Monthly Archives: September 2018

What were the Articles of Confederation and why did they fail?

The Articles of Confederation were the first attempt at a Constitution between the 13 colonies that had broken away from Great Britain.


The Articles of Confederation were agreed by the Continental Congress and ratified by the states.

The Articles of Confederation began to be drafted at the same time as the Declaration of Independence.  The Thirteen Colonies (now called States) were already beginning to consider their joint future in anticipation of winning the American Revolutionary War. The Articles of Confederation were approved by the States in July 1777, one year after the Declaration of Independence.

The Government was a deliberately loose confederation between the thirteen states. Each state would retain its own sovereignty. Some of the particular elements of the Confederation were:

  • Citizens were allowed to move freely between each of the thirteen states.
  • A Congress of Confederation would be established in which each State had one vote and would send a delegation of between two and seven members.
  • The Congress of Confederation would be the final court for any disputes between the States.
  • A President of Congress may be appointed.
  • The Central Government would have responsibility for Foreign Policy and the Congress of Confederation was the only institution that could declare war. The individual states would not be able to have their unilateral relations with other countries.
  • National expenditure would be paid with funds given to the national government by the States.

Provision was made for Canada to join the United States, however, it remained part of the British Empire until 1867.

Interestingly, in addition to these main clauses, provision was made for Canada to join the confederation if it wanted to.

The framers of the Articles of Confederation were trying to strike a careful balance between the autonomy of individual states and creating a Ccnfederation that could sustain the United States given the external threats that it faced.

However, the Articles of Confederation only lasted seven years. There were a number of reasons for this:

  •  The national government had no power to raise taxes. This was deliberate, as a key reason for the American Revolution were disputes over taxation. To pay for its operation the government had to request money from the states, however, often the states did not want to pay.
  •  Without a secure tax-base the national government was unable to borrow money from abroad. This was because foreign governments believed there was a chance it might not be repaid.
  •  Without a secure tax-base the currency of the confederation (‘the continental’) was largely worthless. The individual states retained their own currencies and national currency never became established.
  •  The central government could not impose tariffs on goods. This meant that it was often cheaper for the states to import goods from abroad than to trade with other states.
  • Major decisions, like passing legislation, needed the agreement of nine of the thirteen states. This was a very hard hurdle to overcome, particularly when the states were so diverse and had their own interests to  protect.
  •  Amending the Articles of Confederation needed the unanimous agreement of the States. This was an almost impossible thing to achieve.


    Shay’s Rebellion was a trigger for a constitutional convention.

The problems faced under the articles came to a head in 1786 when a rebellion known as ‘Shay’s Rebellion’ was launched in Massachusetts. This event was a trigger for the constitutional convention which was convened to amend the Articles of Confederation, but instead framed the US Constitution instead.

The Articles of Confederation were undoubtedly a failure. However, they played an important role in the birth of the United States of America. The Framers of the US Constitution learned some key lessons from the Articles of Confederation:

  1. The US Constitution achieved a better balance of power between the Federal Government and the States. Sovereignty was shared between the States and National Government meaning that they provided a check on each other.
  2. The US Constitution, through the Supreme Court, provided for an independent way to solve government disputes and particularly those between the States and the Federal Government.
  3. The US Constitution created an executive to enforce the Constitution. This has not existed under the Articles of Confederation which had relied on the goodwill of the States.
  4. The system of Checks and Balances made people feel there was real control over the different parts of Government.

In essence, without the Articles of Confederation, the US Constitution would not exist as it does today.

Was last week the worst of Trump’s Presidency?

It has been an awful press week for Donald Trump. On Monday, a new book was published by Bob Woodward called Fear: Trump in the White House. This book claims to feature a number of sources close to the President outlining the chaos and disunity at the heart of Trump’s administration. Among other things it says:

  • Aides have hid government papers from the President to “protect the country”.
  • Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly, described the President as “unhinged” and it said it was the worst job he had ever had.
  • Trump failed a practice interview with the US Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, and would have perjured himself if the interview were real.
These are startling revelations of the dysfunctionality of the Trump White House and the lack of faith that Trump’s staff, including his closest advisors, have in his leadership.
The usual defensive manoeuvre of Trump is to go immediately on the attack. His first salvo is usually to attack the credibility of the person commenting on or criticising him. True to form, he did this on Twitter:

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However, it is difficult to attack a journalist with the credentials that Bob Woodward has. Alongside Carl Bernstein it was Woodward who exposed the Watergate Affair in the 1970s, an event that would eventually see the downfall of President Nixon.
Importantly, Woodward has written books about numerous Presidents, both Republican and Democrat. Trump’s suggestion that Woodward is a Democratic operative does not stick when some of Woodward’s harshest criticisms have been directed towards Democratic Presidents, like Bill Clinton.

Woodward's books

Some of Woodward’s previous books that have been critical of both Democratic and Republican Presidents.

Trump has become used to criticism from the press. Every time he brandishes any form of criticism as “fake news”, the media form an ever more united front. Trump’s supporters rally against the media in response. This book from Woodward is different. Woodward is journalistic royalty. He does not tweet regularly, he does not do salacious gossip, his work is research based and he is broadly admired and respected as the epitome of what American journalism should be. Trump cannot win a war of credibility with Bob Woodward.

Things got even worse for Trump on Wednesday when an anonymous White House Senior Official wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. In the article it started by saying:
“ President Trump is facing a threat to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader. It’s not just that the special counsel looms large. Or that the country is bitterly divided over Mr. Trump’s leadership. Or even that his party might well lose the House to an opposition hellbent on his downfall. The dilemma – which he does not fully grasp – is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations”
Particular points made in the article are that:

  • The President acts in a “manner that is detrimental to the health of the republic”
  • The root of the problems are due to the President’s “amorality”
  • Trump’s “impulses are generally anti-democratic”
  • Members of the Cabinet have whispered about invoking they 25th Amendment, one of the few mechanisms through which a President can be removed from office.
The article is truly extraordinary. Of course, attention has turned to who could be behind the article. There are even suggestions that the author could be Vice-President, Mike Pence. This suggestion is due to the use of the unusual word “lodestar” in the article, a word that it is known that Pence uses frequently. In any normal circumstances it would be inconceivable that a Vice-President would write such an article about a sitting President. However, these are not normal circumstances. Donald Trump’s administration is unique.
The atmosphere in the West Wing is consistently described as toxic. Since becoming President, Donald Trump has lost 35 of his Senior Staff, as illustrated by this graphic:

White House

Correct at March 2018. Red = Departed. Black = Still in place. Credit to Full Article –

The pressure is already growing on Trump. If the Democrats can flip the House of Representatives in the November Mid-Terms, it will become worse.

What is the Rule of Law and why is it an important principle of the UK Constitution?

Along with Parliamentary Sovereignty, the Victorian constitutional scholar A.V Dicey called the Rule of Law one of the ‘twin pillars of the UK constitution’. By this, he meant it was one of the things that was fundamental in making the UK constitution what it is.

The concept of the rule of law is an ancient one. It refers to a society in which bodies of law govern how society is run. It has since been fundamental to any functioning state, all of which are governed by the rule of law. However, in modern liberal democracies, like that in Britain, it has taken a more defined meaning.

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How much Direct Democracy is there in the UK?

Direct Democracy refers to a system whereby citizens decide directly on political issues themselves. It is the system that was the backbone of ancient democracies, like that in the city state of Athens, but has now been overtaken by a representative democratic model.

Both Britain and the United States can clearly be identified as a representative democracy. However, there are areas where direct Democracy is still used and is arguably growing in importance. Today we will look at Britain, with an update on the United States in a couple of weeks time.

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Who were ‘The Framers’ and what did they frame?

US Con.jpg

With its evolutionary and organic nature, there is no person, or group of people, who can be attributed with founding the UK constitution. Although there are major events, like the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights, these were merely one among many building blocks of the constitution.

The reality in the United States is fundamentally different. The US Constitution is codified, with one document that forms the Fundamental Law of the United States. The formation of this document is down to 55 individuals, who are known as ‘The Framers’, because they framed the US Constitution.

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What is Liberal Democracy?

Athenian Demo
The term democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, literally meaning “rule by people”. The origins of democracy can be traced back to Ancient Anthens. Athenian Democracy was direct in its nature. It had two key features that defined its fundamental operation:


  1. Officials were randomly selected from amongst the citizens.
  2. A legislature that was made up of all citizens.
This meant that ‘rule by the people’ was quite literal. All eligible citizens (women were not included) could speak, debate and vote on the laws with governed them. This means that the democracy practiced in Ancient Anthens would be largely unrecognisable in western democracies today.

John Locke wrote ‘Two Treatises of Government’, which was his most famous work.

Liberalism is a political ideology which emerged at the end of the Age of Enlightenment. Liberalism sought to combat the entrenched conservatism in society that protected hereditary privileges of the few at the expense of the majority. Key proponents of Liberalism included John Locke and John Stuart Mill. To achieve their ideological goals, liberals supported democracy as the only legitimate system of government,as in a democracy, government comes from the consent of the governed.
Liberal Democracy is representative, rather than direct, in its nature. Representatives are chosen via elections to represent constituencies of citizens. This representation usually takes place under a ‘trustee model’. This means that constituents entrust their representatives to act on behalf of the constituency. As such, a representative will not always vote in the way that each individual in their constituency might want – but hopefully will act in a way that the majority, or plurality, of voters might hope. The Trustee Model was most famously summed up by Edmund Burke in 1774 when he spoke to his constituents in Bristol:
“[an MP] owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
There are a number of other features associated with Liberal Democracy, which would not have been recognised in Athenian Democracy:
  • The exsistence of a constitution in some form.
  • The exsistence of political parties.
  • The expectation of the protection of Civil and Human Rights.
  • Universal or comprehensive suffrage.
  • Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression.
  • Limited Government.
Hitler and Hindenburg

Weimar Germany is the most famous failure of a liberal democracy.

Creating a Liberal Democracy from scratch is extremely difficult, and often relies on a political culture that is fertile to its growth. This is why Liberal Democracies often grew out of a period of political discontent, notably in the French or American revolutions. The problems in building a liberal democracy were evident in Germany between 1918-1933 with the establishment of the Weimar Republic. On paper, it was one of the most progressive liberal democracies in the world. It had a universal voting system (10 years before all women got the vote in Britain) a federal system and a codified bill of rights. However, it lacked fundamental checks and balances that are essential to a limited government. For example, the Chancellor (Prime Minister) relied on the confidence of the President, not the elected Parliament, for his position. The authoritarian political culture in Germany also led to remnants of the old regime being left in the constitution that would later undermine it, for example the ability of the President to declare emergency powers, something that was later essential in Hitler’s consolidation of power.
Liberal Democracy is still the dominant system of government across the world, however it has been argued that it under threat from populism across the globe, notably in America. Yet, the very nature of liberal democracy makes them well-equipped to deal with existential threats. Seperation of powers, checks and balances, freedom of the press all serve to ensure that limited government remains – whilst the ultimate safeguard of liberal democracy is the people themselves with the power of their vote.