Life&Liberty Tales - Brussels bar

31/05/2010 at 02:26

The bullet-point theory of legislation and baking a cake

Tales from a Brussels bar
Baking a cake“Honestly, what is wrong with the EU constitution, apart from the thousand pages of it?”

It seemed I’d walked straight into a distinctly heavy conversation. Ordering a beer to fortify myself, I sought out a comfy seat.

It was Maj talking, of course. “A real constitution should be in bullet point form, like the US constitution,” he was saying. “That way it’s accessible to the most people.”

“Of course you still need the record,” he said, “the story of how the discussions arrived at a certain point. The Americans understand the importance of the record, to show how, in the various smoke-filled rooms, you arrived at a decision.”

“But that’s for the scholars and others who want to study the process,” he said. “The end result should be brief, so that people can understand the key points.”

“And it should be pragmatic.” Maj waved his finger in the air. “That’s the whole problem with Napoleonic law for example – it is anti-pragmatic – it seeks to be pre-emptive.”

I wondered if I could escape from the lecture without being rude. But as I began to slide out of my chair, Bernard the chef spoke up. “But this is a typical Anglo-Saxon view of the law,” he protested.

A gleam came into Maj’s eye; he’d been waiting for the objection. “Well,” he said, “if you believe in elites, if you believe that a few wise men can predict the fate of nations, then you can believe in Napoleonic law.”

Chef Bernard fumed. Steeped as he was in the French grand tradition, he wasn’t happy with the implied criticism of his culture. Yet it was Rochas, sitting quietly up to that point, who intervened next. “The thing you have to know,” he said gravely, “is that Napoleonic law is directly connected to the anarchy that came from the French revolution. After the chaos of that period, the drive was to find a way to make people behave in a civilised manner, which is how the prescriptive Napoleonic code came about.”

“If you look at some of the terrible things that occurred in that period of European history,” he said, “how whole societies were overturned and Europe thrown into disorder, then you can understand the desire among administrators for a prescriptive law that told people the right way to behave.”

“The interesting question,” he said, “is how England managed to resist both the revolution that happened in France, and the consequences that ensued.”

Chef Bernard, ever happy to find reasons for revolt, came up with a reply. “Perhaps,” he said, “it’s because England’s revolution came at an earlier period, at the time of the Magna Carta.” We fell silent, considering the new avenue of discussion that was opening up.

Maj, seeing his chance, seized hold of the moment. “And don’t forget that there was no middle class at that point – the merchants and traders didn’t have the power that they developed later. The Magna Carta was all about the nobles of the time saying no to an absolute ruler.”

“The people saying no to absolute power today would be the working class,” he continued. Some of us looked dubious at this point. I thought about the role played by students in protests from 1968 to the present day. But Maj was remorseless, “I come back to the importance of accessible legislation – and the bullet points! If people can understand and agree with the law, they won’t be revolting so often!”

I looked at Maj, had he really meant to say that? But Chef Bernard gave me no time to say anything. “So what is your conclusion from all this?” he asked. We waited expectantly.

Maj regarded his audience for a moment, then produced the card he’d been waiting to play. “It just goes to show the importance of the media,” he said. We groaned – this was an old refrain.

But Maj wasn’t to be stopped. “If you accept the pap served up by much of today’s media, then there’s no hope for the world.” He had his finger in the air again, “what we need are stories that really inform, that tell us something we didn’t know before.”

“There are journalists who do something worthwhile,” he went on. “They explain, they illuminate, they help society to decide its priorities, what is important and what is not.”

“But there are too many who cover only the process,” he said, “and too few who focus on the results.”

“I suppose it’s a little like in the kitchen,” responded Chef Bernard. We have two types of people – the process people who are happy to spend hours developing the method, and those who just want to deliver a result.”

“My point exactly,” said Maj. “It’s the same with legislation. Do you want a thousand pages of process, or do you just want to know the result? Most people only want the end-point!”

“Yes … I suppose …” Chef Bernard pondered further, “… the process people would serve you up a recipe … the results people would bake you a cake!”

We stared at him, intrigued by the simile. Even Maj was temporarily halted in his flow.

Chef Bernard scribbled madly in his notebook. He didn’t say why, but over his shoulder I caught a list of names, and the words “recipe” and “cake”. I felt for his staff who would encounter the theory the next day.

From the EU constitution to baking a cake was an interesting progression, I thought. Whether the result would be a lemon sponge or a fruit cake, however, was open to question.

Maj caught my eye at that moment. “It’s all in the mix,” he said with a twinkle. I laughed. So true, Maj, so true.

© Philip Hunt, 2010.

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