Sunday, September 27, 2009

How's Your Constitution

How do you prefer your Constitution - Written or Unwritten?

This week Iota of Not Wrong, Just Different shares her views on the written vs unwritten constitution issue.


We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This is how the US Constitution begins. It’s beautiful language, and I’m sure I’d be proud of it, if I were American. I’ll be interested to read what Mike has to say on that subject.

I’ve occasionally been asked how the British government works, and I find myself fumbling rather. The workings of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, its relationship with the judiciary, the European Parliament, and the Monarchy: that is not an easy topic. There are two points which seem bizarre to Americans – and I’m not surprised. The first is that we don’t have a constitution, and the second is the role of the Monarchy in governing the country.

In reply to the first point, I say that we do have a constitution, but it’s an unwritten one. I can see how if you are used to the idea of a written constitution, it’s very odd to think of an unwritten one. I explain how there are centuries of precedent that can be called upon to challenge or justify a procedure or action, but that in practice, it just isn’t an issue. The government of the day proceeds with business, and nobody checks to see whether what they are doing is in line with a constitution or not. I was in the Civil Service for five years, in Whitehall, so I suppose I should know more about this. But I think that just proves my point. Whether something is constitutional or unconstitutional isn’t a question that comes up in the day to day workings of government. I can’t be more specific about how we manage without a written constitution. We just do.

As for the role of the Monarchy, I find myself agreeing with the point that Americans have made to me, that it’s not very democratic to have an unelected person signing every Act of Parliament. I explain that the government passes laws, and that the signature of the Queen is just a formality. She isn’t involved in the law-making process. In practice, it doesn’t matter whether she was elected or born to her job. I’ve been asked what would happen if the Queen refused to sign an Act. I honestly don’t know. I’m assuming it will never happen, but of course, we can’t guarantee that there won’t be a future Monarch who would try to wield real power. At that point, we would have to decide how to enforce democracy in the modern age, but for the time being, tradition and convention are doing the job for us.


A few years back I watched a show on BBCi called “How to Start Your Own Country.” It was a humor show featuring comedian Danny Wallace attempting to put a country together. I found it very humorous, especially their national anthem, which featured the line, “we’ve done a constitution and we even wrote it down.” This was funny to me because, of course you would write down your constitution. It wasn’t until later that I discovered it was an ironic statement on the fact that Great Britain does not have a written constitution.

(Click to see Danny's National Anthem.)

Now, the British Empire seems to have done fairly well over the past thousand years or so without the advantage of a written constitution but, as an American, I find it a strange concept. To an American, The Constitution is a sacred document; it’s always there, protecting us, keeping the government from confiscating our guns or quarter soldiers in our spare room and providing employment for an army of constitutional lawyers and a handful of Supreme Court judges.

The Founding Fathers were pretty smart guys, but they knew they couldn’t foresee every problem their new country would encounter, so they left us with this elegant document to provide a solid foundation of laws and parameters of what the government can and cannot do.

The phrase “That’s unconstitutional” is as much a part of American life as “I pledge allegiance to the flag” and “Do you want fries with that?” and I don’t think there are many of us who would want it any other way. No Constitution? There may as well be no “Rugged Individualism,” or “Protestant Work Ethic” or Santa Claus.

I can’t say the Brits experience any sense of Constitution Envy because they don’t have one, and I don’t know if there’s any advantage one way or the other. On the one hand, I have never heard anyone counter an argument in a pub with the “That’s unconstitutional” line, but on the other hand, they have taken our guns away.

And if they try to insist we let a couple of squadies bunk down in our back bedroom, I’ll know something went horribly wrong.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Honking Big Government

This week we take a look at what "government" means on either side of the Pond.


There’s a lot of Americans upset about the government at the moment. Apparently, President Obama, and his supposed love of BIG government is pushing the USA towards socialism, communism or fascism, depending on who they’ve been listening to. (Rather sadly, most of these opponents probably couldn’t differentiate between the three but seem happy to bandy the terms around.) Apart from being mildly insulted that the UK’s health system is seen as the absolute worst thing that could happen to this country, the protests got me thinking about how government is viewed on each side of the Pond.

Having grown up with unlimited access to excellent, free healthcare it shocks me that some in this country go without routine medical check ups because they have no health insurance and others can be bankrupted by health care bills. Even though everyone agrees there’s a huge problem with healthcare in the US, Obama opponents see the status quo as preferable to government involvement. What is conveniently overlooked is that Medicaid (for some low income families) and Medicare (for the over 65’s) take care of millions of Americans and both are tax funded and government run. Sound familiar?

And I have more questions- Don’t people realize that law enforcement services are also tax funded and government run? And why isn’t state education such an outrage? Why is there no outcry against federal or state funded interstate highways? I understand that this country is made up of individual, autonomous states, but within that structure there is still government, and it’s often less efficient and more corrupt than the Federal government. (I live in Chicago - I know what goes on!)

I also get that this is a collection of very different states, and that’s the way people want it to stay. What I don’t understand however, is why it’s okay to have government involvement in some things, yet it’s seen as an attack on civil liberties (or a partnership with Satan) in other areas.

Makes no sense to me and I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation.


Probably the best argument for limited centralized government is that was what the founding fathers had in mind. But this isn’t what people are reacting against; at least I don’t believe so. Although I no longer live in the US, I did grow up there and I think I understand where this resistance comes from.

As a flag-pledging, God-fearing, Boy-Scouting American, I knew—just as I knew that if Jesus came back to earth he would, by God, be an American—that communism was bad. Well, “bad” doesn’t quite cut it. “Better Dead Than Red” seems to sum it up nicely, though.

Big government is simply the government seeking to control all aspects of your life. And that—especially if you are talking about health care—is communism, pure and simple.

If you take Big Government to its logical extreme, you are talking about a totalitarian state, so there is a basis, however small, for the current vociferous opposition. Why the health care system seems to be regarded as the Maginot Line I can’t say, but possibly is it because it represents a large entity moving from capable private hands into the slimy embrace of the Nanny State.

I have to admit, if I were still in the US, I would be firmly in the “you can take my health care when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers” camp, but after living under a national health service for seven years without developing an unhealthy interest in Karl Marx, checking The Communist Manifesto out of the local library or referring to people I meet in the street as “Comrade,” I think the American public may be over reacting just a bit here.

The founding fathers could not have conceived of anything as abstract as “health care” in an era where medicine could be described as primitive, at best. I like to think, however, that if they could have looked into the future and understood that providing adequate heath services for the entire population was to become a possibility, they might look upon that, not as governmental interference, but as something any compassionate country would do for its citizens. Like seeing to it every child is offered an education.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whipping up the Masses

This week we ponder whether Brits or Americans are better at Mass Hysteria.


When it comes to mass hysteria, no one beats the Americans. Only this past week we have had two text book examples.

First we had parents and schools, primarily in the South, denouncing the President’s speech to returning school children as everything from “indoctrination” to “divisive”. Never mind that Presidents before him have kicked off the school year with such speeches, or that few had actually heard the speech when the fuss all started. Oh no, they weren’t having their children tainted by the words of someone they didn’t vote for– whatever the words might be. Apparently it’s up to parents what their kids hear in schools, even if they go to a state school. Given that Obama encouraged school children to stay in school, I’m hoping the more hysterical of the protestors are all feeling a tad shamefaced right now and perhaps reflecting on the message they ended up sending their offspring. Somehow I doubt it.

Next we had the President’s address to Congress on Wednesday evening. The speech was to highlight his proposals for badly-needed improvements to the nation’s health care system. Cue the Tea Party Express; a group of people who apparently don’t know how to read or listen for themselves and get all their information from Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, - the Right Wing Bigot Triumvirate. The Tea Party Express has been touring the country calling Obama’s proposals everything from “fascist” to “Afro-Leninism”, (both of which I heard with my own ears on TV). The name refers to the Boston Tea Party, which, back in 1773, embodied the “No taxation without representation” cause. Rather bafflingly, the current Tea Party go-ers largely appear to be senior citizens and thus, presumably claiming their Medicare benefits – from the government. Paid for through taxation. Not that I mind paying taxes to help other people, but I’m confused as to why no one else should be assisted in the same way. Indeed, they’re in a real tizzy about it.

Interestingly, the much-anticipated Swine Flu hysteria has yet to reach its zenith. That could be because much of the country is still basking in fairly pleasant temperatures and therefore it’s not quite on the radar. No doubt as soon as the barometer dips below 55 Fahrenheit across most of the country there’ll be the usual pulpit-style, frenzied cries of how and why the government isn’t doing enough.

And let’s not forget that the next American Idol season starts in January. Lord help us!


I have to admit that the Brits don’t do Mass Hysteria as well as the Americans. The last really good mass hysteria they had in Britain was at Diana’s funeral. And I wasn’t even here for it so I can’t tell you about it. Since then they have had concerns, frights, momentary panics even, but nothing you could truly equate to mass hysteria on an American scale.

