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The Oak and the British Constitution

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Image: Maurice van der Velden

For centuries much of Britain was an oak wood. The black ink used in Magna Carta was made with oak ‘apples’. Robin Hood’s greenwood tree was an oak. In the 16th century Robert Kett dispensed justice while sitting under an oak tree – he returned common land to dispossessed farmers. In the 17th century Charles II hid in an oak tree to escape capture by the Ironside Army. In Connecticut, in 1639, British settlers met under an oak tree and decided to govern themselves with the words, “The foundation of authority is in the free consent of the people.” When James II’s Royal Governor tried to destroy their covenant in 1687, Joseph Wadsworth hid the charter in an oak, thereafter called the ‘Charter Oak’. In the 18th century, William Grenville, William Wilberforce, and Prime Minister William Pitt pledged to begin a campaign to abolish the slave trade while talking under an English oak.

Houses and barns and furniture and church quires and the Globe Theatre were built of oak. The angled branches of the English oak, Quercus robur, “gave the shipwright the hugely powerful brackets and angle-pieces that held a 74-gun ship together as she blundered through the troughs on her way into the line” (Hugh Johnson, The International Book of Trees). The ships that fought the Spanish Armada and the ships that fought the Battle of Trafalgar were built of oak. ‘Heart of Oak’ came naturally to the lips of David Garrick and the Royal Navy.

You understand that a political constitution arranges things – the way that people relate to government and the way that government relates to them; the way parts of government relate to each other; and the way individuals relate to each other. A constitution may be bad or good, written or unwritten.

Like those English oaks whose lives spanned 800 years, the British Constitution grew to span the centuries, and as it did, it grew organically. Like the oak, the British Constitution was able to grow in strength and expand in size while retaining its shape.

That it was able to do this was due to the genius of a people willing to experiment and evolve ideas. There may even have been a connection between their growing interest in scientific experimentation and their experiments with government.

Interestingly, one of the most valuable structural ideas of the British Constitution reflects the natural structure of the oak. Like the oak, the British Constitution started with a distinct main stem, but early in its life its three main branches – the sovereign, parliament, and the courts - began sharing dominance. That way all the branches can reach the light, the tree can stand upright without toppling over, and the maximum leaf-area is exposed. This sharing of dominance – this balancing and curbing of powers - is crucial to representative government.

Just as it is possible to overlook the British Constitution or, astoundingly, declare it does not exist or has not been written down, it is possible to ignore the oak. Oaks feed in a process so tediously explained in school I thought it humdrum a mere leaf could create food out of air and light. To provide the necessary water, the oak pulls hundreds of gallons of sap up inside its trunk. The fountain of life goes up, an unbroken column of water carrying minerals and water through the sapwood and up to the leaves, a quarter of a million leaves on one big oak, then goes back down, diminished by evaporation but rich with sugars, traveling through the wood just inside the bark, while reserve supplies move across the tree to feed the body through cells called rays.

Inside the trunk, in the inner bark, the cambium creates all the oak’s new wood - the tough, exterior bark, which looks rough and carved, and the softer, inner bark through which the sap travels. I did not see it, of course. The cambium is just one cell thick, almost invisible, thinner than mist. Nor can I explain the force that pulls the fountain of water up. It remains a mystery. It has been measured, but not explained.

Bi-sexual, the oak provides for future generations with its male and female sex organs – thousands of small, stiff, yellow batons sticking up among the young new leaves and the softer sprays of the female flowers. A well-evolved tree, it avoids genetically limiting self-conception - its pollen doesn't ripen at the same time as its ovules. When the rough winds of May blow, the ripe male pollen is carried away to fertilize the ripe ovules of other oaks. A commodious commonwealth, the oak shelters and gives life to owls, goshawks, woodpeckers, jays, deer, squirrels, foxes, and as many as 284 different species of insects.

In describing these aspects of the oak, which may have escaped you, and certainly escaped me, I am trying to say that there is much that has been overlooked in the British Constitution – including its very existence – by people who have never really looked at it with interest or affection.

We've written about the Constitution here. We hope to write more.

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