Published on July 8, 2014

A constitution by the people of Britain

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Magna Carta, anselorThere’s an interesting article in the Telegraph today. It asks whether a constitution for the UK would help “stop some of our ancient liberties being eroded by membership of the EU.

This is interesting because Conservatives are often unsupportive of enshrining rights in a codified form such as a constitution. As the author of the article says,

“Conservatives tend instinctively to resist the idea of a written, codified constitution, preferring the mix of conventions and statute law that has evolved over hundreds of years to produce a system that works, if by no means perfectly. By contrast, the liberal Left incline towards a US-style constitution, enshrining in one place what they would consider to be the basic rights of the citizen.”

We are already facing a series of significant debates about the shape of our democracy as a result of the upcoming Scottish independence referendum and the potential referendum on EU membership in 2017. If a campaign for a UK Constitution were gather momentum, we would be entering into an almost unparalleled period of public discussion about democracy, power and accountability.

However, as the quote above hints, at the very heart of this debate would be competing visions for the type of country citizens want to live in. These are competing political visions – there isn’t some obvious democratic ideal we can aspire to meet.

It is for this reason that any debates about Britain’s relationship to the EU, the relationship of Scotland to England (whether the vote is ‘yes’ or ‘no’) and the relationship of citizens to the state must have citizens at their heart.

And this must not mean expensive and flashy communication campaigns between ‘two sides’ of the debate, but actually involve citizens engaging directly with leaders of the establishment to create a broad based and sustained public debate about the principles and values which should guide any decisions which are taken.

This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky call for some utopian ideal of citizen involvement in decisions that many in power might believe are beyond them. Citizens have been productively engaged in constitutional and democratic debates of the deepest importance in British Colombia, Canada, in Ireland and the much quoted and misunderstood Constitutional process in Iceland.

Establishment debates followed by a referendum would be a very poor substitute for deeper, society wide deliberation. Developing a new Constitution, or renegotiating the relationships between two units of government are not trivial exercises in tidying up around the edges. As the continued influence of the Magna Carta (pictured) nearly 800 years ago shows, they will have profound implications for the future of our democracy which will ripple down the ages. The decisions can’t be left to a small group of the most powerful stitching up deals behind closed doors, patting citizens on the head and treating them as ballot fodder.

Maybe this could be the first issue for Citizen Cobra?

One Response to “A constitution by the people of Britain”

  1. Amy Pollard
    July 9, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Excellent thought Simon – and yes, I think it could be a very interesting one. Will get my thinking cap on.

    There will undoubtedly be trigger points at some point over the next year or so – whether it’s Scottish independence, a Europe issue or something else.

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