THE British state was forged in violence. Between the accession of Charles I in 1625 and the end of the Jacobite wars in 1746 these islands were subjected to civil wars, armed rebellions, foreign invasions, palace coups, military rule and the brutal repression of religious minorities. To be on the losing side of the great political battles of the day was to lose one’s lands, titles, freedom and possibly one’s head.

Such life-and-death struggles exact a terrible toll on any society. Once that toll becomes unbearable, the merits of “jaw, jaw” begin to outweigh those of “war, war”.

Even the most intransigent people inevitably turn, when bloodshed has exhausted them and all else has failed, to compromise and reconciliation.

So it was that the “Hanoverian settlement” was eventually reached between all the then-relevant institutional, political and social groups: between king and parliament, Lords and Commons, city and country, church and state, Anglicans, Presbyterians and dissenters, Tory and Whig, Scotland and England.

Although it remained somewhat loosely defined and was never put into the form of a modern written constitution, this settlement could be described as at least “proto-constitutional” because it answered questions – about the form of the state, the rights of the people, and the principles and institutions of governance – that were constitutional in nature.

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One of these principles was that political disputes would be settled in Parliament, not on the battlefield. Heads would be counted, not broken.

Opposition to the Government, so long as everyone stayed within the broad lines defined by that constitutional settlement, was to be tolerated. This was a remarkable innovation in the global history of political systems.

In most of the world’s political regimes up to that time, those who opposed the people in power – not only publicly disagreeing with them, but actively seeking to remove them from office and to replace them – would have been treated as traitors and enemies of the state.

They would have been killed, exiled or imprisoned.

In Hanoverian Britain, they were recognized as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Losers in the contest for power would be deprived of ministerial office, but would not be deprived of their life, liberty or property.

The opposition was more than tolerated; it was valued. Opposition came to play an important role in the proper functioning of the political system as a whole.

By scrutinising the Government, holding it to account, asking probing questions and forcing those in office to justify and explain their actions, the opposition can help the Government avoid mistakes, correct abuses and right wrongs.

Sometimes opposition is bitter and implacable. At other times, it is helpful and constructive. Despite all that is said, governments are often sensitive to public opinion and will sometimes accept amendments to legislation proposed by the opposition, especially if they sense that the important elements of the electorate are on the opposition’s side.

Either way, the sparring thrust-and-parry relationship between government and opposition is right at the core of parliamentary democracy as we know it.

The Government can lead – set the agenda, make policy and shape legislation – but it can do so only under the constant gaze of an opposition that is free to criticize, scrutinize, suggest amendments, argue their corner, present alternatives and ultimately confront the Government at the next General Election.

Many British-derived written constitutions give explicit constitutional recognition to the opposition.

In Grenada, for example, the leader of the opposition nominates two of the five members of the Constituency Boundaries Commission. In Jamaica, the leader of the opposition must be consulted before appointing the chief justice, the president of the court of appeal, the director of public prosecutions and the members of the public service commission.

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The constitution of Trinidad and Tobago specifically includes the rule, widely respected across the Commonwealth, that the chair of the public accounts committee must be from the opposition.

The Scotland Act 1999 did not make provision for a leader of the opposition in Scotland. This was an unfortunate omission, which should be rectified in a future written constitution for Scotland. Protecting the opposition – giving it a clear role and adequate powers – promotes the well-being of the political system as a whole.

An effective opposition cannot be passive or reactive. It has to set out a coherent alternative agenda that will appeal to the public and win. It has to demonstrate competence and credibility. To be electable, it has to want to govern, and to govern better. An opposition will only be taken seriously when it poses a real electoral threat to government.

I see none of that in the opposition at Holyrood. Instead of seeking to govern Scotland better, they want to let someone else – Westminster – govern Scotland on their behalf.

For this they are handsomely rewarded with plush ermine robes and membership for life of what has been described as the “best club in London”.

This column welcomes questions from readers. Don’t miss the TNT show at 7pm, on Wednesday, August 26, when The Nation Talks To Michael Gray