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From Our Practical Politics Blog

Hung, quartered and re-drawn: remaking the British Constitution

A hung parliament is the most likely result of the election. Rather than fight another election over the same ground or let a minority government struggle for every vote, Parliament should convene a national debate to renew our democracy from the ground up. If the major parties want to survive should prepare for a constitutional convention and take the people with them. Or event let the people lead.

Less than a quarter of voters are satisfied with the state of British democracy according to research by the University of Edinburgh published this week: 77% are dissatisfied, with little variation across the country. In Scotland this has led to a dramatic surge in support for the SNP, who could win up to 90% of Scottish seats in the British Parliament, 54 out of 59. In 1874 the Home Rule League won a majority of Irish seats and campaigned for a federal UK for 40 years before the Easter Uprising led to independence. This time the break-up of Britain will be much faster unless Parliament comes up with a better solution, and soon.

The best response to being hung and supported by less than a quarter of the electorate is to re-draw our constitution and renew democracy. This needs the kind of national debate provoked by the independence referendum in Scotland, in which citizens felt empowered and 85% voted. The referendum catalysed political engagement because people believed it mattered and they could make a difference. If the British parliament doesn’t engage the whole country in a new vision for Britain Scotland will leave England, England will leave Europe and we will be forced to write a new constitution anyway, for better or worse.

The most important thing about the Scottish referendum was the process. People had almost two years to discuss the issues, citizens themselves often led the debate, and academics provided independent in depth analysis which informed public opinion. Unlike the brief referendum campaign on the alternative vote in 2011, in which just 42% voted, or the North East regional assembly in 2004, when 49% voted, rejecting devolution by 78%, Scotland discussed the issues at length and in depth. Communities were most people never voted were engaged. Many people voted for independence because they had a positive vision for their country and wanted more say in its future, not because they wanted to break from England.

This general election does not inspire people to believe their vote will make much difference. People are not engaged and do not trust politicians, at least not the three main parties. The result will be a hung parliament, a minority government, or perhaps a government with a small minority by a fluke of electoral arithmetic. But whoever occupies 10 Downing St is likely to have a slender mandate, ruling by orders in council and executive authority without troubling Parliament with controversial legislation.

In this context Parliament would do well to start a proper debate about the constitution of this country – how it is run, who has power, and above all, want kind of country do we want to be. If neither the government nor Parliament launches such a debate, then civil society, local authorities and others should take the lead, as they for the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989. This outlined the structure of the Scottish Parliament established in 1999. Although some say the convention was unrepresentative, it led to more power being devolved to the Scottish people.

A constitutional convention for Britain

The Edinburgh research showed that almost half the UK population think that too little time has been spent on discussing how the country is governed following the Scottish referendum. About six out of ten people welcomed the idea of a constitutional convention and just fewer than 10% rejected it, with similar proportions in all regions and nations. Over 70% said they would be willing to contribute time to such a convention if asked to do so, and three quarters said they would be willing to contribute time to it.

These are significant findings. They should embolden Parliament to act.

People are already working on it. Three of the many useful resources for a constitutional convention are:

1. Constitution UK is a two year project started by the Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  It is crowdsourcing a written constitution for the UK at www.constitutionuk.com Here the public can post ideas, comments and vote up or down the ideas of others. They have set out ten topics – Head of State, The government, Parliament, Devolution, Local Government, Elections, International Relations, Rights and duties, Values and The Judiciary. The most popular ideas, as voted by the crowd, the public can refine them before the constitutional convention. To take part register on the website.

2. On Thursday 19 March the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons launched a valuable little document on the UK Constitution. It is a summary of a very long report on “A new Magna Carta?”, setting out three options for a future constitution. The committee wants people to respond by circulating The UK Constitution and the accompanying Survey Questionnaire , sending your comments to the Committee using pcrc@parliament.uk, and continuing the conversation on social media using #UKconstitution

3. The House of Lords Library has a useful briefing (20 March 2015, LLN 2015/008), which should inform the process (this is more detailed than the shorter note for the House of Commons (19 March 2015 SN07143). It includes a summary of where the parties stand, the major issues to consider, the experience of other countries and further references.

