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The British View

May 2024
7min read

A recent British ambassador to Washington takes a generous-spirited but clear-eyed look at the document that, as he points out, owes its existence to King George III

The guest at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., leaves his car and is ushered through a comparatively modest, low-ceilinged entrance hall. The architect, Edwin Lutyens, wished to surprise him, for the entrance hall opens up into a magnificent double staircase that mounts toward the still more opulent reception rooms above, the central feature of which is a sixty-six-yard-long corridor. It is Lutyens’s equivalent of Beethoven’s transition to the finale of his C Minor Symphony. “Lovely corridors,” said a distinguished predecessor of mine, before my wife and I came. “Lutyens loved corridors, couldn’t stand rooms.” In fact, the rooms are pretty good too.

The guest arriving at the embassy has a choice: Turn left up the staircase and go past the magnificent state portrait of George III; turn right and go up past the stately portrait of his wife, Queen Charlotte. I always used to encourage my guests to pause and contemplate the portrait of George III, dressed in his coronation robes. “I hope you realize,” I would say, “that America owes its greatness to that man.” My guests’ eyes would glaze over in disbelief. I would go on. “Yes, for if he had not been so stupid...,” and the rest of the sentence would be lost in laughter.

In fact, the United States would not be the place it is, nor its Constitution the magnificent document it is, if George III and his ministers had been sensible enough to receive the delegation of colonists sent to London in 1775 with the Olive Branch Petition requesting a peaceful redress of their grievances.

But they were not received, so they returned to America, pretty fed up, I shouldn’t wonder. And the Revolution went inexorably on its way. Independence was proclaimed, and the two score or more well-educated country gentlemen wrote one of the seminal political documents of mankind: the United States Constitution. Thanks to George III.

We are all, indeed, civilized by the existence of the United States Constitution.

Many ideals motivated them, but of one thing I am certain: They were determined that no man should govern them in the way that George III had governed them. So they set about devising a system of government as different as it was possible to be from the British system. If they had merely wanted their independence, they could perfectly well have taken as their inheritance the British parliamentary system, suitably modified, as indeed Canada and Australia were to do later. Basically Britain is still governed as it was governed by George III, plus a few modern innovations, like universal adult suffrage. Fundamentally the British system of government flows in a continuous stream from the Magna Carta in 1215—in Churchill’s phrase, “Liberty broadening down from precedent to precedent.” It works quite well for us. I doubt it would for you.

I’m glad you didn’t try. For the parliamentary system of government gives —for the five years’ duration of the legislature—astonishing power to the executive, provided it enjoys a majority in the House of Commons. Perhaps that does not matter for a medium-sized nation like Britain, whose capacity to do harm, even if it wanted to, is pretty limited. But give the executive of a superpower, even a friendly neighborhood superpower like the United States, powers of that magnitude, and we all should be in trouble. For those well-educated country gentlemen looked at George III and looked into their own hearts, and they saw that if the United States was to become the sort of place they wanted to live in, then power, which tends to corrupt all, had to be shackled.

And they saw that the best way to shackle it was to ensure that no man or woman could get hold of too much of it. So was born, based on the separation of powers, the Constitution of the United States, and the admiration and despair alike of America’s friends and foes.

Admiration, certainly, for both its form and its content. Who can fail to be moved by its language, poised as it is halfway in time between Shakespeare and Churchill and with the cadences natural to both? Who has so little poetry in his soul that he does not thrill to the era’s other great charter, when it says, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident with the same ecstatic shudder that comes over him at, say, the start of Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” The reason is obvious: the U.S. Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence, was written by gentlemen educated in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters.

There is admiration, too, for its political sophistication, which gives powers to the President and takes them away again; which seems to give but finally avoids conferring power on the Congress, since neither Senate nor House of Representatives can operate, except in limited circumstances, on its own; and which then sets up the Supreme Court, with the power to disallow what the other two coequal branches of government may have agreed to. The President of the United States is not, as the cliché would have it, the most powerful man in the world; he is only President of the most powerful country in the world.

We recently experienced a textbook illustration of the working of the Constitution in real—all too real—life. And glorious and satisfying it was to see it in action. Gramm-Rudman. The most important annual item in any nation’s political life is the enactment of the budget, concerned as it is with getting value for money from the citizens’ taxes. Now the executive and legislature agreed that the budget deficit had to be reduced but could not agree on how to reduce it. So they tried to shuffle off the responsibility onto an automatic mechanism. Thereupon the Supreme Court, the third coequal branch of government, blew the whistle for foul play and said, in effect: “You guys, President and members of the Congress, were elected to take the tough decisions, not to shirk them. So get back in there and earn.” Splendid stuff. One hundred and ninety-nine years after signature, the Constitution was working in the way it was intended to in a matter that could not have been foreseen: as a check on the abuse of power, the abuse of power in this case being a refusal to accept the corollary of power —responsibility.

