Monday, 2 May 2011

The Constitution of 2 May

It's a strange type of public holiday even in Poland. It's a mandatory leisure day off for most, with shops closed, but there's no sense of celebration or focus to it. However, what do I know about the Polish Constitution of 2 May?

Most of my knowledge of Polish history has been picked up as background to researching Młochów history. The local Sobieski family were bigwigs in the parliament at the time, but I was not particularly focusing on the constitution. My knowledge is therefore sketchy and much of what I recall may therefore be inaccurate. I have not checked any of the facts or name spellings when writing this - the idea is write what I remember. Here it is.

The importance of the Constitution comes from it being the second written constitution, at least in modern times, following the US Constitution. It is therefore the first Old World (European) example. Although it borrowed some principles from the US, it was in many ways different and was itself used in the drawing up of at least one other constitution. The fundamental difference between the US and Poland seems likely to have been that Poland had to deal with its existing nobility structure and its relationship with the King, neither of which were appropriate for the US (I think).

The most fundamental issue dealt with by the new constitution was the change away from a voting system requiring unanimity in decision taking among the noble representatives in the Parliament, to one of majority voting. The unanimity requirement was seen by its supporters as an outdated way of blocking decision taking, needing to be replaced by a system that could provide effective government. I don't know whether or to what extent this was simple majority voting (51% wins). I think there was a reduction in the regularity with which the King had to consult the Parliament (from 6 months to 3 months or something like that), amongst other changes. However, all such elements are very hazy and may be completely wrong. I also think that the parliament which established these changes was called The Great Parliament, although The Long Parliament might be a more descriptive title.

The Polish King (Poniatowski?) never fully implemented the constitution, although I don't know what elements were kept in abeyance. The most remembered result of the new, more efficient majority voting system was the decision by Parliament to approve the partition of Poland, with the Kingship of the remaining territory of the Kingdom of Poland being handed as a hereditary position to the Tsar of Russia. His formal title was extended to include 'King of the Commonwealth of Poland'. I'm again a bit vague on these details. One of the opponents of majority voting dramatically screamed "over my dead body" when the vote was being taken, earning himself the position of modern Polish hero and a subject of Polish painters, whilst failing to make any difference. One of the elite Polish colleges bears his name, whatever it is.

The Tsar said/implied/was thought to have agreed to abide by the Constitution, but didn't. A new constitution was offered, but this didn't materialise either and Poland became a country where the King was all-powerful, subject to whatever practical pressures he could not deal with by punishment or execution. Since this King was also Tsar of (all the?) Russia(s), etc - a three line list or something like that - the political influence of the nobles in Poland rapidly declined. Even Grand Duke Constantine the First, later acting as Crown Prince of Poland and intermediate Polish head of state, had little influence on its fate, although sympathetic to the Polish nobility.

The Constitution of 2 May is a minor and slightly depressing footnote in Polish political history. However, its celebration is, I assume, because of its place in the evolution of political thought. I have no idea where it stands in this regard. Indeed, the very little I know suggests that, apart from it being written down, it was just part of the logical evolutionary flow within the contemporary Polish political system.

What is far more fascinating is the system that pre-dated it. I am used to political change starting from all-powerful monarchs established through a combination of historical precedent/divine right/inheritance/military power. Power then moved from the monarch to the nobility and/or rich; eventually being spread among people more generally. Exceptions are generally revolutionary, reflecting failure of the leadership structure of the time to adapt to wider tendencies. The Polish system of nobles not only freely choosing their Monarch, but also deciding that a foreigner would be better, cuts right across the political principles that I was used to.

When asking about choosing foreign kings, I have been told that "they were probably better than choosing between Polish nobles", which is completely logical, but which contradicts my traditional concept of national identity. This may just be my ignorance, but I'm pleased to have that challenged. Deciding to have a Russian Tsar as King under the 2 May Constitution is not as bizarre as it initially seems.

In honour of another celebration over the last few days, one of the ways of looking at this different political perspective is to consider it as a balance between ego-nationalism and collective nationalism - I have made up both terms, so there may be better descriptions.

Ego-nationalism is a perspective where the country is virtually a living entity, which in times of powerful kings/leaders is often closely related to that person, for good or bad: Elizabeth I, Louis XIV or was it XVI or both, Napoleon, Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein, US Presidents, etc. Poland appears to have a more collective approach, where the nation/country is the sum of its people (however either of those two are defined). Historic figures are remembered for events and normally appear to be semi-mythical and legendary figures.

One might have expected this to change somewhat over the last century, as nation and country have become more closely aligned, but even Piłsudski is not viewed as an embodiment of Poland. Lech Wałęsa seems to have come closest, but even this has faded for the moment. Lech Kaczinski was proposed, but it was only his death, not his life, that provided any unity of focus, so it has not been accepted. Jaruzelski would be such a person - characterisation of an ego-Poland, but he is a denial of the real, collective Poland: an ego-anti-Poland.

However, there is one clear ego-representation: John Paul II. He did not rule here in any sense and his ultimate role was as leader of an international organisation, the Roman Catholic Church. He combines the role of being both an individual member of the collective of the Polish people and an ego-reflection of that collective - a very special person. That he was the first Pope chosen from outside the elite in Rome for 200 hundred years, or whatever, provides an interesting parallel with his home country, which had once thought it natural to choose a foreign king.


Anonymous said...

You do realize it was the 3rd May constitution ?

Pan Steeva said...

I checked immediately after writing the text, but thought my ignorance was better displayed by leaving the wrong date.