SIG
Thoughts on Our Shattered Constitution
by Sean Gabb
(Published in a Conservative Party journal in March 1997)
One of John Major’s favourite themes at the moment – and what may be his favourite during the election campaign proper – is how Labour cannot be trusted with the Constitution. According to him, that Party is filled with student radicals who are itching to change a work of ages that they are incapable of understanding.
Of course, he may for once be right. But I deny what he takes as the obvious corollary – that the Constitution is safe in Tory hands. Anyone who cannot see that it has been transformed since 1979 has as shaky an understanding of our system of government as those Christians who think morality is a polite word for sex. There has been no assembly for Scotland and Wales, not any changes in the House of Lords. Even so, local government – an institution older than Parliament itself, and an institution specifically praised for its autonomy and its effect on individual character by de Toqueville – has been destroyed. It is the same with many Common Law protections of life, liberty and property. In 1986, the ancient principle, that we are innocent until proven guilty, was compromised in the name of the “War on Drugs”; and it has been progressively abolished ever since. Today, our property can be confiscated without trial; in a widening range of offences, we are obliged to prove innocence; our insistence that the prosecution should make out its case without our help can now be used in evidence against us. There are promises of “sex tourism” laws that will place us under the jurisdiction of the British State wherever in the world we may be. There is talk of identity cards.
Then there is the Police Bill, an astonishingly nasty piece of legislation. Before it was heavily amended in the Lords last month, it proposed that the police should be able to break into our homes without first obtaining a warrant or asking our permission, and once there to photocopy documents, remove property, and plant listening devices – and that all evidence so obtained should be fully admissible in court. The justification for this great hole in the Constitution was that it might be very useful to catch drug dealers and money launderers and people using London as a base for their terrorist activities abroad – that is, an insignificant minority of people mostly doing things that ought not to be illegal. As if this were not feeble enough, we were told next that the police had in fact been burgling and bugging people’s homes for decades, and that the Bill would only “regularise” this practice. As for safeguards, the Bill promised nothing of any legal force – a retrospective review tribunal that would have no power to order criminal prosecutions. Instead, we were told to rely on the honesty and competence of our police and elected politicians.
Luckily for us, the Judges were not impressed. They got up a revolt in the House of Lords that restored the need to obtain a warrant; and the Lord Chief Justice announced about as formally as a Judge can out of court that any entry and search without a warrant was and always had been illegal. This should not be seen as the end of the Bill. It still contains a mass of evil – chiefly concerned with the setting up a criminal register that is objectionable in itself, and that will fit very neatly into an identity card scheme, just as soon as this can be forced on us.
With any luck, the Government will fall before the Police Bill can get through the Commons – preferably before several others can get through as well. But if this happens, we shall be granted only a brief stay of execution. John Major is not a conservative in any reasonable sense of the word. His Party is filled with the sweepings of public life. As former members of that Party, it is natural for us to dwell on its present imperfections. But our anger at the nonsense these people spray at us should not blind us to the fact that our entire political class is rotten to the core. What Michael Howard fails to do will be done by Jack Straw. What he fails to do will be done by his successor – and so on all the way to the totalitarian police state that England is already coming to resemble.
How to avoid this? Some recommend armed violence. I prefer the gentler means of abolishing democracy. Let us clear the elected ones out of the Commons and replace them with an assembly of citizens chosen by lot. If the woman behind the delicatessen counter in my local Asda cannot be more patriotic than John Major, or less universally worthless than David Mellor, the country really is finished.