UK Constitutional Law Association

affiliated to the International Association of Constitutional Law

News: Crowd Sourcing the UK Constitution

ConstitutionTeamThis is a major initiative being undertaken by LSE Law Department and the LSE’s Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) together with Democratic Audit UK and LSE Public Policy Group.  The project has already begun with the launch of a dedicated web site:

Please do have a look – this sets out the values and principles that it is proposed should underpin any such venture.  The site will, it is hoped, generate discussion and debate before our live launch in LSE on 8 October.  At this meeting, various guests including Professor Carol Harlow, Richard Gordon QC and former Home Secretary David Blunkett will interact with interested members of the public in debating and discussing these values and principles.  The audience will then vote on what should be the fundamentals of any such constitution.  In the weeks after this, the various provisions of the constitution will be fleshed out via  series of blog commentaries and public participation.  The first phase of the project will come to an end with the holding of a CONSTITUTIONAL CARNIVAL in the Spring of 2014.  Phase two will involve a more formal process of deliberation which will however also entail public engagement and build on the energy that it is hoped phase one will have engendered.  The ultimate goal of the project is to produce a finalised constitution to be launched on the eve of the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta (23 June 1215).

Further details are given on the front page of the website:

Professor Conor Gearty, Director of the IPA and Professor and Human Rights Law, explains the reasoning behind the project:

The UK has no constitution, or as every first year law student learns, it has no constitution written down in one grand document. Rather it has laws, conventions, practices, activities scattered all over the place that constitutional lawyers then gather together and describe as the UK constitution.

This is unusual, to put it mildly.

Sure there is a reason for it. Britain has never suffered the sort of defeat in war or other upheaval that produces a new constitution and nor has it ever had to free itself of colonial rule – it was always the coloniser. When it did have a revolution in the 17th century, constitutions were not yet in fashion. Today, pretty well everywhere else has a written document that captures what a place is about (or at least pretends to be about) and sets out how power is dispersed (or supposedly dispersed). You don’t have to be a democracy to have a constitution – look at Belarus, and China. Nor do you need to be a Republic – both Belgium and Sweden have monarchs, for example.

Not having a constitution is problematic as well as peculiar.

The country reels from crisis to crisis. Failing banks, economic collapse, controversial wars, MPs’ expenses hit and there is no clear idea of what the country stands for, what principles and values matter to it, and therefore how best to tackle the various problems that it confronts.

Some of the gaping holes in our thoughts are specifically constitutional:

  • What should we do about the EU?
  • Is immigration a problem?
  • Does the House of Lords make sense?
  • Do we really want the Prince of Wales to be our king?
  • Who are we anyway?

Many experts have tried to draft a constitution. We have had the Great and the Good going after this Holy Grail for centuries, meeting in their ancient college rooms, talking to themselves, reporting to their peers, dividing on this and that, invariably cancelling each other out.  Where they have managed to agree (usually on something pretty small) they have floundered on this or that special interest or insuperable institutional barrier. Meanwhile Europe, which has a constitution to all intents and purposes, takes more and more from Westminster while Scotland threatens to grab its bit of land and wander into independence. Some parts of England agitate for their own regional assemblies. Where does all this leave Wales? Not to mention the once endemically violent Northern Ireland?

The status quo is no longer an option. As we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, surely we can do better than a bunch of medieval barons managed to pull off in Runnymede in June 1215?

If Britain (or is that the UK?) needs a constitution, the question is not mainly what should be in it. Rather it is:

Who should write it?


2 comments on “News: Crowd Sourcing the UK Constitution

  1. Austin Lane
    September 28, 2013

    “the eve of the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta (23 June 1215).”

    King John put his seal to a document known as the Articles of the Barons at Runnymede: the document is undated but this event is thought to have taken place on 15 June 1215. This document (minus John’s seal, preserved separately) is now in the British Library (MS Additional 4838).

    Copies of this document, with revisions, were subsequently promulgated by the royal chancery: an original of the revised document does not survive (if indeed it ever existed), but Stubbs thought that if such a document existed, it was most likely to have been sealed on 19 June, since several subsequent writs refer to this date as the one on which peace was concluded between John and the barons.The provisions of this document have come to be known as the Great Charter or Magna Carta.

    Evidence showing that any of those present at Runnymede in June 1215 authenticated the deed by means of a signature would be of immense interest to palaeographers.

  2. Waldron-fan
    September 30, 2013

    I am all for the idea that our constitution should have popular backing, and that contributions ought not to remain reserved to lawyers and professional politicians & pundits. But internet crowd-sourcing is not a simple way of ensuring real popular opinion is reflected.
    Although the intro page of the site talks about EU, Lords & Monarchy, the links quickly lead off into an assumption that what really matters in a constitution is the Bill of Rights part, backed by another assumption that ECHR-style human rights are obviously desirable (wouldn’t a genuinely crowd-sourced constitution bring back the death penalty?). This is already leading to the comments looking like a shopping list of rights (“need to add online rights” etc – presumably soon the “freemen on the land” are going to spot the references to Magna Carta and start adding their two-pennorth).
    Not only will that make it difficult to argue against the underlying assumption that judges should be able to tell elected representatives what laws they can and cannot pass, but it will also probably mean it becomes harder and harder to steer anyone back into commenting on the actual constitution as such, let alone engaging with whether we want to codify/discontinue the smoke and mirrors system of “the Crown” (never mind issues like the relationship with the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, even though that relationship is currently in the news in relation to tax avoidance).
    Nor does it encourage anyone to tackle other difficult apsects of codification – do we want to end up permanently stuck with the human rights envisioned in the 1950’s, would we be any better off in future years stuck with whatever we come up with now, do we want to be like the US arguing about whether we should be divining the intentions of the “founding fathers” or handing judges the power to update interpretation of a “living” instrument. Might there be any chance of discussing fresh ways of tackling these issues – like a provision that the constitution must be re-ratified by referendum every 10 years (and that if it fails then it stays in force for another 2/5 years while a new constitution is cooked up)?

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2013 by in Constitutional reform and tagged .

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