Democracy

Why the whole UK now needs a new Constitutional Convention

In light of the result, and the questions raised by the public and some politicians in the rest of the UK (rUK) about feeling unrepresented and neglected by Westminster, we can’t just carry on as if the UK can be patched up and turn a blind eye to this earthquake and its causes.  As well as Scotland, ‘rUK’ needs to rethink our democracy, institutions and role in the world. We need to seize this moment to argue for a new constitutional and democratic compact for the whole UK.

Laying the foundations

Let’s begin by laying out four parameters for the discussion, four essential features of any new constitutional settlement, post-referendum:

  1. Turning the British political system into something fit for a modern citizen-centred constitution-based society: e.g. ‘the West Lothian question’ must be tackled, electoral reform must be brought in to ensure the representativeness of government in the new UK, patronage must be abolished.
  2. Enhanced democracy: The wider political crisis of legitimacy must be taken seriously: e.g. voters need the power of recall, and citizens need to be involved in new deliberative and participatory democratic methods and fora; ‘democracy’ needs to mean what it says: the people must govern, not elites, including business-elites and ‘markets’.[1]
  3. An end to short-termism: institutional reform to guarantee that long-termist considerations / the basic needs of future citizens are taken seriously.[2]
  4. The process itself to include these desiderata: e.g. A deliberative ‘Constitutional Convention’ should be composed of citizens – not composed solely of Westminster elites.

After insisting on a binary yes-no choice and refusing to allow a “Devo-max” option to be put on the ballot, the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat government – together with Labour – have in recent days scrambled to give Scottish voters an incentive to vote No by offering some form of “Devo-max” under a reformed UK arrangement.  Westminster will surely be held to these promises of “Devo-max”, especially given a relatively narrow victory for continued Union on a very high turnout. Progressives like the Greens (the only British political party that backed independence both north and south of the border) and Compass need to back the strength of the case for recognising the causes of Scottish discontent with the status quo — and that these are mirrored by discontents about serious democratic deficits in Wales, most if not all English regions and Northern Ireland.

‘No’ vote creates an opportunity for change

Now that Scotland has voted no, there is, as I have implied, a strong case for a Constitutional Convention. Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party has put this case very well. The Welsh have also been pressing this case, and rightly so.  Interestingly, it has recently been taken up in Scotland. My strong belief, like Caroline’s, is that such a Constitutional Convention should be deliberative, and not only composed of elites. It should take as a rough model the impressive and inclusive deliberative process that took place in Iceland after the financial crash there.

One key reason why a Constitutional Convention is essential now that we’ve had a No vote is the so-called West Lothian question. With Devo-Max in Scotland, this question becomes completely unavoidable. The question should be settled in a manner that involves the public, and is not merely imposed upon them. Hence the need for a deliberative non-elite Constitutional Convention.

The upshot is that, undeniably now, the UK ought to have a Constitutional Convention. The case for this is even stronger than it would have been with a ‘Yes’ vote, because a post-Yes rUK would have been less pressured to tackle the West Lothian question, and others.  This Constitutional Convention ought to be citizen-based and citizen-led rather than elite-based. This is an exciting conclusion, an exciting prospect. It offers one key clue to addressing the wider crisis of political and democratic legitimacy faced by British democracy, the kind of crisis that many other European countries have some familiarity with themselves.

Beyond UK borders

Scotland’s referendum result is thus an incredible positive opportunity for the whole UK. The expectation should be that it will necessitate a major reform of the UK constitution, to bring about something more like a fit-for-purpose 21st century democracy. ‘Democracy’ after all literally means that the people govern. For it to be true that the people (rather than elites) govern, the process of change needs to involve a deliberative assembly of the people (a sortitionally-selected Constitutional Convention, and the substantive changes that are made need to empower the people: thus, proportional representation, the right of recall, a second chamber that is no longer based on elite patronage, a citizens bill of rights, decentralisation, and hopefully much much more…

For there is a wider crisis of democracy in this country, whose symptoms include rampant dissatisfaction with politicians and declining levels of voter turnout (although in the Scottish independence referendum this was emphatically not the case), and whose causes include the increasing power of international business and finance at the expense of citizens. In my view, the crisis of democracy should also be seen as including the chronic short-termism of our system, and its failure to include the basic interests of future citizens, future generations [3]. It is essential that the post-referendum political scene responds vividly to this wider crisis, otherwise it will be little more than deckchair rearrangement…

I have sought in this article to set out the way in which the opportunity offered by this remarkable result could be realised: the way in which the occasion is now ripe for a Constitutional Convention which would at last put this country on a sounder democratic footing to re-inspire citizens and to face the challenges of the 21st century. I consider this a great opportunity indeed, and one which may well offer precedents for a number of somewhat similar situations elsewhere in Europe.

 

References

[1] For more, see here and here.

[2] My own belief is that this point, a fundamentally Green point, should lead to fundamental and radical reform; see here.

[3] See here.

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