Tag Archive for: brexit


If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

The Cheshire Cat, famed for its indestructible grin …
from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
as depicted by John Tenniel for the book’s classic 1865 edition.
© image in public domain

 Are you an optimist? This question is one of my favourite opening gambits when launching into longish conversations with strangers. It’s a pleasant enquiry. It’s open-ended. It implies personal interest but it’s not overly intrusive. In response, people can talk about whatever they wish. They don’t have to reveal any secrets. Often, they talk about their health or work or families. In rare cases, frank individuals confide details of their hopes or fears for their love-life. And, increasingly these days, people take the question as an invitation to hold forth about politics, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

I’m also fond of asking questions that can go ‘round the table’, as it were. Those need to be open questions which don’t require a great deal of specialist information to answer. Getting a response from everyone, going round the group, is a great way of fostering a collective dynamic. (I enjoy this process not only in an educational context; but socially too). However, I have learned from experience that asking ‘Are you an optimist?’ really works best in one-to-one conversations. In groups, the cultural pressure to be up-beat in public militates against frank answers.1 Most people will claim, even if evasively, to be cheery – whilst allowing one or two individuals to seize the chance to play the dissident roles of ‘grumpy old men/women’. Their responses quickly lead everyone into debating ‘country going to the dogs’, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

However, such arguments have an increasingly stereotypical quality these days, which the question Are you an optimist? is designed to avoid. So it works best in one-to-one encounters, when there’s time to steer away from the perennial Brexit and to explore new terrain. By the way, when asking others to make whatever limited confidences they wish, it’s important to reciprocate. I have no desire to recount my life-story; but I do have some self-reflective comments about my own attitudes, which I am willing to share. Often, the question prompts an absorbing discussion, even with a newly–met stranger. It certainly is more probing than the standard gambit reportedly used by the Queen: ‘Have you come far? Or the academic’s predictable: ‘What’s your research field?’

Talking about optimism also encourages a quest for further definitions. What exactly is meant by the term? It covers a range of permutations from the mildly hopeful: ‘Well, something will turn up’ to an unshakable Panglossian faith that ‘all is for the best in the best of possible worlds’.2 And then people seek further clarification: optimistic over what sort of timespan: one year? five years? a lifetime? And with reference to what: oneself? one’s profession? one’s country? It’s very common these days for almost all educationalists across the spectrum to be deeply pessimistic about the state of the education system. By contrast, true  believers who have just discovered a great good cause tend to be highly optimistic in the early days of their faith, although over time their hopes of rapid success may become muted as they encounter obstacles and opposition (for example to feminism or to environmentalism).

Generally, however, optimists tend to skate over the complexities. Their glasses are rose-tinted. Their glasses are half full, not half empty. They see the potential in everything. And they believe, if not quite in universal ‘Progress’, at least in the positive chances of progressive betterment.3 And, as they wait in hope for things to develop favourably (even if events don’t always oblige), optimists claim to get more enjoyment out of life than do neutral observers. Milton long ago praised such feelings in L’Allegro, his hymn to mirth, jollity, dancing, nut-brown ale, good fellowship and everything that unchains ‘the hidden soul of harmony’.4

Meanwhile, lurking within every discussion about optimism is the countervailing stance of pessimism. Milton was there too. ‘Hence, vain, deluding joyes …’, he urges in Il Penseroso, his rival hymn to meditative gloom: ‘Hail divinest Melancholy …’ Pessimism in turn embraces many possibilities. Options may range through mild scepticism to world-weary disillusionment to acidic negativism to despairing self-harm.

Many pessimists, however, don’t actually accept that self-description. They prefer to call themselves ‘realists’. Whilst optimists can often be disappointed when their high hopes don’t come true, pessimists can always claim not to be surprised at any outcome, short of ecstatic and universal bliss (which is undeniably rare). It’s true that waiting for disaster to strike can seem depressing. Yet serious pessimists positively enjoy their misery. And they certainly believe that they see life more clearly than do the blinkered optimists.

