Picture credit: Peter Nicholls/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Could Britain have a coherent written constitution?

It seems probable that it would have a Christianity-shaped hole at its core

Across the West, the penny seems to be dropping that multiculturalism — in the sense that diversity is promoted, while integration is abjured — has failed. Once a noble ideal for harmonious coexistence of different peoples, it is now considered by many on both left and right to have undermined national unity and led to the fragmentation of society into various ethnic factions. 

This tribalisation was illustrated in the recent JLPartners polling which showed that a large proportion of Muslims in the UK support Hamas or deny their atrocities in Israel. Illustrating flagrant antisemitism, it has reopened the perennial debate about how to better instil “British values”. It has also sparked a discussion about whether the UK now needs a written constitution which codifies freedom of speech, political association and freedom of religion, because as left-wing commentator Aaron Bastani has noted: “We don’t have a shared basis, or understanding, of what is permissible and why”. 

So, is a written constitution for the UK desirable, or inevitable? Or, given the deconstructed nature of our citizenship, is it even possible? The prospect raises a number of critical questions. Who are we? Who gets to define our identity and morality in a constitution? And, can a happy consensus actually be engineered by legislation? The questions are a useful diagnostic test for our society. 

As you would expect, a web search of British values brings a range of different definitions. Presently, fundamental British Values (as first laid out in the Prevent Strategy in 2011) are officially listed as: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. Putting aside the fact that neither democracy or the rule of law are values (the former being a process and the latter being a fact), our fraught predicament suggests that these important but rather anodyne points do not really express and cohere a national identity. Drawn up during Cameron’s crusade “to tackle all forms of extremism” (undefined), promoted in schools and used as a reference point for parliament and government, these values (as opposed to morals or virtues) are clearly not working. 

Would a tighter legal framework heal our culture?

So, why would we think that codifying the constitution would make a difference? Would a tighter legal framework heal our culture? It is true that law and culture are symbiotic, in the sense that they influence each other. Laws are (theoretically) expressions of the moral climate of culture, and culture flourishes with a framework for the rule of law. But recourse to law is only one part of the puzzle. As Martin Luther King observed: “You can’t legislate morality; you have to change hearts first”. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville saw as “the habits of the heart” — the deeply ingrained morality which gives us meaning and purpose — which determine whether, regardless of the laws, you will either love or loathe your neighbour. The unspoken language of common life. Identity glue.

In his study of 19th century America, de Tocqueville saw a society at ease with itself, kind, courteous, and hospitable — a civil society of active and compassionate citizenship. A French humanist, he attributed this social benevolence to religion — more specifically, the inculcation of Christian virtues enabling democracy to flourish. This seminal work explains why the US once provided an appealing model for a written constitution which could successfully cohere a diversity of ethnic and religious identities into “one nation under God”. It worked very well for a time, but as the 20th century (the secular century) gathered pace the project began to unravel, to the point where America is now deeply divided between the religious and the non- or anti-religious. As the thing that citizens swear allegiance to, the constitution once gave the people a point of focus and pride. Today, as it comes under increasing pressure to accommodate vastly divergent lifestyle choices, it is religion, or lack thereof in American hearts which is driving a national identity crisis. As US founding father John Adams stated in 1798: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

There are other models of secularly constitutional states, but across the West, the wheels are coming off these carriages of modernity. As the vulnerabilities and excesses of France’s laïcité system continue to expose the myth of secular neutrality — and the sheer impracticality of an avowedly irreligious state — the central question for any would-be British reformers should be: which religion is best to frame a written constitution? After all, as John Locke affirmed, although the state is impersonal, it can never be amoral. The sad reality that this question would be, at best ignored and at worst aggressively resisted, is indicative of the pickle we are in. 

To write a constitution without tending to the religious nature of British identity and morality, would be to put the horse before the cart. Or to use another analogy, it would be like expecting the fruits while neglecting the roots of our culture. Ordinarily, at this point we could defer to the established church, but given its parlous state and renunciation of authority by the majority of the world’s Anglicans, it is hardly a credible Christian interlocutor. Other Christian sources of cultural renewal, which may be more biblically consonant, such as evangelicalism and Catholicism, while growing in number, lack national stature. In reality, most practising Christians now feel like strangers in their own land. After decades of cultural caricature, they are now a minority at the margins — like an evicted tenant peering through the window of what was once his home, but is now occupied by others. When even Richard Dawkins is expressing concern about the reneged tenancy contract, you know that things are serious.

With few exceptions, politics and the media in the UK are ideologically homogeneous yet out of sync with the populace

The fact that Dawkins was criticised for expressing cultural nationalism shows how nervous our secularised intelligentsia are about constitutional debates which involve politics and religion. However, unlike the US, the British left does not need to generate the spectre of Christian nationalism to affect sweeping constitutional change. A Labour mega-majority and an empty treasury are all that are needed to put cultural and constitutional “progress” high on Keir Starmer’s lawyerly agenda. This is to be expected because the secular mind sees a legal solution to all problems, and in a liberal democracy the more freedoms we desire, the more laws we require. The problem is that, without a divine reference point for what is inalienable, instead of the moral informing the legal, the legal more often informs the moral. The logical conclusion of this thinking is that what is not legal is forbidden — ergo the imperial regulatory state that is extending its reach into hitherto private and familial spheres. As a new constitution would require a new bill or rights, a deluge of legislative innovations and institutions would likely extend this reach much further. 

With few exceptions, politics and the media in the UK are ideologically homogeneous yet out of sync with the populace. This alienation of the masses has become a feature of life in the UK. In this tyranny of the minority, can our detached elites be trusted to draft a constitution that defines identity and morality? Many of them cannot even define what a woman is. Fixated on the citizenship of self-actualisation or consumerism, most see religion as a problem, rather than a solution. Many are advocates of draconian hate-speech laws. Others take every opportunity to racialise all issues, or label anything remotely conservative as far-right or fascist. Most notably, with an establishment in which to be progressive is now to be transgressive, many elites in the UK are what Mary Harrington describes as “normaphobic” — fearful of the normal. Hardly a qualification for defining a common morality. 

Even discounting the complexifying factors of devolution and the monarchy, no matter how tortuously democratic the drafting process is, the outcome would likely be a highly contested settlement which would fuel political angst and lawfare for generations — to the general advantage of those with the wealth and education to fight their cases. Also, given that any constitution will need to draw heavily on British history, to what degree would it be subject to a revisionist agenda? With the prevalence of decolonising ideologies amongst many politicians, academics and civil servants, it seems unlikely that we would see our history reflected in a confident, unifying or accurate way. There is a battle raging today, about yesterday, for tomorrow.

On the basis that “a house divided against itself will not stand”, something clearly needs to be done to inspire a better sense of national identity and purpose. However, in a cultural context in which, to quote WB Yates, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, any constitutional renewal which lacks an acknowledgment of the vital heart-shaping role of Christianity (a highly likely lack) will simply exacerbate an already fractious situation. Things might be bad now, but be careful what you wish for.   

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover