Constitution

With my sympathies torn between the Lib Dems and the SNP, I was naturally fairly disgusted by Michael Moore’s suggestion two weeks ago that if there was a successful independence referendum, there would have to follow a second, UK-wide one.

Not that the argument that a possible split would also affect the English, Welsh and Northern Irish, thus entitling them to also vote on the matter, seems ludicrous to me. I don’t hold that opinion, but accept it as a legitimate viewpoint. But if you want them to vote as well, let them vote immediately. (Mr Moore’s proposal resembles the Lisbon treaty affair: let the people vote until one day they vote the way we want them to, and then stick to that result. If the truth be told, I suspect Mr Moore doesn’t mean that proposal seriously and is just playing some political game here.)

That said, Stewart Kirkpatrick’s reaction in the Caledonian Mercury didn’t take me aback by how venomous it was, but by a question of vocabulary. At one moment he says ‘There’s been a lot of tosh from “constitutional experts” about this. As the UK constitution does not exist, I’m not quite sure what these people are experts in.’ Now, I always thought that the perception of a constitution as a single coherent document was particular to languages spoken in countries which had such a book, and that English allowed for a broader meaning. So I did some research.

Wikipedia states that ‘A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is. When these principles are written down into a single or set of legal documents, those documents may be said to comprise a written constitution.’ Wiktionary gets away with ‘The formal or informal system of primary principles and laws that regulates a government or other institutions.’ Dictionary of the Scots Language doesn’t mention the word in this sense at all, and some of the results in both the British National Corpus and the Scottish Corpus of Text and Speech seem to underline the possibility of a broader meaning.

Finally, the most renowned dictionary we have, the Oxford English Dictionary, has the following definition and explanation: ‘The system or body of fundamental principles according to which a nation, state, or body politic is constituted and governed.This may be embodied in successive concessions on the part of the sovereign power, implied in long accepted statutes, or established gradually by precedent, as in the British Constitution; or it may be formally set forth in a document framed and adopted on a particular occasion by the various orders or members of the commonwealth, or their representatives, as in the Constitution of the United States, the various Constitutions of France after 1790, and those of other nations, framed in imitation of these. In the case of a written Constitution, the name is sometimes applied to the document embodying it. In either case it is assumed or specifically provided that the constitution is more fundamental than any particular law, and contains the principles with which all legislation must be in harmony.’

So please, Mr Kirkpatrick, if you want to claim that a UK constitution doesn’t exist, say so in Czech or some other such language in which it would hold true. There are enough English, Scots and Gaelic words whose precise usage possibilities I’m not entirely sure of as it is, I can do without your confusing me even more…

 

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