Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Closer Than Ever Before?

Even blogs can come back and bite you. On 19 May I wrote convincingly in response to Andrew Sullivan's article in the Sunday Times explaining how Britain and America are really quite close in many areas. If a week is a long time in politics, then two weeks in an eternity in blogging.

Recent changes in the law in the UK to allow same sex "marriage", or civil partnerships as they are better known, have passed without so much as a ripple in the fabric of society. In any local paper couples of the same sex happily share the wedding page with joyously heterosexual couples. Announcements of upcoming same-sex unions regularly appear in the press. When famous gay couples "unite" it is a photo opportunity for the popular media. This could not be further from the American experience - unless the U.S. should suddenly changes dramatically and swiftly into a left wing dictatorship of the proletariat. Not very likely.

What has changed the tenor of the debate about gay marriage in America is the intervention of that good old boy from Texas (home of queers and steers if you are to believe its many detractors!), G. Dubbya Bush.

What Dubbya said, "On a matter of such importance, the voice of the people must be heard. Activist courts have left the people with one recourse. If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America. Decisive and democratic action is needed, because attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country."

Whatever the merits of Dubbya's proposals, his insistence that a Constitutional Amendment is required serves to highlight a very basic difference in the political traditions of the two countries. Or, one country and one kingdom if you prefer. In America the Constitution takes its place at the head of the table reserved for the monarch in Britain. To change it is no light matter. No American politician will last long unless he or she adheres closely to its basic precepts. In over 200 years it has only been amended 27 times, 17 if you discount the first ten amendments, The Bill of Rights, which were "promised" by constitutional supporters in order to get it accepted in 1781. Other than these ten, few of amendments have been proposed and passed that work primarily on the citizen - instead of the structure of government institutions. The anti-slavery amendments, 13, 14, and 15; the 16th (Income Tax); and the19th (Votes for Women) are among the slender number which prescribe directly what the citizen can or cannot do. This is what the Founding Fathers wanted. They got it.

In Britain today, the political arrangements are essentially the same that were in place in the 1770's - when American Revolution severed the "ties that bind". What, in America, was seen then as the arbitrary rule of a tyrant king, George III (though the real argument was with Parliament) is essentially the same system the British are governed by today. Whereas in America sovereignty is vested in the people; in Britain the Queen in Parliament holds sovereignty for the people. Or, if you prefer, the cumbersome process required to amend the Constitution; a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate; then three-fourths of the states ratifying is replaced by a simple majority of Parliament and the sovereign's assent. The Queen in Parliament is the highest authority in the land. There is no theoretical limit on what Parliament can do. Not many British people realise this.

So, were the next Parliament decide to outlaw same-sex unions, they could.

Likewise, Dubbya's grandstanding on this issue is more likely to be a sop to his conservative supporters than a real rallying call to the States for an amendment. There is little chance it could ever get the necessary majority. The Constitution remains the bulwark of American freedom and the guardian against arbitrary popular government. This is what the Founding Fathers so wisely chose. Long may it continue.

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