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?