Staging the constitution: LSE research dialogue, 21st November 2013

Last week, I spoke at the Media and Communication Department research dialogue on the subject of Image. I was a last minute addition to the programme, so decided to take the opportunity to flesh out an idea I had been pondering for a while. I was very struck a few months ago when it occurred to me that London's theatres simultaneously contained two plays that offered a take on how Britain is governed, and in particular how our institutions cope with change and crisis. At the National Theatre, This House dealt with the tumultuous politics of the mid-to-late 1970s, and the struggle between the Labour and Conservative's Whip's office as James Callaghan's majority dwindled, then vanished. On the other side of the river in the West End, Helen Mirren was reprising the role she won as Oscar for in The Queen, this time in the The Audience, a play which focused on the weekly (and highly confidential) meetings between the Monarch and Premier in Buckingham Palace.

The argument in the paper - which I outline in more depth below - is that both plays reflect classic thinking and questions on the British constitutional settlement. The Audience though offers a more Whiggish reading of the system, strongly echoing ideas espoused by the Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot about the role of the dignified elements of the constitution. In contrast, This House is more ambiguous its message, but engages with the debate - most famously articulated by Edmund Burke in 1790 - between government based on human nature and government based on human rationality. While the play text articulates arguments for both positions, my reading is that it ultimately highlights the weaknesses of government based human nature, and thus offers a space for opposing the Victorian constitution fetishised in The Audience.

You can listen to a podcast of my talk below, or alternatively watch the video which has audio and slides. A PDF of the slides is also available here.

The first thing to say is that is that I do not think it is a coincidence that these plays have been so successful, both critically and in terms of drawing an audience, at this moment in time. If one thinks of the Scottish Independence debate, the potential EU-exit referendum, the failure of the electoral system to create governing majorities, and the fracturing of the party system most evident in the rise of UKIP, it quickly becomes clear that the British political system is in a state of extreme flux. Constitutional scholar Anthony King has recently gone as far as to talk of the British constitution in its current state as being "a mess" and it is hard to disagree with him. Couple this with political institutions' inability to cope with the financial crisis, and it is unsurprising that people are looking back to the economic and political dislocation of the 1970s with interest.

So what do these plays attempt to tell us or ask about our political institutions? The first thing to note is that they both share a trick in common - they take us to places that we are not normally permitted to enter, either the party Whip's office or the audience between Queen and Prime Minister. This actually draws on a long-established idea that the British constitution has its secret elements. In his English Constitution, Bagehot talks a lot about the secrets and mystery of the constitution, while more recently scholar Peter Hennesey wrote a book on what he termed the “hidden wiring” of the British system.

But our role as the audience is slightly different in the two plays. In the original run of This House in the Cotteslow Theatre at the NT, the whole auditorium was rebuilt as a replica House of Commons. Audience members were sitting on the green benches and even interacting with the cast. As such, they complicit in the processes ongoing in the play. In contrast, in The Audience, the audience is positioned much more as an intruder, and possibly even an unwelcome one, a point made clear when the young Princess Elizabeth (who appears in a spectre-like fashion at various points during the play to interact with her older self) appears to look towards then audience and then recoils with a fear of being seen. This difference would suggest that the plays have quite a different attitude to hierarchy and social ordering.

Perhaps the clearest indication of constitutional doctrine is found in the conclusion of The Audience though, in a monologue delivered by Elizabeth.

“No matter how old-fashioned, expensive or unjustifiable we are, we will still be preferable to a elected president meddling in what they [Prime Ministers] do. Which is why they always dive into rescue us every time we make a mess of things. If you want to know how it is that the monarchy in this country has survived as long as it has – don’t look to its monarchs, look to its Prime Ministers” (Morgan, 2013: 88).

This directly echoes Bagehot's claim that the purpose of monarchy and other ceremonial aspects of the constitution is to act as a disguise for the real business of politics and, as such, it serves a useful function for the political class, who have a vested interest in preserving it. Thus the way through crisis presented in The Audience is essentially conservative: it relies on service, order and long-established precedents.

In contrast, This House offers a far more ambiguous reading of the constitutional settlement. It enters into a debate that has been going on a very long-time, perhaps most famously articulated by Edmund Burke who argued that constitutions must be based “not on human reason, but on human nature” (1790). At it heart, this debate comes down to the question of whether constitutions can be designed (in other words, be a product of reason) or whether they should be arrived at through shared memory, experience and values (and thus be the product of human nature).

This House acknowledges the Burkean tradition, with it being noted that the origins of various practices - such as pairing the House of Commons - are not really understood. The problem though with a system of government based on human nature is that human beings are very frail, a point illustrated by the gradual wasting away of Callaghan's slim majority between 1976 and 1979. The system is so reliant on its human parts that this sets off a form of contagious rot within the whole body politic, reflected in various metaphors about the Thames being diseased and the (historically accurate) breakdown of Parliament's clock tower containing Big Ben in 1976.

This House asks us to empathise with MPs. In the post-expenses scandal world, this certainly seems like quite an unusual thing to to do. But far more importantly, This House seems to question a fundamental idea embedded in British constitutional thinking - namely, that shared values and established practices are, by themselves, enough to get through any period of crisis? As such, it is rather different to the far more conservative The Audience, and certainly a play for our times, as much as a play about an important period of political history.