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Constitutional Hacks

The constitutions underpinning modern nation-states have proven to be necessary for the proper functioning of liberal democracy. But if a codified structure for the exercise of power were enough, liberal democracy would not be in crisis today.

LONDON – It is the crucible of war, Linda Colley argues, that forges constitutions. This claim raises an important question: What will today’s belligerent, combative politics in many countries mean for the future of liberal democracy, whose principles and values are arguably under siege like never before.

In The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen, Colley describes how the modern nation-state – and modern constitutionalism – emerged from the smoke of the cannon fire that engulfed the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even Great Britain, long fabled as the country without a codified constitution, was not immune to the “warlike pressure” of this period. It was ravaged by civil war in the mid-1600s, leading to the adoption of the Instrument of Government and the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector in 1653. That, along with its successor, the Humble Petition and Advice, undergirded Britain’s government throughout Cromwell’s Lord Protectorship, until Charles II’s restoration to the throne brought an end to Britain’s experiment with republicanism – and with formal constitutions.

Gun, Ship, Pen

In her illuminating and wide-ranging book, Colley weaves a historical web that draws in countries from almost every continent. She reminds us that the act of drafting constitutions was hardly the exclusive preserve of Western industrializing nation-states. Moving adroitly from the familiar cases of the American and French post-revolutionary constitutions, she examines more unfamiliar cases such as the constitutions of Papua New Guinea and the Pitcairn Islands, and how they even pioneered rights we are only now coming to recognize. In 1838, the Pitcairn Islands constitution recognized the right to a safe environment – a principle that the United Nations did not officially adopt until this October.

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