March 8, 2010


A lesson in liberty from the land of the free: 'The Cracked Bell' by Tristram Riley-Smith misses something important in the nature of America (Charles Moore, 08 Mar 2010, Daily Telegraph)

[I] think the book misses something important in the nature of America. In its closing section, it compares Britain with the United States, arguing that Britain is embedded in its history whereas America is dangerously free-floating. Is this actually true? It is obviously the case that Britain has "more" history because it has existed for longer (although it is worth remembering that the United Kingdom, as opposed to its component parts, is actually newer than the United States of America). But in the last half century, we British have become astonishingly ignorant of our own past.

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he decided, almost on a whim one weekend, to abolish the Lord Chancellorship, the oldest secular office under the Crown and the main symbol of the rule of law within the Government. He could do this without reference to Parliament, the courts or the Head of State. There were some protests in the posher newspapers, and it turned out that the practicalities made it impossible for Mr Blair to do everything he wanted, but he mostly got his way. Few people knew or cared how the fabric of our constitution was constructed.

A comparable sequence of events is unimaginable in America. The people know their Constitution. If the President, say, tried to abolish the office of Chief Justice, he would be impeached. American history constantly and self-consciously re-enacts itself. Each argument – such as the clash between the federal powers and those of the States – plays out again and again, and is understood by the participants to be doing so. American liberty is invigilated. In this respect, America is a much more old-fashioned country than Britain.

Where we have become postmodern and therefore "ironic" and forgetful about our own political culture, America is much more like we were in the 19th century – endlessly engaged in a debate about liberty, law and constitution which means something to most citizens.

Just look at the recent debates over corporate personhood and the constitutionality of requiring health insurance. Britain may be so embedded that it no longer even debates such fundamentals.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2010 3:12 PM
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