Whipping the populace into an uncontrollable frenzy just isn’t on. About the best they can do is convince waiting rooms to do away with shared magazines, newspapers and baby toys in order to keep us all from dying of Swine Flu. The media have also been good to the makers of antiseptic hand jell; last year I didn’t even know it exists, but now it’s everywhere. But people aren’t really hysterical over it, and they aren’t massing about it, either.

Besides, there’s little point in trying; they’d never top the Americans. Mass Hysteria is as deeply rooted in American culture as our love of firearms; it’s something we took to early and still take to readily. Remember Cotton Mather? Joe McCarthy?

Twenty people dead, an unknown number of lives ruined, and all because Americans are willing to be duped into believing that something imaginary is real and to react accordingly.

“Witches are out to steal your souls!” So we kill innocent people. “Communists are out to destroy the American way of life!” So we black list them and destroy their lives.

I also recall a sort of mass belief—though not hysteria—in angels. For a while, angles were everywhere and it seemed as if everyone believed in them, which seemed to make them real and convince more people to believe in them. Granted, this did not culminate in any unpleasantness but it might have if, at the height of this belief, a group of people were accused of trying to kill the angles.

It proves the saying, “When a myth is shared by large numbers of people, it becomes a reality.”

I’m not saying the British aren’t capable of doing something similar, I’m just saying they don’t seem inclined to.

It’s just not on.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Getting Away From It All

Vacations/Holidays -- do the Brits and the Americans feel differently about them?


Do Americans look upon vacations differently than the Brits? I think they do.

Speaking for myself, I have been on far more vacations (or holidays, as we say here) since moving to Britain seven years ago than in the 46 that preceded them. And we’re not talking about the American hesitancy in going abroad; we’re talking about going anywhere.

My family, and the families of all my friends, rarely, if ever, went away for a break during the year. Our fathers got one or two weeks of vacation per year and, as in my father’s case, the time was often chosen for you. If vacation time was looked forward to in my household, it was because that was the time my father could volunteer to work in the mill during “shutdown week” and earn a second pay check in addition to his holiday pay. And we were not the exception among my friends and acquaintances.

But in Britain, my wife tells me, they always went away somewhere. Even her parents had holidays when they were young. None of them were wealthy, but they considered vacationing important.

At least some of this may have come from the proximity of vacation-worthy destinations. From where we live in Sussex, the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth and, in a pinch, Brighton are within easy reach. And, if all else fails, there is a Butlins in Bognor. I lived in Columbia County, New York. Where were we going to go for a cheap holiday that was so close by? Binghamton? Utica?

So I think if the idea that a holiday break is important and worth investing in is more ingrained in the British psyche, it is likely due to the fact that affordable holidays have been a part of life for several generations and are seen as a normal part of the year.

Add to that the five weeks of holiday leave and the availability of inexpensive yet desirable destinations and it’s not hard to see why Britons are not content to sit home during their time off.


I remember when I moved to the States in 1990 and got my first corporate job - with a whopping two weeks holiday/vacation per year. Ten whole work days. To add to the shock, I had to earn at least half of that before I could take any time off. Vacation was accrued at just over a day per month, so even if I wanted to take the one week break that is more typical here, I still needed to work for six months first.

As Mike says, there's no doubt that Brits (and Europeans in general) have a healthier attitude towards down time than Americans. Most Brits I know wouldn't dream of going anywhere for less than two weeks, skiing trips being the exception. Anything less than about four days isn't even called a vacation/holiday.

And with the UK being so close to countries that are, well, completely foreign, Brits are quite well travelled compared to Americans. A four hour plane ride from London takes you to many exotic and culturally diverse places, while the same length flight from Chicago takes me to Florida, California. Oh yes, and Canada.

I often wonder though, if the UK had a guaranteed summer, how many Brits would venture overseas? Although many of us do indeed seek out strange and exciting places to visit, the majority of Brits just want a "bit of sun". (And who can blame us?) In the US, even those families who do go out of state for a bit of a break don't have to worry about finding the sun. And with the huge range of scenery on offer here, (think beaches, the Rockies, the dessert, Montana's Big Sky, etc.) I really don't fault Americans for wanting to see bits of their own country. Admittedly, there's less adventure when you know that there'll probably be a Wal-Mart nearby, and you won't have to worry about getting money out of the machine, or losing your passport; but this country is bloody vast and no two regions are the same.

My advice to Americans is to lobby for more time off, learn to chill a bit more and take to the roads!

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