Adam K. Webb on the Worthy Constitution and the Prospects for Global Governance


In today’s episode of the Telos Press Podcast, David Pan talks with Adam K. Webb about his article “Supranational governance and the problem of a” dignified constitution “” of Telos 195 (summer 2021). An excerpt from the article appears below. Their discussion covers a range of topics, including the difference between a dignified constitution and an effective constitution, the absence of a dignified constitution in supranational institutions like the EU and the UN, the domination of these institutions by the new class elite, the possibility of a world demos, the opposition of worthy constitutions to the technocratic views of the government, the insularity of certain traditionalist arguments and the current prospects of a broad world coalition. If your university has an online subscription to Telos, you can read the full article at Telos Online site. For non-subscribers, find out how your university can start a subscription to Telos on our library recommendation page. Print copies of Telos 195 are available for purchase in our online store.

Of Telos 195 (Summer 2021):

Supranational governance and the problem of a “dignified constitution”

Adam K. Webb

In front of the European Parliament at the end of February 2010, Eurosceptic member Nigel Farage addressed the new President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. He expressed his disappointment at the choice of what amounted to the first head of state of the European Union: “You have the charisma of a wet rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. Ten weeks later across the Channel, the close British legislative elections generated five days of coalition talks. With the deal completed, David Cameron was then officially appointed Prime Minister by the Queen, in a deferential ‘kissing hands’ ritual, the elements of which dated back around three centuries. During the behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Queen had remained sidelined from her role as a non-partisan head of state. In the language of 19th century journalist Walter Bagehot, the “effective” sphere of parliamentary politics was distinct from the “dignified” sphere representing the top of the state.[1]

Supranational institutions like the European Union and the United Nations have grown in importance in recent decades. A long-term view of global integration and state formation suggests that, whatever the time horizon, such layers of governance will end up being of great importance. As supranational institutions gain weight, offices like the EU Presidency and the UN Secretariat General will also gain visibility. However, we discover here an enigma. While there has been a lot of attention to the “effective” aspects of supranational governance – how to strengthen, constrain or redirect these emerging mechanisms – almost none has been paid to the “worthy” aspects. What does it mean to imagine the role of head of state and its surrounding pomp and ritual, above the familiar unity of the territorial nation-state? This blind spot of the supranational “dignified constitution” is atypical to say the least in the history of state formation and the consolidation of legitimacy.

In the following pages, I want to examine this blind spot and its implications. After first reviewing the function of the “dignified constitution” at the national level, I review possible explanations for its absence in countries like the EU and the UN. I consider the most obvious factors, such as the thin common identity and symbolism between nation-states, the social leveling and anti-traditional temperament of modernity, and the weakening of deference that often sustains due respect. to gravity. Next, I dig into deeper reasons related to how people understand the sacred boundaries around statehood, the nature of foundational processes, and metaconstitutional guarantees. In short, I contend that the blind spot of the Worthy Constitution is more than just a modern style quirk. It has to do with the character of global institutions and the foundation of authority.

While some of my findings are necessarily suggestive, given that global governance is still in its infancy, they have potentially controversial implications. They cast doubt on whether the current trajectory of global governance, given its technocratic routine of power without a dignified foundation, can guarantee legitimacy or freedom in the long run. They also suggest the need for well-founded institutions of global governance quite different from those of the modern state. Rather, a comprehensive constitutional settlement should hamper political power within a more pluralistic framework, which the worthy elements in turn would represent.

Worthy national constitutions

Bagehot coined the concept of the Worthy Constitution in his 1867 book The English constitution, which has since become a classic text as well as a manual for British monarchs in training. He identified in any constitutional structure two parts: “First, those which excite and preserve the respect of the population – the worthy parties, if I may call them that; and then the effective parts – those by which, in fact, it operates and governs. British policy was effective because of the close connection between a parliamentary majority and the cabinet. The Crown has remained above politics and, sanctified by age, has inspired simple reverence among ordinary people. The latter, being “narrow, unintelligent, incurable”, needed the “theater” of constitutional dignity to inspire loyalty and make a substantially republican state more comprehensible. The emotional and irrational aspects were essential. Trying to make the monarchy more transparent or more modern would be “letting daylight in on magic”.[2]

While the concept of a worthy constitution has emerged from a specific historical context, the twentieth century has proven that Bagehot’s ideas travel well. The British monarch’s “reserve powers” to dissolve Parliament and choose a Prime Minister are exercised mechanically on the advice of the government of the day, although in theory they remain a last check on political ambitions which could endanger the arrangements. constitutional. Long-time monarchs have the informal ability to “advise” and “warn” prime ministers out of public view.[3] Other countries like Spain and Japan have relied on the monarchy to symbolize continuity and bridge deep divides. The Spanish monarchy was re-founded after a civil war and four decades of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.[4] The king also helped quell a right-wing coup attempt in 1982, for example, by donning a military uniform to urge troops to return to barracks and abide by democratic constitutional regulations. The emperors of Japan were mere figureheads when the shoguns wielded “effective” power, and after 1945 they were referred to as a symbol of the nation. Deference to them persisted amid rapid post-war social changes.[5] In the republics too, the style of office also reflects particular traditions: from the erased German presidency to the majestic pomp surrounding the French president in his role as head of state.

Emphasis varies according to national experience, but any worthy constitution must serve one or more typical purposes: to symbolize continuity, deference to authority, horizontal cohesion of a community, and / or humiliation of ambitions. partisan politics.

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1. Walter Bagehot, The English constitution (London: Chapman and Hall, 1867), p. 5.

2. Ibid., P. 2, 5, 7, 52-54, 70, 86.

3. Vernon Bogdanor, The monarchy and the constitution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 1-41, 62-63, 73, 288, 308.

4. Paul Preston, Juan Carlos: a king of the people (London: Harper Collins, 2004).

5. Naoki Kojiro, “The History of Tenno System (emperor) and its role in Japanese politics ”, in Forms of control and subordination in Antiquity, ed. Yuge Toru and Doi Masaoki (Leiden: EJ Brill, 1988), pp. 24-29; Warren M. Tsuneishi, Japanese Political Style: An Introduction to the Government and Politics of Modern Japan (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 2, 25-35, 55-60, 181; Kenneth J. Ruoff, The People’s Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 52, 99, 118–19, 202–53.


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