We are in a curious and uncertain period for the British state, its antiquated constitution and ways of doing politics. A number of serious challenges are on the horizon and it is unclear how much longer the political framework of the Westminster system can remain intact. The traditional attitude of the British elite has been to ‘muddle through’, introducing reform in a piecemeal manner in response to popular demands for change, while doing its best to preserve the core features of a monarchical system based on executive dominance of a ‘sovereign’ parliament via royally acquired prerogatives and patronage. A huge gulf exists between the empowered governance made possible by digital technology and the antiquated reality of the Westminster system. In its current ossified form, the British state offers an unpalatable mix of medieval hierarchy and techno-authoritarianism, symbolised in recent weeks by an enthroned Queen Elizabeth II announcing plans to deepen the government’s already vast powers of electronic surveillance over her subjects.
Given these profound challenges to self-government, what are the prospects of democratic change for the peoples, nations and localities of the UK? How can we protect rights and freedoms in the age of Facebook, Google and a semi-permanent ‘war on terror’? And what are the campaigns, forms and strategies to bring this change about? These are the some of the questions we discussed at a public event in Cambridge on Saturday, organised by Unlock Democracy and Cambridge Commons as part of a series of meetings on democracy and liberty held around the country to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Stuart Weir, of Cambridge Commons, began by noting an urgent need to think through the issues in an open way, maintain a critical voice and build alternatives.
One key question is how to secure popular involvement in the type of far-reaching democratic reform that is needed. This was the subject of the opening talk by Oxford’s Stuart White who gave an overview of different options for a UK constitutional convention. We are at a ‘constitutional moment’ said White; an exceptional historical period when normal politics is superseded by the need for ‘We, the people’ to address fundamental issues about the content and distribution of rights in society and the basic nature of government.
The UK faces at least seven interconnected constitutional problems in the coming years: 1) Human rights and the government commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act; 2) The threat to rights from digital surveillance; 3) The relationship of Scotland to the rest of the UK; 4) The question of governance in Wales, Northern Ireland and England (the ‘English Question’); 5) The electoral system for the Commons following an election that delivered the biggest ever mismatch between votes and seats; 6) The question of money in politics, lobbying and campaign finance; 7) The UK’s relationship with the EU. While the government has promised a referendum on the last of these, why stop there? White presented two options for a constitutional convention for the UK, drawing on recent experiences in Iceland and Ireland.
Iceland became interested in constitutional reform following the 2008 economic crash. The government authorised an elected assembly that considered online input by citizens and produced a draft constitution over a period of just 3 to 4 months. The draft constitution was affirmed by the people of Iceland in a referendum, but the result was non-binding and so parliament was able to ignore it. In Ireland, a constitutional convention sat between 2013 and 2014 made up of a hundred people with one third politicians and two thirds general public chosen by random selection so as to be broadly representative of the population. The constitution made 18 recommendations. However, as happened in Iceland, the Irish government has not proven responsive: only two recommendations have been agreed to so far, including the recent referendum on same-sex marriage.
White highlighted four crucial questions for any constitutional convention in the UK: 1) Its membership (politicians, the public or both); 2) Its agenda and whether or not it has agenda-setting powers; 3) What happens to its output (whether it goes to parliament or straight to a referendum); 4) How co-ordinated it is across the territories of the UK. A convention based on parliamentary sovereignty would contain mostly politicians, have an agenda set by government and its recommendations would go back to parliament. A convention based on popular sovereignty, on the other hand, would have its membership selected from the general public, with only a minority of politicians (if any). It would have some agenda-setting powers to allow it to be responsive to popular concerns, while its output would go straight to referendum. The second model is to be preferred, said White, since it would provide external oversight and legitimacy to ensure the sovereignty of ‘We, the people’ is placed above partisan self-interest.
My own response highlighted the historical rarity of constitutional moments, which usually follow wars, revolutions or some other social upheaval. This was the case with the classic 18th century founding moments of Philadelphia and Paris, but also in the three great waves of constitutional reform in the 20th century: in Western Europe following World War Two; in newly decolonised countries in the 1960s and 70s and in Eastern Europe after 1989. Where will the momentum for reform come from in the UK? It is difficult to say. Although large numbers of people are angry and disengaged from formal politics, this disaffection does not translate into demands for an alternative. Arguably, issues of democracy and self-government gain currency when they are tied to a compelling ideological vision, as happened with the recent independence referendum in Scotland that mobilised thousands of people, including a large a swathe of new voters, in support of political autonomy not as an end in itself, but to create a more just and equal society. Here, a number of contributors pointed out the urgent need to challenge the dominance of trans-national corporate power. With the rapid privatization of state functions and the legislative entrenchment of pro-corporate policies, citizens and parties are left arguing over an ever shrinking stretch of territory: on current trends, it won’t be long until the corporate tide submerges us entirely. In particular, unless it is stopped, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement between the EU and US will severely curtail the ability of states to govern in the public interest by diluting consumer protections and setting up secretive investors’ courts that hand corporations virtual veto powers over any policy that harms their bottom line.
There is no doubt that a hung parliament would have provided the best conditions to argue for a constitutional convention, which the Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats and UKIP all called for. Yet there are still number of interesting initiatives to bring the public into the debate on constitutional matters undertaken by the Electoral Reform Society, the Northern Citizens’ Convention Conference, as well discussions in Wales and Scotland. As Unlock Democracy director Alexandra Runswick noted, there is public appetite for the ideas and discussion, but it will require a broad civil society campaign to build cross-party support for a convention.
This is part one of a three part series on democracy in the digital age. For part two, see here.
This post is part of our Great Charter Convention series, hosted in collaboration with Open Democracy, IPPR and the University of Southampton.