At its simplest, the optimist/pessimist dichotomy can be interpreted as a function of individual psychology and basic personality traits.5 However, it’s as well to recall that changing circumstances are also liable to affect people’s template attitudes. It’s hard to remain cheerful at all times when suffering from acute pain over a long period of time. And it’s difficult to remain perennially optimistic when suffering from a relentless torrent of externally-inflicted major disasters which are entirely beyond one’s own control. So the optimist/pessimist dichotomy is by no means a rigid one. People may be pessimistic about the state of their profession (for example), whilst remaining personally optimistic about (say) their life and loves.

Crucially, too, mental states are not dictated purely by emotions and personal psychology. Considered reason plays a significant role too. The greatest expression of that truth came from Antonio Gramsci (1893-1937), the Italian Marxist who died in a Fascist prison in Rome under Mussolini. While incarcerated, he continued with stoic fortitude to analyse the state of politics and the prospects for radical change.6 What was needed, he concluded, was: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. It summarised powerfully the conscious yoking of reason and emotion. Gramsci’s formula can be applied to many causes, not just his own. Equally, it can be inverted by those who have optimistic intellects but suffer from pessimistic sapping of the will. Moreover, Gramsci’s formula can be reshuffled to allow room also for super-pessimists of both intellect/will as well as for super-optimists whose smile may outlast reality.

The Cheshire Cat faded
until nothing was left but the smile …

The significant factor, in all these permutations, is that reason is reinstated into human responses to their lives and times. Intellectual attitudes draw upon many sources, rational and emotional alike. For all analysts of the human condition, it’s as well to be aware of one’s own evolving template. A reflex optimism, for example, may lead one astray, unless tempered by rational cogitation and debate with others. I write as a perennial optimist who tries to make analytical adjustments to offset my biases. This process is based upon what I’ve learned from experience – and from many ad hoc conversations with others. So readers, should we be sitting together with a good chance of open-ended discussion, I’m liable to ask my favourite question: are you an optimist?


1 For a polemic against mindless good cheer, see B. Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (New York, 2009), publ. in the UK as Smile of Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009). See also S. Burnett, The Happiness Agenda: A Modern Obsession (New York, 2012).

2 Referencing Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s satirical Candide: ou l’optimisme (Paris, 1759), immediately transl. into Eng. as Candide: Or, the Optimist.

3 See e.g. discussions in K.H.M. Creal, The Idea of Progress: The Origins of Modern Optimism (Toronto, 1970); W. Laqueur, Optimism in Politics: Reflections on Contemporary History (2017).

4 Compare J. Milton, L’Allegro with Il Penseroso (both written 1631; 1st publ. 1645), in J. Milton, The Poetical Works (Oxford, 1900), pp. 20-8.

5 There is a massive literature on these themes. See e.g. E. Fox, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism (2012); P.B. Warr, The Psychology of Happiness (2019); W.C. Compton, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (Los Angeles, 2019); plus countless manuals of self-help.

6 From A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971). See also context in P.D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Leiden/Boston, 2009); A. Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography (1977; 2016); L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. 3: The Breakdown (1971); N. Greaves, Gramsci’s Marxism: Reclaiming a Philosophy of History and Politics (Leicester, 2009).

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I voted REMAIN in the great Europe-referendum of June 2016, and was sorry (though not distraught) to find myself in the minority. At the same time, I had reservations about the European Union, not least for its lack of clear political accountability. In particular, I worry about the anomalous position of the EU’s European Parliament, whose impotence makes a mockery of democratic constitutionalism. So what precisely is wrong? The constitution of the European Union is a peculiar hybrid, which has emerged through a series of eclectic compromises. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that. That’s history. Even the most carefully wrought constitutions need amendment from time to time, to take account of changing times and new or altered expectations. But, if the contradictions are too glaring, then problems follow. Currently, the EU seems not only leaderless but rudderless. And there’s no easy way for Europe’s electorates to put democratic pressure on the system for structural changes, other than by expressing negative responses to Euro-referenda. Britain in June 2016 has done exactly that.

There has long been a disjuncture between the Euro-rhetoric of ‘ever closer Union’, and the actual system of highly complex political horse-trading between the (currently) 28 sovereign member states of the European Union.1 Not only are there frequent exemptions and national opt-outs from every rule, but there are different sub-groupings with separate rules for specific purposes. As a result, it’s already established practice for variegated combinations of countries to negotiate over diverse policies, under a broad Euro-umbrella.

One of the two most important sub-groupings is the Schengen Area, which has no passport controls within its boundaries. It covers 22 member states from the EU, plus four further countries from the European Free Trade Area (EFTA): viz. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland. From the start, Great Britain and Ireland had negotiated opt-outs; and very recently (2016) temporary controls have been restored by Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland and Sweden. It seems probable that the Schengen policy won’t survive unscathed.

The second big sub-grouping is the Eurozone Area, established in January 1999, sharing a common currency. It embraces 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union.2 Denmark and the United Kingdom have negotiated opt-outs, but all new EU members are expected to join automatically. The Eurozone Area has the backing of a new European Central Bank. It seeks to manage the currency, with the aid of suitable fiscal and economic policies.3 Currently, however, the Eurozone is facing severe challenges; and it too may not survive unscathed.4

Constitutionally, the European Union operates as a close alliance or quasi- federation of sovereign states, which pool some of their powers in different combinations for different purposes. But there is a profusion of overlapping component institutions, with no clear lines of authority, while the sovereign states continue to protect their own interests, as their electorates expect.5 There is no collective legal body known as the United States of Europe. Nor is the European Union (the federation’s title as adopted in 1993 under the Maastricht Treaty) organisationally anything like either a fully federal body or a unitary state.

In terms of policy debates, law-making, and budget-setting, one prime forum is the Council of the European Union, attended by government ministers from all member countries. Its Presidency has no executive power but chairs meetings and helps to coordinate the agenda. Each country (currently Slovakia) holds this post in turn, on a six-month rotating basis. There is also a separate European Council, when EU leaders meet quarterly to set the broad agenda. This body appoints its own President (currently Poland’s Donald Tusk), who seeks to coordinate the different EU institutions and also represents the Union in foreign affairs. This post has prestige but, again, no executive powers. Nonetheless, insofar as constitutional comparisons can be made, this post is the nearest EU-equivalent to the post of President in a fully federal system, such as that of the USA.

Incidentally, these two Councils should not be confused with the Council of Europe, founded in 1949, which now includes as many as 47 European countries. Its remit, focusing chiefly upon the rule of law, provides the constituent authority for the European Court of Human Rights.6 Hence one key component of the judicial arm of the postwar European project operates at one remove from the European Union, although in the public debates (eg. over Brexit in June 2016) they are often linked. There is also a further Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which adjudicates over the rival status of national and European laws.

Separated entirely from all the above bodies is the European Commission. It is the equivalent of the executive branch of the EU’s constitution, implementing policy decisions, setting financial priorities, providing regulatory frameworks for governance, proposing new laws, and also representing the EU in foreign affairs. Yet – a key proviso – the Commission does not itself run the day-to-day government in any of the member states. It remains a sort of transnational super-executive, which attracts criticism for its high claims and controversial budgeting whilst being unable to win praise by running things efficiently at grass-roots level.

