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Antifrank on the choices of Jeremy Corbyn

September 28th, 2015

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A tale of top buttons and constitutional principle

Since being elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn has wandered into controversy after controversy.  Some of a these have been narrowly political but many have not. There was surprise when he ducked out of an interview with Andrew Marr the day after being elected Labour leader.  There was consternation when he attended a Battle of Britain memorial with his top button undone and stood in “respectful silence” rather than sing the national anthem.  More than one Conservative MP criticised him for not attending an international rugby match to which he had been invited.  And he is still agonising about whether to bend his knee to the Queen when he is inducted into the Privy Council.

These may look disparate (and they are varying importance and substance), but a common thread runs through all of them because they illuminate Jeremy Corbyn’s conception of his new role.  It appears that he has an unusually narrow view of what is required of the Leader of the Opposition.

Walter Bagehot, an early editor of the Economist, wrote The English Constitution.  Among his many theories of the constitution, he drew attention to the different aspects of government which he characterised as “dignified” and “efficient”, thus:

“No one can approach to an understanding of the English institutions, or of others which, being the growth of many centuries, exercise a wide sway over mixed populations, unless he divide them into two classes. In such constitutions there are two parts (not indeed separable with microscopic accuracy, for the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of division) first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population — the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts — those by which it, in fact, works and rules. There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority, it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and there employ that homage in the work of government.

There are indeed practical men who reject the dignified parts of government. They say, we want only to attain results, to do business: a constitution is a collection of political means for political ends, and if you admit that any part of a constitution does no business, or that a simpler machine would do equally well what it does, you admit that this part of the constitution, however dignified or awful it may be, is nevertheless in truth useless. And other reasoners, who distrust this bare philosophy, have propounded subtle arguments to prove that these dignified parts of old governments are cardinal components of the essential apparatus, great pivots of substantial utility; and so they manufactured fallacies which the plainer school have well exposed.

But both schools are in error. The dignified parts of government are those which bring it force which attract its motive power. The efficient parts only employ that power. The comely parts of a government have need, for they are those upon which its vital strength depends. They may not do any thing definite that a simpler polity would not do better; but they are the preliminaries, the needful prerequisites of all work. They raise the army, though they do not win the battle.

Doubtless, if all subjects of the same government only thought of what was useful to them, and if they all thought the same thing useful, and all thought that same thing could be attained in the same way, the efficient members of a constitution would suffice, and no impressive adjuncts would be needed. But the world in which we live is organized far otherwise.”

Now the Leader of the Opposition plays no part in government, but much the same principles apply.  There are aspects of what to date has been understood to be the role that are “dignified”: the attending of public events and the carrying out of public functions in the capacity of one of the two major political parties of the nation.  Much of the public see Jeremy Corbyn the Leader of the Opposition as having greater responsibilities than Jeremy Corbyn the backbencher.

Scruffiness at a memorial service reflects on Labour as well as on himself.  It is laudable for a backbencher to conduct a constituency surgery in preference to attending a rugby international but the Leader of the Opposition is normally expected to delegate constituency work to others where other commitments arise appropriate to a leader (a rugby international is marginal, of course).

Jeremy Corbyn appears to disagree with Walter Bagehot and seems intent on paying little regard to the dignified aspects of his role.  He would be wise to rethink: his views are already well outside the political mainstream as it currently stands and if he is to get a fair hearing from the public he has to meet them on familiar territory.  He needs all the help that he can get.  To draw on the authority of Leader of the Opposition, he needs to look like a Leader of the Opposition.  By paying more attention to the formal parts of the role, he may gain himself more of a hearing.

Antifrank