Admiration, certainly, but also despair. For the same checks on the abuse of power also act as brakes on the formulation and execution of policy. What, in fact, is the policy of the United States on a given issue? Very difficult to say. How can anyone work out in advance the ultimate resolution of the parallelogram of forces when so many opposing views contend? The State Department may have its own defense policy, the Pentagon its own foreign policy; but until the President has spoken, there is no policy. There is only static, as the baronies conduct their internecine warfare. And even when the President has spoken, that means only that there is an administration policy, which may or may not fly, as they say, in the Congress. That’s OK for Americans; after all, it’s your business how you choose to run your affairs. Your suffering is your own and self-inflicted.

Or it would be, if it had no effect on us, your friends. Or, indeed, on your adversaries. For America lives with us in the world. Because of your political clout, military strength, and economic pervasiveness, we need to know how you intend to exert your clout, strength, and pervasiveness so that we may react to them, support them, resist them. As a result, whole new industries—service industries—have grown up in Washington to meet the need for insight into the arcane mysteries of the American political system, guidance through its labyrinthine ways, and foresight into the likely outturn of events.

Round the White House and the Hill orbit the media, shedding light and casting shadows in equal measure. Round the White House and the Hill and the media orbit the embassies, the lobbyists, the access-mongers, seeking the truth with the persistence of Athenians consulting the oracle and being rewarded, more often that not, with Delphic answers.

For example, Britain and the United States decided that it was in the national interest of both countries to update their extradition treaty. The British Embassy negotiated with the State Department. Three months later the champagne corks popped and the treaty was signed. The treaty had to go to Parliament in London for ratification and the Senate in Washington for its advice and consent. No problem in London. The government had a majority in the House of Commons, and ratification went through “on the nod.” Not so in the Senate. First there were hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee; the world and its wife were invited to give their opinion and did so at some length. Months passed. The Foreign Relations Committee wrote a report and sent it to the full Senate. More months passed. Modifications to the treaty were sought and obtained. Finally, twelve months after signature, a debate on the floor of the Senate and an overwhelming majority for the treaty. All’s well that ends well. But three months to negotiate an agreement with one branch of government and twelve months to ratify it with its coequal branch! Salt II, signed in 1979, expired before it could be ratified.

The United States is unique in many ways. One of the ways in which it is unique is that it is the only country in the world with which foreigners, friends, and foes alike have to negotiate every treaty twice, once with the administration and a second time with the Senate. This is wonderful for the United States, terrible for the foreigners, for the foreigners have to make a double compromise with their own interests if they wish to get an agreement.

They get less than they want with the administration and then still less with the Congress. It enables the administration to play both ends against the middle. Either it gives in gracefully to the foreigners’ proposals and gains a reputation for sweet reasonableness, knowing perfectly well that the Senate will grab back all the concessions the administration has made, or it bargains as tough as old boot leather, explaining the while that it hurts them more than it hurts the foreign victim, but that it is being cruel only to be kind in order to ensure that the resulting agreement gets past the Senate without too much hassle.

Some foreigners protest that it is a ripoff, or get paranoid and suspect conspiracy. In fact, there is no conspiracy, only rather amazing foresight on the part of the fathers of the Constitution, who protected their infant Republic better than they knew. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, warned his fellow Americans against “entangling alliances.” He needn’t have bothered. The U.S. Constitution makes it very nearly impossible for the United States to get into any sort of alliance, entangling or otherwise. But not quite. Today the United States has many allies. Britain is fortunate to be one of them. The hope of your allies must be that your Constitution will make it even more difficult for you to disentangle than it was for them to entangle.

“What a piece of work is a man!” said Hamlet, and went on: “How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! … in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” He spoke these lines some two hundred years before the United States Constitution was written, but he might have had those country gentlemen who drafted it in mind. The Constitution is the first great—and still, perhaps, the greatest—work of those who had been English colonists and had become Americans. It is a unique American contribution to the civilization of man. For as Justice Brandeis observed, the Constitution is designed “not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power.” The Supreme Court’s decision in Gramm-Rudman made very much the same point.

The founding fathers got their priorities right. America has always been about freedom, to the great benefit of itself and of all the rest of us.

We are all, indeed, civilized by the existence of the United States Constitution. Americans have the right to be immensely proud of it and to celebrate its bicentennial with pride and thoughtfulness. We in Britain can also be proud of it, even if our contribution was only that of the piece of grit in the oyster that produced the pearl. Maybe George III was not such a bad guy after all.

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