Friday, November 20, 2015

The Immutability Of Institutions

Institution. The word implies permanence and authority. The Parliament of Great Britain, later and now the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is one such. It's over 300 years old. It is a word that attaches itself to the non-political as well. Around 70 years after the establishment of Parliament, "The Times" was founded. Longevity and the authority of its words have afforded it institutional status. Sporting bodies are institutions. The Marylebone Cricket Club emerged at the same time as "The Times". Its authority is such that it still clings to being the keeper of the Laws of Cricket. It is a word that also has anthropomorphism. Individuals become institutions, sometimes described as national treasures. Longevity is at play here as well, as is often a touch of gravitas. Known for his comedy, Stephen Fry nonetheless has gravitas derived from being all-knowing and a polymath.

Institutions imply immutability. They don't change. And yet, they do change. Parliament at one time expanded to accommodate Ireland. More recently, it might have undergone fundamental change by losing part of Great Britain. It might yet lose it. "The Times", the first newspaper in the world to bear the name, took the bold step of not devoting its front page to small ads in 1966. It was an institution moving with the times, albeit belatedly. The MCC ceased to be the governing body of English and global cricket when its authority passed to the (then) Test and County Cricket Board and the International Cricket Council. A few years later, women were allowed to become members. The individuals as institutions constantly evolve. Fry is no longer one half of Fry and Laurie or of a cameo in "The Young Ones". One day he'll no longer be with us. Institutions die.

On Tuesday, I attended a discussion in Puerto Pollensa regarding the effects of a UK withdrawal from the European Union that had been organised by Europeos por España. The discussion drew few firm conclusions. Speculation dominates the debate. There is no institutional rule book that governs withdrawal. It has yet to be written.

The EU is an institution that has evolved from its early years as the European Coal and Steel Community. It has been constantly changing, acquiring authority. Yet for all this, it lacks longevity, just as it lacks an element of affection that applies to the national treasure institutions. Its authority is now predicated upon its size and the institutions within it, but its lack of longevity is what should make it susceptible to more radical change than normally occurs with institutions. Could those who signed up to the Single European Act and then Maastricht have been fully aware of how the EU would evolve?

What this act and treaty did was to introduce flexibility in terms of, for instance, freedom of movement but at the same time they limited flexibility. Rules applied to all, an apparently essential facet of any governing institution, but one that is nevertheless debatable. And is debatable in the UK. The EU has been an institution that has evolved via experimentation, as there was no obvious benchmark to guide its development. Institutions, despite being democratic, can't wholly abide dissent that loosens authority, but they should and they must accept this. Otherwise, their authority is in any event weakened through an unwillingness to countenance change. The UK should be granted flexibility. This way, the institution is strengthened, not weakened.

Clinging to authority and power regardless ultimately leads to a form of despotism. The institution is immutable because a powerful cadre insists that this is so. And where does this lead to? The MCC gave up its power. It was a nonsense that a members' club in St. John's Wood should maintain it, especially in the post-Packer era. The power was released to the ICC, an institution not above suspicion but not, as yet, subject to the implosions within FIFA and the IAAF.

FIFA is, in a sense, not dissimilar to the EU. It has evolved from moderate beginnings into a global power, but it has come at a price: that of quasi-despotism and being unloved in many quarters. And now, the demands are for change and for accountability and transparency. Institutions, as a rule, don't care greatly for any of these.

There is a further institution which, in its democratic era, does not have longevity. The authority of the Spanish state, contained in the Constitution, is considered immutable. But the recency of its drafting is what makes it, or should make it, subject to amendment. At the same time as Podemos, Ciudadanos and others have been effecting a shift in mentality towards transparency, Catalonia (some of it) is desirous of change. Flexibility, if this is what the people of Catalonia truly want, should be applied through a harmonious agreement that would strengthen links with the Spanish nation. Nothing should be immutable.

No comments: