October 14th, 2008

The US presidential race is losing interest for pure election groupies – you can bet on the spread if you like but there’s no real tension. (For partisans it’s different; daily poll porn for the left, circular firing squads for the right. And for campaigners, there’s the grind of actually making it happen – sorry I can’ t help.) So take a look at the other election in Jersey – the original one, population about 100,000, and half of what’s left of Rollo’s and William’s Duchy of Normandy.

Jersy flag.png

The voting is tomorrow.

My brother is running for senator on a green/Third World platform. He has an outside chance in a year that’s trending left everywhere, because for senators Jersey is one multi-member constituency. He’d never get elected running for deputy or constable, which are single-member constituencies. The constable is head of the executive in a parish, a civil as well as a religious unit. But all three types of elected official – constables, deputies, and senators – sit in the single-chamber legislature, the States; which is presided over by the Bailiff, who is simultaneously the chief magistrate. Is that clear, children?

The States used to include the rectors of the 12 parishes and some jurats (good old boys), but in 1948 they were thrown out in a democratic mini-revolution and the senators created. Oh, and all the key technical terms are in old Norman French. If you want to be a lawyer in Jersey – and you really do, it’s a licence to print money – you have to study the Grand Coutumier Normand, the lawbook of the French ancien régime Parlement of Normandy.

Jersey, and its sister Bailiwick of Guernsey that includes the even more exotic fiefdom of Sark, are living constitutional museums. Their political institutions are still full of life and work as well as anything does, but look odd to a post-Enlightenment eye. They are still in some ways close to the early medieval curia regis. A twelfth-century royal court was a big tent in which the king brought together the most important stakeholders, the people who could obstruct his will: landowners, upper clergy, and later merchants, lawyers and officials. The royal reasoning was surely LBJ’s on J. Edgar Hoover : “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”. Gradually the functions of the court separated out into a judiciary, an administration, and a legislature, but with lots of overlap and links – a differentiation not a separation of powers. The development was always driven by practice not theory.

It’s pure myth that modern representative democracy descends from Athens: the chain was broken in the Hellenistic period, when Athens was swallowed up in a string of autocratic empires. The idea of democracy survived after a fashion, in the hostile accounts of Plato and Aristotle. These were SFIK pretty much ignored by mediaeval Muslims and Christians. The rediscovery of these highly theoretical treatises at the Renaissance had little political impact until the 18th century. The oligarchic representative scheme of the Roman Republic was kept on by Augustus as a largely ceremonial shell, and may have left lineal descendants in the city-states of Italy, but I wouldn’t bet on it – they were run much like the cities of Germany and Flanders which presumably had no Roman roots.

The true origin of parliamentary democracy lies in Western European feudalism. There is nothing particularly English about the model, which was initially more vigorous in Spain for one. The unique place of England in the story lies in the unusual survival of its parliament in the mass extinction of absolutism.

Long live the coelacanth! Vote for Daniel for senator! And vive la Reine, notre duc!

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