Why we need a written constitution

Things are falling apart. Brexit has shown us that we need a Democratic Revolution


AFP PHOTO / Anna Turley MP via Twitter

The infamous scene of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, lying asleep on the front bench symbolised the contempt Government is showing for Parliament and MPs.


Summary Basically there is a battle between the Executive and Parliament. It is a fight to protect the sovereignty of Parliament. It is an outrage that Johnson was put in office by 0.14 per cent of Britain’s population. I shall include Will Hutton’s arguments for a written constitution, summarise Unlock Democracy’s, quote some of Lisa Nandy MP’s address on Compassion on Line and finally summarise my own proposals for constitutional reform.


The Case for a New Written Constitution.

 In his article, The sheer scale of the crisis facing Britain’s decrepit constitution has been laid bare , Will Hutton exposes the weaknesses of an unwritten constitution. Here I summarise his key arguments.


Whoever commands a majority in parliament today too easily collapses into a highly centralised executive acting dictatorially ….and becomes toxic if that dictatorial dimension becomes legitimised by the “will of the people” in a referendum. It is only unwritten, uncodified understandings that protect the body politic from regressing to government with minimal checks, balances and accountability. They depend upon a political class that, whatever its differences, accepts common rules of the game, especially making sure that any recourse to direct democracy by referendum is firmly subordinated to rule by parliament. But the idea of common rules has been exploded by the passionate Brexiter conviction that their referendum victory empowers them to use any ruse available to achieve their goal, even a no-deal Brexit, against the scrutiny of a “Remain” parliament.


Proroguing parliament to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of a no-deal Brexit may have been an intolerable abuse of power, and an affront to democracy, but in Britain it is constitutionally possible. Despite the threats of judicial review and court actions, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to challenge.


No super-majority was required for this fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with Europe. There were no requirements for Leave to spell out its case, the policing of how money was raised was feeble and there were no sanctions for outright misrepresentation.


Countries that use referendums a lot have elaborate rules for how they are conducted, Switzerland and Ireland, for example. In Britain, typically, there are no pre-agreed rules, just ad-hoc legislation arising from the particular power conjuncture of the day.


What is happening is the culmination of a right-wing coup that has deployed the weakness of Britain’s constitution to drive through toxic, divisive change, the manipulated will of the people trumping representative democracy.


To win then and now, those in favour of EU membership needed to recognise they had to trump the narrative of an undemocratic Europe by recognising more profound democratic failings at home. Remain instead found itself the advocate of a hard-to-justify status quo; an archaic state, a decaying democracy and rampant social inequality inflamed by fears of immigration. Leave was allowed to blame it all on the EU – cover for their ultra-right-wing ambitions.


A wholesale change of mind set was needed. Remain should have stood for a re-democratised Britain that put power in the hands of the people and for transformative economic and social change that would make Britain better, not worse. To leave the EU, it should have said, would be to abandon that prospect.


The Annual Report of Unlock Democracy


The Annual Report of Unlock Democracy makes valuable reading. Their polling found that there is a huge gap between what people of the UK want from their democracy and what they get.74% of people think Britain needs a written constitution. 66% agreed that the old way of doing politics no longer works. 58% think Britain’s system of government doesn’t work. They outline the way forward. This included building a movement to raise awareness, a Parliamentary process, a Constitutional Convention and implementation. They will be publishing a new pamphlet Building a New Democratic Settlement in Autumn 2019. There is a crisis of confidence in our current political settlement. Most people, 63 %, (Audit of Political Engagement, 2019 ) believe the system is rigged to advantage the interests of the rich and powerful. 68 % feel that none of the main political parties speak for them (Hope Not Hate, 2019 ).


Meanwhile there is the existential threat of the climate crisis. We are more concerned about global warming than ever before. Some 85% of respondents to a recent survey registered their concern around climate change, while 52% noted that they are ‘very concerned’. The United Kingdom became the first nation to officially declare an environmental and climate emergency in May. This measure was a great symbolic victory, with Extinction Rebellion achieving only one of its three initial demands.

  1. Tell the truth Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
  2. Act Now Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
  3. Beyond Politics Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice


Yet, while a useful step, this sadly does not legally require that the government take any particular action on climate change. Surely such a requirement must be part of our written constitution.

Climate and environmental protection. Caroline Lucas MP has made clear to Chancellor, Sajid Javid, that there should be at least a doubling of spending on climate and environmental protectionInstead there was almost nothing – another £30m for decarbonisation schemes.  If the Government were serious about tackling the crisis, they would have announced a Green New Deal and a mass programme of zero-carbon housing.

Unlock Democracy’s Proposals

This is a shortened version of their proposals

We need a New Constitution.

 Right now, most people don’t think politics works for them. Decisions are too often made for people and communities, not with them. At every election we replace politicians, but the old way of doing things stays in power.

Together, we want to rewrite the UK’s entire political system. Instead of Westminster handing down instructions, communities have more say over their futures. Instead of serving the interests of corporations and the super-rich, politicians could work in the public interest.

We’re building a movement of people who will convince politicians it’s time for a new national founding document. This new constitution, written by and for the people, say what the government can do in our name. The process of writing it will let us decide which of our rights need extra protection, and how the different parts of the UK will work together in the future. If we want a fairer society, we need to start with a fairer political system.

Today, it’s hard to make our voices heard in politics, but if we’re united, we can win the change needed to make it work for us, just like when our ancestors won the vote for everybody.


To end the political crisis we need a new constitution. We want a new constitution for the UK that replaces the unwritten, Westminster system of gentlemen’s agreements.

The constitution would:

  • Set out the rules for how the Westminster parliament and government works, and what they can and can’t to.
  • Set out how Westminster deals with the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Secure citizens’ rights so that they can’t be overruled by the government of the day with a majority of one.