After the election, the convention

The election is unlikely to produce a clear result. If any party wins an outright majority it is unlikely to have a mandate from the people: Gran Shapps, Conservative Party chairman, claims they can win a majority if just 11,200 people in 23 constituencies switch their vote, assuming everyone else voted as they did in 2010. A Conservative victory would mean an EU referendum and probably another on Scottish independence. A Labour victory or minority government would also confront the Scottish question again and again. Whatever the result, a constitutional convention would be a way of breaking the stalemate and finding a better way of governing the country.

Labour and the LibDems support a convention, and the Conservatives are not against it, but there is no passionate public movement behind it, as for Charter 88, which did bring about some constitutional change. So parties might choose it as a diversionary tactic.

The better option would be to create a convention as a way of really listening to people and involving people in a national, local debate that is about creating a constitution that works for people, using new technologies and new forms of outreach and deliberation. This means a properly resourced process.

I suggest three stages:

  1. An informed public debate over at least six months, with the emphasis on education and engagement about the current constitution and the purposes of a convention: why do we need it? What are its aims? And who would it consist of? The debate would lead to terms of reference and organisation agreed by parliament.
  2. Formation of a convention and public deliberations over 12 to 18 months, leading to recommendations. These could consist of up to three options or a new constitutional arrangement as an agreed package.
  3. A public debate over four to six months and referendum on the result.

However it is done, it needs a clear time table and terms of reference, so that the process is long enough to engage people properly, but not so long that it gets lost.

A short document along the lines of the summary paper on the UK Constitution produced by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is a good starting point, but it needs to present additional options developed by the LSE’s Constitution UK project.

It should also include institutions that are fundamental to our way of life; core principles, some of which are still emerging; and our relationships with the rest of the world defined by treaty:

The institutions include

  • The national health service, which has its own constitution, with the option of including social care and well-being;
  • The constitution of the BBC as an independent national broadcasting service, and its six principles;
  • Schools as foundations of a learning democracy;
  • The independence of universities as places of learning, teaching and research;
  • The security services and their accountability to Parliament
  • Independence of the Bank of England and the role of monetary policy
  • Plus any others I have missed out

The emerging principles of national life include

  • Social insurance / security: no person left behind
  • Equality, drawn from the equalities act and Human Rights Act
  • Environmental security and commitments in the Climate Change Act
  • Mediation, restorative justice and rehabilitation within the section on the judiciary
  • Learning for democracy: every citizens should be able to understand how the system works and how to take part
  • Net neutrality: the internet as a public utility open to all

Britain in the world should refer to the following institutions, their purpose and how participation in them is accountable to the British people:

  • Membership of the United Nations and agencies
  • Membership of NATO, the role of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly
  • Membership of the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation
  • Relationship with the Bank of International Settlements
  • Membership of the EU
  • Membership of the Commonwealth

And others, together with general principles to guide our participation in global governance.

Given the possibility that a majority of MPs from Scotland could represent the Scottish National Party who want to break away from the United Kingdom, the discussion document for a Constitutional Convention should include new constitutional forms which recognise both inter-dependence and self-government for countries and regions. A new definition of national sovereignty is needed which recognises that every nation pools sovereignty to be stronger and protect the rights and freedoms of people within a complex, interconnected world.

These options might include:

  • Devolved government of nations and regions (mentioned in the short document, p 14)
  • A Federal constitution (likewise mentioned)
  • A ‘council of the isles’ including the Republic of Ireland and a new relationship with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and regions
  • Independence for Scotland outside the United Kingdom

The next parliament will run from the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta to the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath proclaiming Scottish independence in 1320.  Next year is also the centenary of the Easter Rising which led to Irish independence, after parliament resisted a federal UK for too long. These events will resonate. A minority government elected by a quarter of the electorate, a majority of SNP MPs from Scotland and some vociferous Eurosceptics will make the current constitution indefensible. It will fall apart within a decade unless our constitution is renewed.

While parliament is hung and government weakened by lack of a popular mandate, our elected politicians should engage the public in the most important questions about how the country is governed, who has power, how they are elected and how they are held to account. Then the country will be renewed and capable of creating a future we can all live with.

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