How will we feel the morning after?

August 15, 1997

YOU COULD be forgiven for thinking, the way the chatterati are talking, that constitutions live in capital cities. Ours, it seems, is probably going to be devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh, Cardiff and somewhere else in London. All the talk is about the distribution of seats, the comparative merits of different voting systems, and what titles the new elites in these capital cities will take for themselves.

But what about the rest of us? The day after devolution or the election of a mayor of London, will we feel or behave differently? Probably not immediately. And that is, in itself, risky.

It is dangerous to talk about the geography of the constitution as though it were a metropolitan gallery of old masters. When the constitution changes, the everyday constitutional culture of Britain's streets could change in ways that the government will not like.

Perhaps it is easier to recognise this at first in the United States than at home. There, the constitution is a part of what children learn about in schools, where they acquire certain expectations about how their lives can be lived. The litigiousness of Americans has some of its foundations in the culture of recourse to law that the constitution affords and sanctifies.

American children learn the constitutional virtues and vices from newspapers and television. Constitutions live in the topics that people gossip about: in the US, gun law, abortion and prayer in schools are daily constitutional conversation.

Britons often tend to say that we do not have a constitutional culture of our own because our constitution is scattered across dozens of documents, although ours - like that of the US - is much amended and encrusted with case law.

In fact, we have some very distinctive constitutional cultures in our streets, schools and expectations. British constitutional culture is a rough-and-ready, rough hewn, unfinished affair. Moreover, it changed quite a lot during the 18 years of Conservative rule. In the 1980s and early 1990s, as public esteem for and trust in politicians and civil servants plummeted, the Conservatives responded with formal codes of ethics for ministers, civil servants and MPs, and multiplied the tribe of ombudsfolk. A Speaker's commission on citizenship recommended constitutional education in every school.

We have added new terms to the language for new constitutional vices - "sleaze", "quangocrat". Our constitutional gossip has changed. All these may seem small and surreptitious changes to the constitution and the culture, by comparison with moving around the furniture in the capital cities, but they are often much more important in shaping our expectations.

The Labour government is preparing its grand rehang of the constitutional collection of old masters in our capital cities. But the Government, and indeed academic political scientists, is not thinking enough about the effect its constitutional changes will have on gossip in the bus queue and on people's expectations of how the risks they face in their lives might be met.

These things are much harder to measure, and much harder to plan than formal systems of power, accountability and jurisdiction. But not attending to the barometer of constitutional gossip brings grave risks, not merely of unpopularity, but of deeper distrust of public life and ever more conflicting uses of the constitution by disconcerting litigants and social movements.

Changing the constitution will inevitably change the constitutional geography of the streets, and not just those in SW1. The important question is whether the cultural change is one we shall welcome.

Perri 6 is director of policy and research at the independent, cross-party think-tank, Demos.

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