The utility of constitutions

The Eccles centre for American Studies, based in the British Library, hosts an annual lecture - the Douglas W. Bryant lecture - in memory of a former President of the BL’s American Trust. They’re given by international figures, the subjects ranging from political to economic and cultural concerns, and I’ve attended the last three or so.

This year’s lecture was delivered by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard - who as John Kerr was the UK’s ambassador to the EU and US in the 1990s, subsequently Permanent Under-secretary at the UK Foreign Office and head of the UK’sdiplomatic service. Clearly bringing a wealth of experience to his subject - Constitutions: Does America’s work? Does Europe need one? And what about us?. He helpfully answered all three questions at the start of the talk (respectively - Yes, No, and probably not but the situation shows some cause for concern).

So why does a technologist go to a talk on US and European constitutional settlements? And why then blog about it? Easy - they’re given by exceptional people with amazing experience, who know how to talk.

At the heart of the lecture was a brilliantly clear distinction between the three very different political environments. The US constitution is fundamentally about separation of powers, and checks and balances, and is deliberately very hard to amend. The (proposed) EU Constitutional Treaty is not (regardless of the baying of the UK press) a constitution: it’s a bargain between states, not a settlement between the state and its citizens. And in the UK? Cabinet government and the power of the upper chamber have up to now provided a level of balance against executive power, but the increasingly presidential styles of UK premiers - coupled with uncertainty around the constitution and function of the upper chamber - means that some rethinking is overdue.

Add to this some generous digressions and some very good political stories and anecdotes: result, a large attendance whose attention was held completely focussed for seventy minutes. Without one PowerPoint slide. In questions afterwards an American attendee thanked Lord Kerr for the best explanation of the US constitution she’d ever heard.

What’s more, you meet some interesting folks in the crowd too. I spoke to a retired Building Pathologist before the lecture - he’d been one of eight working in a branch of the UK Scientific Civil Service, called in to diagnose issues with buildings and their use, and often having to mediate between architects, contractors and clients. The group was disbanded by the present government… those stories will have to wait.

One Response to “The utility of constitutions”

  • IanM responded:

    This is off the main topic but “Building Pathology” sounded too interesting to overlooked. A quick Google threw up this:

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