Matthew Norman: When it's a game without rules, chaos is inevitable

It can be no more right for an MP to make an imbecile of the law than for a judge to criminalise 75,000 Tweeters who ignored his injunction

Share
Related Topics

Into what a tangled web we were dunked, as the old saw almost had it, when first Giggsy chose to superinjunct. How it came to this – how a dime a dozen coupling between a football demigod and a reality TV show contestant grew into the embryo of a constitutional war – is an intriguing issue with plenty to teach us about ourselves. For this is an ineffably British tale that draws together several strands of national character into one inescapable cobweb of farcical confusion.

Prurience, hypocrisy, low-level public cussedness towards authority and high-handed authority's disdain for the public all have their part to play. So – as far as the clash between the rights to privacy and free speech is concerned – does the failure to decide whether to be prissily private Europeans or let-it-all-hang-out Americans. Also present are British lethargy in adapting to the implications of new technology, and the gift for conflating the utterly banal into a sovereign point of principle. Where else would tweeting about a shagging sportsman be heralded as a show of mass civil disobedience worthy of Gandhi?

At its heart, though, this is a story about secrecy, power, and the symbiotic relationship between them on which the system is built. What allows an obscure MP to loose a wrecking ball to the High Court isn't arrogance or showboating, though John Hemming may be guilty of both. What enables it, not to mention the uncertainty over whether he was morally entitled to do so and the media legally entitled to report it, is our old chum, the lack of a written constitution.

In so far as we have any constitution, it is unknowable in anything but meaningless abstract. It relies on a wobbly series of impenetrably interlocking conventions, precedents and nebuous nonsense which those in power may interpret as suits them best. No wonder "constitutional expert", which in the US might refer to a Supreme Court justice, is a synonym here for "royal sycophant" (see the Lords Blake and St John of Fawsley).

This is no accident. The reason David Cameron shares all his predecessors' loathing for a written constitution is that clarifying where the levers of power lie and the constraints on their use would hugely reduce a prime minister's power. We have seen the practical effects of this hole in various ways – tragically when Mr Tony Blair took us to war by sofa cabal; amusingly, during the post-election chaos a year ago, when a 1951 letter to the Times from a private secretary to her father, George VI, was cited as the best guide to how the Queen should choose her Prime Minister.

We see it again in this footling scrap between judges and Commons. Nominally the constitution is founded on a tripartite system in which judiciary, executive (government) and legislature (MPs) are of equal importance (ha, ha, bleeding ha). Supposedly they serve to balance each other, with the fourth estate (press and wider media) acting as a de facto check against all three.

How's that working out for ya? What we have today is the media (old and new) ganging up with the legislature to demolish the judiciary, with the Government locked in bamboozled paralysis. Not long ago, the judiciary ganged up with big business (Trafigura) to prevent publication of a report on the dumping of toxic waste in African villages – a matter which was then raised by an MP. There are no clear-cut rules, no demarcation of power or ranking of who trumps whom, and in the darkness the competing factions grab what short-term gains they may.

In the longer term, it is impossible to imagine how such a system could master the complex challenges posed by communications technology. Change is never easy for us British, and like all post-imperial peoples we much prefer the romanticised past. A useful guide here is Ron Manager, Paul Whitehouse's football coach. "Cor, Ryan Giggs, you know?" were the great nostalgist's opening words in the very first episode of The Fast Show. "Giggsy, isn't it? Mmm? Giggsy-Wiggsy? Mmm? Oh! Ryan-y Giggsy-Wiggsy. Isn't it? You know, marvellous."

Not so marvellous now. Giggs may still have it all on the pitch – "Speed, acceleration, sweet left foot," to quote the 1994 Mr Manager, "the dummy, the drop of the shoulder, the shimmy, nutmeg, jiggery-pokery ..." – but off it what a rotter he seems. Forming a midfield partnership with that deliciously combative law firm Schillings to hunt down the Twitterers was a disgrace. As for Mr Hemming using parliamentary privilege, to keep Giles Coren out of jug, as he claims, here there are mixed feelings. Clearly no one could embrace the precedent of a restaurant critic being force fed porridge for being a gossip. Where would that lead? AA Gill slopping out in Broadmoor? Michael Winner calming down the psychotic D Wing dears in HMP Belmarsh?



Even so, it can no more be right for a lone MP to make an imbecile of the law than for a judge to criminalise 75,000 Tweeters who ignored his injunction like a red-robed Ron Manager, clinging to a gentler world that died out with the advent of social networking sites just as jumpers for goalposts (Mmm? Playing in the road till mum called you in for bed. Isn't it?) were killed off by the mass affordability of the car.

But there is more to this than retrograde judges failing to find a truce between competing human rights. The judiciary has the same innate predisposition to secrecy as any government or other jealous hoarder of power. So do MPs when it suits, as the desperate rearguard to keep their expenses claims secret established.

A country without a constitution to resolve such matters as where ultimate jurisdiction over the law lies must be ruled by secrecy. It manifests itself everywhere, from great matters such as how we go to war, to middling ones (criminalising the photographing of police), to weeny ones like Ryan Giggs playing away. Without writing it down – without establishing clearly how the balance between judiciary, executive and legislature works; of spelling out, among much else, the right to free expression and its limits – nothing will change.

Nothing fundamental ever does. There will be no written constitution, and once the privacy hysteria has dribbled into apathy, a half-baked fudge will provide loose and useless guidelines designed to preserve all that can be saved of the status quo. A very British solution, in other words, to a very British fiasco.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Monday - Israel  

Between the wars in Israel, spending time in a kibbutz was about as cool as you could get

Peter Popham
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game