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A Bill of Frights

Posted by Richard Thursday, March 03, 2005

Presented by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, this was the first of a new series of Analysis, BBC Radio 4's weekly series examining ideas and public policy. The programme, broadcast at 8.30 this evening, asked, "does the European Union's constitution threaten to undermine the political traditions of the United Kingdom, or will it end up buttressing them?"

So goes the blurb, which continues: "Will it make a bonfire of our cherished and hard-won democratic practices, or instead reinforce them by applying them at the European level as well as at the national one?"

At 265 pages and around 60,000 words, the blurb states, the European constitution is a weighty tome. But for some critics its length is not its only forbidding feature. It continues:

One of the key arguments advanced by those who oppose Britain's supporting the European Union's constitutional treaty in the forthcoming referendum is that its terms are incompatible with our unique, tried-and-tested political traditions.

The constitution, it is claimed, by its abstract language, detailed provisions and grand aims is antithetical and damaging to British conceptions of politics.

The nation whose political thinking and practice have been subtly influenced over centuries by Magna Carta, John Bunyan and the Reform Acts could find that a less pragmatic, less individualised conception of politics is imposed on it from outside.

Analysis presenter Felipe Fernández-Armesto asks if continental European and British conceptions of politics are fundamentally at variance in the constitution or if they simply look different.
Despite his foreign name, Felipe Fernández-Armesto has one of those plummy, sneery English accents that shrieks "clever-dick", an accent that would invite a "bunch of fives" the moment he stepped into a Millwall pub and opened his mouth.

And the programme roughly matched it presenter. Hurtling along at breakneck speed, it asked all the wrong questions, a straw-dog on wheels, never getting to the point but suggesting that it was dealing with all the profound issues.

"What are the perceived divergences and why do they matter?" asked Felipe "plummy" Fernández-Armesto. "Should we be alarmed or, in our British way, simply amused by the grandiloquence and abstract theorising in parts of the constitution?" Just what the man in the street wants to know, I bet.

No, Mr Felipe Fernández-Armesto, we are not "amused by the grandiloquence and abstract theorising" and the thought never occurred to me even to think about them. Nor are we "alarmed" by the constitution. We just don't want the bloody thing.

But then you could see where Mr Felipe "plummy" Fernández-Armesto was coming from with the patronisingly trivial title: "Is this a modern European Bill of Rights or an alien Bill of Frights?". Thank you very much – don't call us, we'll call you.

To give an appearance of balance – entirely spurious – the programme had its token Eurosceptic, Conservative MP for Wells and member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, David Heathcoat-Amory MP, plus the ubiquitous Gisela Stuart MP, the Labour member of the Convention.

Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff also took part, and we had input for former Plaid Cymru MP and currently Presiding Officer of the National Assembly of Wales, Lord Elis-Thomas. Historians Jeremy Black and Peter Hennessy were given walk-on parts.

Pride of place, though, was given to Sir John Kerr, SecGen of the Convention, Giscard's right hand man who did most of the fixing during the writing of the constitution. His enthusiasm was boundless and clearly shared by Mr Felipe "plummy" Fernández-Armesto who ended the programme comparing the constitution with a frog – warts and all. "But if you don’t kiss the frog," he says, "your prince might never appear."

If you missed the programme, you can hear it on the internet, or when it is repeated at 9.30 pm on Sunday.

Frankly, I wouldn't bother.