Today there are 28 Commissioners (one for every member state), each with a specialist brief. They are appointed by the European Council; and led by a Commission President (currently Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker), who allocates portfolios between the Commissioners. There are a number of areas of obvious overlap: for example, in foreign affairs, both the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission have a claim to speak for the EU, whilst one Commissioner, who is also one of the Vice-Presidents, has the specific title of High Representative for the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The media sometimes describes this post as the EU’s Foreign Secretary, and the holder (currently Italy’s Federica Mogherini) is buttressed by a new European External Action Service, established under the Lisbon Treaty in 2010. A simplified model of all these interlinking authorities is shown in Fig.1.2016-10-no1-political_system_of_the_european_union-svg

Organisational Chart © wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutions_of_the_European_Union (2016)

Nonetheless, despite the formalities, on many issues it’s the leading politicians of the dominant sovereign states who make the real running. They meet in their own conclaves. The German Chancellor and the French President (from the two big countries at the core of the alliance) confer frequently. And in late August 2016 they met with the Italian Prime Minister at Ventotene, near Naples, for a trilateral mini-summit, in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote.7 Immediately after that, the German Chancellor made diplomatic visits to Tallinn, Prague, and Warsaw, before returning to Germany to host individually the leaders of seven more EU states, as well as, no doubt, telephoning all the others. In other words, the uncrowned EU President is (currently) Angela Merkel – a role that she and her successors are likely to retain as long as German economic dominance within the EU is particularly upheld by the workings of the Euro currency union.

Where does all that leave the European Parliament? It is by no means democratically supreme. It does approve (or reject) the nominee for the post of European Commissioner, although it does not on its own authority choose a government or run an executive. Its budget-setting and law-making powers are also shared with the Council of the European Union, whilst proposals for new laws come from the Commissioners. But the Parliament does have a President (currently Germany’s Martin Schulz), further signalling the EU’s love of presidential titles.tusk-juncker-schulz

Europe’s Presidents – Official and Unofficial:
Above (L) Donald Tusk, President of the Council of the European Union
(Centre) Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission
(R) Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament
Below: Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, Europe’s unofficial linchpin.

It’s hard not to consider the European Parliament as anything more than a democratic fig-leaf, although it has been given more powers in recent years. The institution was invented late in the European project (in 1979) to redress the lack of popular input. Its 751 members (MEPs), representing in aggregate (in 2009) a potential electorate of 375 million people, have the legitimacy of a direct European-wide mandate.8 In EU parlance, they constitute the ‘first institution’ and take ceremonial precedence. Yet this democratic mechanism was added onto existing structures, rather than gaining anything like paramount authority.

Hence, if the Euro-Parliament voted (say) to assume full taxative and legislative powers, to abolish the EU’s Council, and to choose the Commissioners from its own short-list, there would be an immediate crisis. Fierce objections would come not only from EU officialdom but also from the national parliaments/governments of the 28 member countries. Who really represents the people of Europe?

A notable weakness in the current arrangements is the lack of synchronisation and answerability between the national parliaments and the quasi-federal European Parliament. Were there to be a direct conflict, the sovereign states would always win. True, their parliaments are not always heeded between elections, but eventually their electorates can vote Europe’s politicians out of office. And, from time to time, they do just that. It would therefore make more sense to align the national and European Parliaments by inviting each national institution to send a politically representative cross-section of its MPs to act also as MEPs. That arrangement already governs the relationship between the 47 sovereign states in the Council of Europe (reminder: not to be confused with the EU’s two Councils) and the Council of Europe’s own Parliamentary Assembly (not to be confused with the European Parliament).9

So far, it’s been impressive how the European Union has not only held together but also expanded to the east. The fertility of ideas and the institutional inventiveness on the part of the Euro-enthusiasts has been similarly remarkable. It’s also heartening that there is still much goodwill towards the ideal of European cooperation, although it’s far from universally shared. Nonetheless, it’s time now for some fresh inventiveness – plus a willingness to abolish outmoded institutions, costs, and overlaps – to reconnect the EU with the national parliaments and their electorates. Getting the political and constitutional structures right is the best first step towards the difficult task of getting everything else right too.

