It’s Not Just a Lack of a Constitution…

Mark Norman claims that this period of political flux in the UK makes it time to demand a written constitution:

Only in moments of chaotic flux, when the foetid accommodations and stifling conventions of the age are suspended because the status quo looks scarier than radical change, does a glimpse of a less imperfect country feel like more than utopian dreaming. Such openings come seldom, vanish swiftly, and must be seized immediately.

The illness in question is malignant in the extreme, and the only effective treatment is a written constitution. Since David Cameron will shortly be Prime Minister, it is to him we must turn on bended knee, begging that he acts while the rage is still hot and the desire for change intense, and makes a binding commitment to that constitution. He should pledge that, within an hour of kissing the Queen’s hand, he will inaugurate a year-long national debate about how we want that constitution to look, involving the town-hall meetings and an appeal for public proposals with which we can reacquaint ourselves with the notion that our stake in how we are governed extends beyond voting with distaste every four or five years.

I’m not convinced. He’s right of course that electoral reform is desperately needed and long overdue. He’s right that the second parliamentary chamber needs to have its reform completed urgently. All select committees should be holding the executive to account rather than just the motivated ones. The police shouldn’t be able to behave like a semi-autonomous militia, the government shouldn’t be privatising identity itself, the list goes on. I just don’t think that a written constitution would guarantee these things any more than the written American constitution has prohibited torture, prevented Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act or the Iraq War itself.

Rights are already guaranteed under the Human Rights Act, so a constitutional backstop isn’t needed there. Whilst the public discussion which would arise through a constitutional convention, particularly a broadly and democratically arranged one, would be healthy in getting what we really want out in the open, it’s by no means the only route. The House of Commons needs to get to grips with regulating itself (even though the expenses scandal might have proven it cannot), and the public needs to demand electoral reform as a matter of urgency. It works well in Scotland and for London and European elections, so why not England? Coalition government would make the Jacqui Smiths of this world much less likely (although take a look at Italy – it wouldn’t make them impossible), but  he’s unusually idealistic in thinking that David Cameron cares. Cameron’s on course (as was Tony Blair, who had firmly committed to electoral reform remember) to an easy win under the first-past-the-post system. Depressingly he has also already committed to repealing the Human Rights Act – setting out his anti-democratic credentials before even becoming Prime Minister.

Even Barack Obama is pulling back from his promises of transparency and government driven by rights and the law, but we remain not bothered about it until it’s too late, and the ballot box is no longer an effective means of holding our representatives (and the agencies they control) to account. Maybe the only way of getting our political culture back is through the overtures of a constitutional convention, but which political leader is going to have the bravery to give up their power in making that happen? We’re all out of Donald Dewars & Robin Cooks.

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