Diversity requires a common bottom line

Fascinating piece from Martin Wolf at the FT. Evidently he is not thinking of Northern Ireland, but there may be relevant lessons to be drawn from his argument. He praises British multiculturalism but warns that it has limits and that no political entity can hold with a certain number of key requisites to retain the loyality of its entire population:

Human beings, said Aristotle, are political animals. For a political community to flourish there must at least be agreement on the rules of the game. The notion of politics here is a broad one. It includes the methods for choosing the holders of executive, judicial and legislative power. It covers what they are entitled to do. It also concerns the rights of individuals against the state and fellow citizens. It concerns, in short, both the legitimacy and limits of power.

A society without agreement on these questions will be either repressive or on the verge of civil war. Alas, neither is an abnormal condition: much of Latin America oscillates between one state and the other. The UK, however, is quite different. It has a claim to be the most successful of today’s relatively large polities to have evolved from pre-modern times. Its political culture has sparked imitations across the globe, for it is the birthplace of parliamentary democracy.

What then is the contemporary political culture of this polity? First, political authority derives from the people, to whom the government is accountable and by whom it is elected. Second, the law is human, not divine. Third, people accept the outcome of elections as legitimate. Fourth, citizens have an obligation of obedience to legitimately exercised authority. Fifth, individuals not groups, have political rights. Sixth, individuals are free in their political and religious opinions. Seventh, adult citizens, both male and female, have equal political and legal rights.

  • Tom Griffin

    In a strange way, the demand that emigrants accept British values which has emerged in the wake of 7/7, may have given new impetus to the idea that Britain should adopt a written constitution.

    After all, if one makes that demand, certain consequences follow.

    It has to be clear what those ‘British values’ are. It has to be clear that there is a real national consensus behind them, and it has to be clear that the rights and obligations they establish apply to everybody, not just emigrants.

    The only way to do achieve all of that is through a written constitution, ratified by referendum.
    The seven principles which Martin Wolf suggests would make a good basis for such a document, but I’m not sure they are as well entrenched in current practice as he seems to think.

    English constitutional law does not recognise the sovereignty of the people, although Scottish law, interestingly, does.

    A written constitution would be easier to scrutinise than the current system, and might therefore require significant practical reform.
    I’m not sure how far these implications have been understood by the politicians who have been demanding that emigrants subscribe to British values.

    As far as NI is concerned, I suppose the GFA has been described as a kind of written constitution, although the Bill of Rights has yet to be delivered. It was ratified by referendum, and embodies a kind of popular sovereignty in the principle of consent.

  • Alan McDonald


    I agree. As a US citizen, I heartily endorse the written constitution.

    When the Ayatollah Khomeini sent Ronald Reagan a copy of the Koran, and Reagan reciprocated with a copy of the Bible, I said that the US President had made a grave error. He missed the opportunity to send the Ayatollah a copy of the US Constituion from which all American laws flow.

    As you might be aware, we are still dealing with US politicians who confuse our country with a theocracy.

  • heck

    Maybe someone will correct me but isn’t the basis of the British “constitution” (I know it doesn’t have one but you know what I mean) that political authority derives from the monarch -not the people. Honest Tony acts in the name of the queen, oaths are to the queen, and the monarch is the titular head of the church, the administration, the parliament, and the military.

    How can you say people are equal when you have a system of peers and commoners, and when you have a monarch?

    I like the Britain you describe Mick–a republic.

    By the way I agree with Alan about the benefits of a written constitution.

  • Ling

    For all the whinging about the monarchy and all the other traditional guff is said against Britain, life here(on the island of Britain at least) is far more fair, balanced and on the whole more in tune with the spirit of the Republics ideals than dear old corrupt Ireland.

    Lord knows it’s far from perfect, and has a few problems with tending to invade other countries from time to time among other things, but as far as life on the ground goes I’d rather be an Irish person in Leeds than an Irish person in Limerick.

    It’s rather a pity that in a lot of ways Northern Ireland instead of being a little bit of Britain in Ireland has become the The Imperial Dominance Ultra Mega Tories of 1910 Vs The Crackpot Socialist Revolutionaries of 1910.

    Well, more stayed, not become…

    Neither the BNP style culturaly intolerant Britain that the DUP espouse, nor the suffocating overcompensatingly green Socialist Workers Party with kneecapping style Ireland the Sinn Fein seem to represent, actually exists or if the population of either island remain the way they are will ever exist.

    Sad really.

  • D’Oracle

    ‘Lord knows it’s far from perfect.’..and so too do some of its subjects in places like Ahoghill, for example.

    Xenophobia is a much underdiagnosed condition.

    Sad really