The pen is mightier than the sword. There is an element of truth in that. The moment words are written down, they somehow acquire a power that can be quite overwhelming, as if they instantly become Fact. “I read somewhere…” “The newspaper say…” “Look, it’s written here in black and white…” Written words can be quoted as absolute proof of utter nonsense.
I listened to a US senator being interviewed on the radio the other day, on the subject of gun control, and he explained to us poor benighted Brits that the USA has a thing called a Constitution. Which is true. It does. It has a written constitution. We also have a constitution but it isn’t confined in a single document that must be regarded as carved in stone for all time.
The US Constitution was written in 1789, when a very new country was striving to establish itself and liberate its people (well, except slaves, of course. And women. And native Americans). It sets out the ethos of the nation, the rules of government and the rights of citizens. All very neat.
Our constitution, by contrast is a mishmash of statutes, court rulings and conventions. You can find elements of it in the Magna Carta of 1215; little things like the rule of law and the right to a fair trial, buried amongst the quibbles about who owned what fish weirs on the River Thames. It’s been growing and mutating ever since, a very organic thing that can develop and shift with time. Huge changes were made in the 17th century. 1997 was another bumper year. We have gradually moved, in fits and starts, from an absolute monarchy to a partly elected Parliamentary democracy; from several kingdoms, through a United Kingdom, to devolution and who knows what next.
If we were stuck with the constitutional situation of 1789, most of our MPs would be sitting for rotten boroughs in Cornwall. But we aren’t stuck. Changes come and go. It does mean the system can be manipulated by self-serving politicians, so sometimes I find myself thinking that a written constitution, defended by a supreme court independent of politicians, might be a good idea. Then I think of the USA and I realise that it wouldn’t.
First find a way to create an apolitical supreme court. Probably not possible. Then have a good hard think about what a constitution needs now, and what it might need to cover in two or three hundred years time. Or might no longer need. We were granted the right to bear arms in 1689, but we managed to move on into a more civilised era. The same right, enshrined in the second amendment to the US constitution, might have made perfect sense in 1791, when the embryonic nation had to defend itself from the predatory Brits and other foes (like the original inhabitants, for example, or strangely resentful slaves), but it makes no sense whatsoever in a world where the USA is the dominant superpower in the world and can defend itself quite adequately without the need for every citizen to nurse an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons.
The theory is that if US citizens lost the right to carry means of mass-murder, tyranny would prevail and liberty would be lost. The massacre of a few hundred, or even a few thousand schoolchildren is a small price to pay for freedom. We had a massacre here in Britain, in Dunblane in 1996. A year later, handguns were banned, with massive popular support – and we still haven’t fallen victim to a tyrant (a lazy narcissistic idiot, maybe, but not a tyrant). There has been no attempted coup to take over control of the state, unlike the USA, where a coup attempt was backed by the very gun-toting zealots who claim their guns are defending the US way of life. Embrace death rather than give an inch on a 230-year-old amendment that is no longer relevant. Since any regulation of firearms is anathema to them, they naturally gloss over the first phrase of the second amendment: “A well regulated Militia…”
Now Roe v Wade has been reversed by the politically appointed US Supreme Court on the grounds that reproductive rights aren’t mentioned in the constitution. Because a document written by men in 1789 doesn’t promise women autonomy over their own bodies, they have no right to that autonomy. Whenever I hear people proposing that our constitution or a bill of rights should be enshrined in written form to protect us, I think “USA… no, let’s not. Let’s keep things nice and fluid.”