1 They include (since July 2013): Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

2 They include (currently): Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

3 The EU also has a separate European Investment Bank, covering a wider range of countries.

4 See e.g. J.E. Stiglitz, The Euro and its Threat to the Future of Europe (2016).

5 See, for the EU’s institutions, the European Union’s own website https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies_en; and, for a severe critique of its constitution and policies, J.R. Gillingham, The EU: An Obituary (2016).

6 P.J.C., ‘Britain and Mainland Europe Viewed Long: From Concert of Europe to the Council of Europe’, BLOG/69 (Sept. 2016).

7 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/21/ventotene-summit

8 See R. Scully, Becoming European? Attitudes, Behaviour, and Socialisation in the European Parliament (2005); and many tracts urging reforms, such as P. Schmitter, How to Democratise the EU … And Why Bother? (2000).

9 See P.J.C., ‘Britain and Mainland Europe’, as above n.6.

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Referenda seek to answer big questions with big answers: let the people speak. But they also constrain voters. They are called upon to choose between simple either/or alternatives. In practice, however, referenda are not always easy to answer. There are plenty of cases when many would reply: yes to the proposition, in this or that given set of circumstances; but no, in the event of another set of circumstances. And there is no scope (other than spoiling the ballot paper) for those who would reply to the options: neither of the above. In other words, referenda are unsubtle.

2017-08 No1 Adams Telegraph_cartoon

Fig.1 Daily Telegraph cartoon © Christian Adams (2015), satirising the Greek Bailout Referendum (2015) as a desperate choice between two equally disastrous options: either Scylla, the ravenous monster, or Charybdis, the fatal whirlpool.

The art of governance entails much more than answering a sequence of binary questions: yes/no. The complex arts of politics, balancing, assessing and deciding between often conflicting requirements, are still required.

For that reason, there are good, practical reasons for avoiding too many referenda; and, when they are deemed necessary, for ensuring that choices are posed with reference to one big clear issue, which, if it is to be accepted, requires the whole-hearted support of the people.

A fine example of good referendum-politics was seen in the twin referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in May 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement. In the Six Counties, the electorate was asked whether it wished to approve the deal brokered by the multi-party talks, envisaging a power-sharing executive. In a large turnout of almost a million voters, 71.1% voted in favour and 28.9% against. Simultaneously, the electorate in the Republic was asked whether it approved the British-Irish agreement, which entailed amending the Republic’s 1937 constitution to end its ‘territorial claim’ to the North. The turnout in this referendum (56% of the electorate) was much less emphatic. But the result was completely decisive: 94.39% voted yes; 5.61% no.1 That outcome still left scope for the potential reunification of Ireland, at some future date. The amended clauses express such a policy objective, but subject to consent on all sides. In other words, the victory was one for due political process, as opposed to civil war. It was a triumph for democracy, across two neighbouring countries with a shared and complicated history.

By contrast, the State of California has a long tradition of voting on ‘People’s Propositions’ which, if passed, add new and permanent clauses into the state constitution. These plebiscites enact a form of direct democracy, which functions alongside representative democracy, but not always with complete ease.

One obvious problem is what happens if two Propositions are both passed in the same year but directly contradict one another? The answer is that the referendum with the highest number (not proportion) of affirmative votes takes precedence and the other falls. But what happens if two Propositions are passed on different occasions, but still contradict or work against each other? That difficulty remains an unresolved problem.

Currently, the California state legislature has to work not only in the light of Proposition 13 (passed in 1978) which puts inflexible limits2 upon the amount of direct taxation raised upon real estate; but also with Proposition 98 (passed in 1988) which mandates specific percentages of the state budget to be spent on education. The result is that California’s politicians face severe constitutional constraints upon their budgetary flexibility. In effect, the politicians elected by today’s voters are being overruled by prior decisions made by voters a generation earlier.3 A democrat could well argue that levels of taxation and state expenditure are not constitutional fundamentals but matters of day-to-day, year-to-year politics.

Yet who is to decide what should or should not become a fundamental, unchangeable rule? If the people have solemnly so decreed, they have so decreed, unless there is some mechanism for constitutional review or updating.

