Jonathan Sumption

A written constitution is no defence against authoritarian government

Linda Colley describes countless constitutions filled with laudable provisions — which could be subverted entirely legally by any autocratic ruler

The first constitution of Saint-Domingue, in 1801, abolished slavery and established Toussaint l’Ouverture as Governor for Life. Credit: Bridgeman Images

No one can accuse Linda Colley of shying away from big subjects. This one is as big as they come — nothing less than an exploration of the origin of written constitutions. It is built around two ideas. One is that the development of national constitutions has to be studied globally, not nationally. Only then can consistent patterns emerge. The other is that there is a consistent pattern. The great generator of written constitutions, she argues, is war. The argument is that war requires an exceptionally high degree of social organisation which makes a formal constitution desirable, perhaps even necessary.

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen is a remarkable feat of scholarship on an international scale. Its reach is not quite global. It is essentially based on the constitutional experience of Europe and of countries which have been settled by Europeans. Apart from sections touching on oddities such as Pitcairn and Hawaii, the one notable foray into a different tradition is a chapter (aptly called ‘Breakout’) on Japan. Even in Japan, however, the constitution of 1889 was a European import and the constitution of 1947 an American one.

This degree of international curiosity is unusual. British historians have traditionally been rather patronising about the constitutions of other countries. Until recently, they regarded their own country as the world paradigm of constitutional excellence and others as benighted upstarts without our depth of experience and sophistication. The struggles of the Stuart kings with their parliaments and the emergence of the great 19th-century Reform Acts were once thought to be stories of universal relevance.

Oddly enough, this conceit was shared by many foreigners. American historians traced the basic ideas of American public life back to principles imported from England. French political scientists such as Alexis de Tocqueville and historians such as Élie Halévy looked to England as a haven of enlightened constitutional stability by comparison with their own rougher, conflict-laden model.

Many constitutions have been subverted legally by governments which didn’t care to make them work

Yet ironically it is the United States, with its more formal and law-based approach, and France, with its combination of authoritarianism and constitutional instability, which have been the leading international models.

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