Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Long Constitutional View

The upsetting of the political apple cart that followed the first of the televised General Election debates of the party leaders (the second is screened live tonight on Sky1), has left political commentators floundering. Though it is possible we may be entering a period of profound political change, it is noticeable how few historians have been called upon to comment on the potential ramifications.

That’s one reason why Ben Wilson’s excellent volume What Price Liberty: How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lost (Faber) is such an important and timely read. Apart from being a riveting and elegant survey of Britain’s constitutional changes over the centuries, it also reminds us of what the historian brings to the political party; a mindset fixed on the long view rather than the fripperies of the immediate.

‘We learn about liberty by experience,’ he writes, ‘and it gets its value and force from the experience and stories of people living in the past, contending with real issues. I do not mean history here as a static thing which hands us down precious artefacts that we must not sully, or indeed as desiccated morality tales. I mean it as a radical and dynamic force which we can draw upon to formulate and give expression to our own desires and grievances.’

There is certainly plenty of the latter around, but not a lot of consideration of our past political conflicts. One lesson of history is that we should be cautious about the British people’s apparent desire for change. Even Margaret Thatcher, the most radical of modern British premiers, thought them ‘a difficult people to move’.

Ben Wilson will be writing on the 18th-century constitution for the June edition of History Today, by which time the political settlement may be more apparent. Until then, read his book.

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