The details would be decided by a citizen-led constitutional convention, and be put to the public to endorse. We believe this process is critical to rebuilding trust in our politics, and permanently rebalancing power so all of us have more say.


What is a constitutional convention?

A constitutional convention is where a group of people meet with the express purpose of writing a new constitution or revising an existing one. They have met in Iceland after the financial crash, and recently in Ireland to consider big changes such as legalising abortion.

Unlock Democracy wants to see a citizen-led convention, given the access to experts and the resources needed to do the job.

How it works

Members of the convention should be randomly selected citizens and should be representative of the UK’s population. Public debate, discussion and consultation should be widespread. There should be a maximum of 200 people in the convention. It should provide ample opportunities for individuals or groups to present their perspective and/or provide evidence throughout the process. Any proposals about the future of the UK should also have a majority of each national group within the convention.

Once the process has finished, we want to see the new constitution put to a referendum.


What difference would it make?

Protecting our rights

MPs can take away our rights at any time with a majority of one, and there’s no real limit to what the government can do in our name.

  • In 2016, MPs passed the Investigatory Powers Act, “The most intrusive surveillance law ever introduced in a democratic country” according to Liberty.
  • In 2018, a small majority of MPs voted to scrap a swathe of our rights in the EU Withdrawal Act. Politics isn’t done with us, it’s done to us. It’s time for us as a nation to decide what our fundamental rights should be, and protect them from over-zealous governments.


Letting communities decide local services

The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. Councils and communities have very little say in how much money they raise to spend on local services.

For the last 8 years, Westminster has forced Councils to impose enormous cuts to local services. Without proper powers to raise money from elsewhere, local government increasingly has few genuine choices to make. Libraries have been closing across the UK, while schools and social services are under unprecedented pressure.

We want to see a system where instead of Westminster passing down orders, communities and citizens have a genuine conversation about local needs, with the powers needed to deliver.


Here I quote from Lisa Nandy MP’s inspirational talk (with thanks to Compassion on Line ). “We have allowed our institutions – parliament, political parties, the media, technology – to encourage the worst of humanity. But there in Ireland, as Seamus Heaney captures in those short lines, is hope flickering back to life. For all the signs we have reached the end of representative politics, I think we have merely reached the limits.


We need power, more accountable, and much closer to home. Electoral systems that bring in new voices rather than just shut them out. New democratic tools, like citizen’s assemblies, that create both tables and bridges. Power in the media dispersed across the country …….so the agenda is no longer set by a narrow few who live and work together in similar experiences and with similar backgrounds.


Even those tools that seem at present to divide us, offer hope. Social media has brought a range of voices to the fore but in that roar of noise people are encouraged to move to extremes to be heard. Our traditional media has followed suit. We have mistaken the debate online for a real debate anchored out there in our communities, and become adrift from the voices, grievances and potential in those places.


But it could be different.


It needs regulation…..to revolutionise a system in which technology is developed by a small number of private individuals, who can direct its ends. It should be a national priority. Because the potential it offers is enormous.….. Above all, able to do away with the greatest tragedy of our era. The centuries old waste of human talent that we wouldn’t or couldn’t use. Utopia? Why? If as I’ve said all along the universe is at any time what you say it is, then say. This is the new settlement of which I think might start to live up to an Attlee settlement for this next era. “Because “socialists” he said “are not concerned solely with material things. They do not think of human beings as a herd to be fed and watered and kept in security. They think of them as individuals co-operating together to make a fine collective life. For this reason socialism is a more exacting creed than that of its competitors. It does not demand submission and acquiescence, but active and constant participation in common activities.”

And this is where the hope lies. For all of the anxiety, anger, and despair that characterises modern times out there is better, if we seek build it. For all the efforts to divide us those values of tolerance and decency that point to a plural, diverse, open country are alive and well. We feel that we are greater than we know. We have learnt in recent years that progress is not inevitable and that the arc of history does not always bend to the left. If we want a hopeful, open, confident country we must build the institutions that allow us to create it the only way we can-together. In the end, our best hope is each other.”


Re-imagining Democracy A Collaborative Democracy

The sensible way forward is to collaborate for change – not to divide ourselves in opposition but find common ground by Consensus Design ).  


Here is a summary of my proposals;

  • A written Constitution
  • A Citizen-led Convention to determine the Constitution.
  • Parliament to be the principal decision-making body of Government
  • First Minister as head of Government elected by Parliament as a whole
  • Proportional representation for national, regional and local government
  • 50:50 representation for women and proportionate representation for Black, Asian and ethnic minorities.
  • Devolution of power from Westminster to regions, local government and communities – the principle of subsidiarity
  • An elected reviewing chamber
  • Total recall for all elected politicians
  • A cap on individual funding and complete disclosure
  • A fully empowered Electoral Commission
  • End the so-called “revolving door”
  • Votes from age 16
  • The Rights of Future Generations to be recognised*

*The importance of this is eloquently expressed in fourteen year old William Wale’s article Time to listen to UK’s youth  .

(Main sources Green Party and Electoral Reform Society )


For more, see my blog post Re-imagining Politics – A Collaborative Democracy

To take action, support organisations campaigning for democratic reform: Make Votes Matter, Compass-Together for a good society, Electoral Reform Society, The Citizens Assembly Project, Constitutional Convention, Unlock Democracy, Counting Women In, 5050 Parliament and Voice4 Change.


If you like what you read, please spread the word and use Twitter or Facebook.


Bruce Nixon is an author, writer and speaker. He gives participative talks in communities, universities, schools and at conferences. His latest book is The 21st Century Revolution – A Call to Greatness 



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