Friday, March 17, 2006

Britain needs a constitutional convention

I think it's pretty much established amongst the informed bunch that read this blog that something is rotten in the state of Britain. Liberty Central is a good project aimed at working out a new way of governing the country. Hopefully, it can be used to build pressure to sort the whole mess out.

The big problem is that for many, reformers are a series of disparate, single issue campaigners. We have:
  1. electoral reformers
  2. civil liberties groups
  3. devolutionists of various stripes
  4. parliamentary reformers (concentrating currently on the Lords)
My issue with this; all of the problems are interlinked. Each feeds of each other, it's a systemic problem within the British polity.

The "West Lothian Question" is one of vital import to the future of the country

It has come about because a government that was initially radical and prepared to decentralise heavily has acquired cold feet and isn't prepared to address the real issues and concerns of those that haven't (yet) had power devolved from Westminster. Yet, ultimately, very few if any are genuinely calling for the complete break up of Britain, the Scots Nats appear to be losing, not gaining, ground in Scotland and the CEP is adament that they want parity for England within the UK (or Britain, depending on whether the person in question wants to keep the 1800 Act).

You cannot fix the "England Question" independent of the other problems

Virtually every other country of significance that has a bicameral Parliament draws its second chamber members as representatives of the next highest administrative level. US and Australian Senators are elected directly, the German Bundesrat members are sent as representatives of the Lander assemblies, etc.

I favour this approach, in part, for the Lords (or whatever we call the replacement). So, in order to solve the increasingly urgent issue that is the make up of the second chamber, we also need to figure out what level below Westminster we want as well.

The electoral system that we use is outdated

It specifically encourages a two-party system, yet increasingly a market orientated society wants genuine choice at election time as well, two-party politics doesn't cut it any more. So we have a government elected with a fairly substantial majority with much less than 40% of the vote; compare this to 1992, when John Major got the highest number of votes cast since 1945, and a higher vote share than either Maggie or Blair ever acheived, yet had a wafer thin majority.

This leads to a worried government, that plays to a perceived gallery for headline grabbing initiatives, yet one that knows, deep down, that while it has a 'legitimate' mandate, it does not have a popular mandate; protesters are limited and arrested as never before, yet are increasingly likely as what are viewed as traditional liberties are encroached upon as never before.

Part of the recommendations of the Power commission is a new Concordat. Essentially, they are right. As Nosemonkey points out in comments here, the Bill of Rights is effectively irrelevent. Yet any constitutional historian worth their salt can confirm that the Bill of Rights is the founding principle of the modern parliamentary system. If it's no longer relevent, what is?

I am not in favour of a 'written constitution'

A study of the US shows that such exercises in aspic setting can, in later years, come back to bite you; the veneration of their outdated document the Americans show is worrying, let alone damaging. We need a new Bill of Rights, new Acts of Settlement. We need a British solution.

We need, as a nation, to determine, once again, how we are governed.


We, all of us, who are concerned with the constitution, who want to address these issues, need to work together to pressure our rulers to call a new convention. This may be a good place to start.

2 comments:

Serf said...

I think we need a way of constraining the government of the day from changing the rules of the game. Find a way to do that without a written constitution and I would be happy.

Case in point:
Reform of the Lords. That may or may not be a good idea, but cannot be something that relies on the whim of a particular Prime Minister.

Xtrmntr said...

"The waves of revolution crash against Britain's shores."- Karl Marx. This is because we have never had a codified (written) constitution. Britain has allowed itself to evolve with time instead of having to live by some past governments beliefs. Britain has a cultural tradition of extremely stable, plodding governance. We accept contradictions in everything - we never push for extremes. We're a generally reserved, withdrawn people. A written constitution wouldn't suit the British political system.