There is no reason in theory why the current relationships between legislature, courts and executive government should not continue indefinitely. The tensions between the component elements of the state have never in three centuries reached the point of fracture; indeed, because each element depends on the others, there is a governing incentive not to let this happen. If such à balance were to be upset, it would almost certainly be from outside: at its crudest, by a coup; at its most insidious, by the absorption first of government and Parliament and then of the judiciary by an initially legitimate but unscrupulous political force. In constitutional terms this was the story both of the Soviet Union and of prewar Germany: the turning-point in each case was the collapse of freestanding political, administrative and judicial institutions into a unitary state machine controlled by a single party. No prescriptive document can stem such a tide: the Nazis simply swept the Weimar Constitution aside, while Stalin's 1936 Constitution was a living lie. But democracy is not like an electric light, either on or off: it can flourish, or it can be cramped and distorted. Its ability to thrive is more often a question of degree than of kind.
LRB 5 June 1997 | PDF Download