16th May 2021
When I was young I had an illustrated book about kings and queens – but the one illustration which stayed with me was not any of the formal mannered portraits.
Instead, it was this engraving by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray:
It still dominates how I think about kingship, queenship and indeed any formality of power.
Strip away the paraphernalia of dominance – not just the garments but also the symbolism and the rhetoric and the concepts – and you just ultimately have people.
A great deal of what we posit as politics and law – almost all of it – exists only in the mind.
They may well have grave real-world effects – but concepts such as the ‘state’, ‘government’, ‘markets’ and ‘society’ are, just that, concepts.
And without those concepts we are all just as the French king in Thackeray’s engraving.
If everyone suddenly stopped believing in the legitimacy of the ‘state’ there would be little that those with political power could do, other than to resort to coercive power.
But even totalitarian regimes usually make some effort at legitimisation – as resorting to pure repression is demanding and unsustainable in the medium- to longer-term.
The anarchist may well want to ‘abolish’ the state – but the ‘state’ has no real existence other than in the minds of people.
All it takes is for people to believe differently about government and the law, or to believe nothing at all.
This is one reason why ‘legitimacy’ matters – and, because legitimacy matters, it is also why constitutionalism matters.
Constitutionalism is the notion that there are certain rules and principles of political conduct that have priority over mere political expediency and party advantage.
Once the institutions and processes of the state are stripped of their legitimacy then there is little to no reason for people to accord respect and deference to government and law.
And when people no longer see a government and its law as legitimate then, absent a programme of coercion, there is the pre-condition for a political – even social – crisis.
Sensible politicians of the right and left once knew this.
The reckless assaults on constitutional norms in the United Kingdom and the United States are the political equivalent of playing with fire.
And so there is immense danger when there are politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson that are hyper-partisan, undermining the legitimacy of (with Trump) elections and (with Johnson) the separation of powers and checks and balances.
This may not end well.