Another case from California illustrates a different problem. Difficulties have followed from the ramifications of Proposition 65 (1986), which protects drinking water, and consumer products in California generally, from toxic chemicals, via a mandatory warning system. It has the beneficial effect of raising both consumer and business awareness of environmental hazards. Hard to object.

At the same time, however, the mandated system of enforcement was left deliberately open to private citizens as well as to state officials. As a result, it has opened the way to ‘bounty-hunting’ litigation, undertaken, so it is claimed, by private attorneys who prosecute any Californian businesses, which may not have listed every possible toxic element. All fees won go to the law firms, without any gain to the state’s citizens. To safeguard themselves, many businesses resort to vague general warnings, which spread alarm without providing any practical help. Here the problem is not the good intentions of the Proposition, but the mandated nature of its regulatory system.4 It deprives the state legislature of the chance to monitor its working and to adapt its procedures, if need be. Some management reforms to this Proposition were introduced by a consensus bill in the California Assembly in 2013; but further reforms, apparently being discussed by Governor Jerry Brown, have yet to materialise. There seems to be an impasse.

So what follows? For me, one immediate lesson is that the high status of a constitutional rule is such that a referendum to impose or change one should not be lightly used. Effectively, such plebiscites overrule and outrank ordinary democratic processes. In exceptional circumstances, such as in Ireland in 1998, that worked supremely well. But, at other times, it may produce conflicting answers, between the one-off verdict in a referendum and the iterative processes of daily politics, which are required to apply referendum results in practice. (As a result, there’s a possibility of eventual ‘Leave’ disillusionment after the Brexit vote in June 2016, which, when matched by continuing ‘Remain’ disappointment, will give the British electorate the worst of both options).

Secondly, there’s a good case for developing a set of conventions to regulate when and how such processes happen. Britain’s uncodified constitution benefits from its flexibility and openness to the exercise of British empiricism. Yet it can also lead to muddle, incoherence and a potential risk to fundamental principles.5 So there’s a good case for a constitutional pre-agreement between all parties about the whys and wherefores of these big popular inputs into the political system. Obviously, referenda need to be subject to clear and fair rules. They should decide on principles, and not upon administrative details and enforcement. Ideally, too, they should be accompanied by equally thorough documentation of the case for and against the proposition (provided by an independent constitutional commission), so that the electorate is not deciding in the dark. And there’s a good case for pre-agreeing the required percentage majority on a sliding scale (the greater the change the larger the proportion required?) before a decision becomes constitutionally final. Otherwise, referenda which are inconclusively close become symptoms of deep-rooted divisions – and not the answer. They tend to bring politics and politicians further into disrepute. That’s not good for democracy, especially when the outcome appears to pit different regions against one another.

Lastly, there’s much to be said for pre-agreeing the valid circumstances in which big constitutional referenda are to be held. They don’t work very well as tools of day-to-day politics. That way, there’s too much of a risk that the electorate will vote in response to the popularity or otherwise of the government of the day. Indeed, if politicians call referenda for immediate political reasons, it’s logical for the electorate to respond similarly. On the other hand, there’s an excellent case for testing major constitutional changes in the form of government – whether proposed as a matter of internal policy or in an overseas treaty with constitutional implications – by an immediate popular referendum. Not years after the event. But at the time. The twin 1998 referenda on the Good Friday Agreement showed how the deed can be done, and done well. Referenda viewed long? Yes; no; and maybe, in a fitting context.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Friday_Agreement#Referendums

2 That limit remains one percent of the full cash value of the property, and the Proposition, part of the so-called Taxpayers’ revolt of the late 1970s, also contained clauses requiring two-thirds majority votes in both Houses of the Californian state legislature for any future increases in rates of state tax on income, sales or property.

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_ballot_proposition

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_65_(1986)

5 See I. McLean, What’s Wrong with the British Constitution? (Oxford, 2010)

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