Thursday, 14 May 2009

A Constitution for the United Kingdom?

My friends, there is a fascinating piece written by Matthew Norman in today’s Independent – not something you’ll find me writing often I suspect.

The piece entitled “We must seize the moment to demand a written constitution” gives Mr Norman’s opinion on why we need a written constitution and why David Cameron must be the man to offer it. It then gives a few ideas about the mechanics (how it should be devised and what might be in it).

He talks of the genuine fury of the electorate aimed at the political system in the United Kingdom and then asks “how that fury must be channeled if a political system atrophied into incompetence, low-level corruption and the highest of farce is to be salvaged and rebuilt”.

He goes on:

“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.

“This one may well not be. More than likely we will, until the June elections divert the spotlight, fixate on all the expenses debacle without questioning the underlying culture that generated it, and how that might be ended.

“If so – if this golden opportunity is wasted – it will be a historic tragedy for this country. For the fiddling, as shameful as it's been, is not the disease but one of its more trivial symptoms. It is to a democratic sickness that remains largely undiagnosed what a bout of violent diarrhoea can be to colonic cancer. Mask it with over-the-counter medication though you may, more serious symptoms will soon enough emerge. The longer you ignore those, the more brutal the treatment required, and the lower the chances of recovery.

“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.

“A committee of respected parliamentarians (there are a few) and distinguished outsiders – scientists, jurists, academics, trade unionists, soldiers, artists, and so on; even national treasures such as Mr Fry – should be co-opted to filter out the most promising ideas, and hand them to the Commons for a series of free votes. Those approved should then be given to a group of our finest writers, to be translated into a document as simple, elegant and enduring as the US Constitution revered almost as a deity to this day.”

Up to this point I agree with him. Previously I had always maintained the opinion that a modern written constitution, devised to replace the uncodified one under which the United Kingdom currently operates, was a particularly un-British idea on several levels, not least of which was the risk that writing one would inevitably descend to politically correct platidunising (see the proposed new European Constitution for evidence of that). The overarching objection came from the classic conservative principle of Viscount Falkland:

“Where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."

Now, sad to say, it has become necessary to change. As with the great nineteenth century Tory reformers such as Disraeli and Peel, the current leader of the Party must now become a radical in defence of the kingdom. I trust, I hope not naively, that David Cameron will not be seduced by modern moralising in creating a written constitution for the United Kingdom, but will instead be inspired by the simplicity of the Constitution of the United States.

Mr Norman gives some examples of elements he would like to see:

“Several of the most compelling requirements race to mind. Electoral reform is one. The madness that the votes of little more a third of the actual electorate, and a fifth of the potential electorate, produce almost unlimited political power while disenfranchising the majority must end. Fixed-term parliaments are a no-brainer. So is a clause guaranteeing freedom of speech.

“The soul-sapping spectacle of MPs trooping pliantly through the lobbies to vote for things in which they don't believe or actively disbelieve, or even of which they are blissfully ignorant, must stop. They continually assure us how incredibly hard they work, but being lobby fodder isn't work at all. It's a cushy version of house arrest.

“The constitutional function of a backbench MP is not to rubber-stamp the leadership's will, but to act as a check against the power of the executive. A written constitution could enshrine their duty to vote according to conscience and constituents' interests, not the blackmail and bribery of the whips.

“It should elevate the stature of select committees, those snivelling apologies for overseers of government practice and malpractice. If we drastically increased allowances for research staff, and offered additional salary, their members' status would be enhanced to approximately that of a minister of state. They might then resist the threats and lure of ministerial preferment, and do the fearlessly unpartisan job expected.

“There are countless other symptoms that sorely want treating... the lack of an elected upper chamber; the absence of quasi-judicial scrutiny of such outrages as the decision to go to war in Iraq and the security failures that prefaced the 7/7 bombings; the refusal to devolve to local government outside London; the criminally reckless failure to control and de-politicise the police; and many more besides.

“The overall imperative, however, is to treat the sickness itself by reconnecting the populace with its legislature, by restoring the supremacy of the Commons – our only direct link the central governance of Britain – by packing it with the kind of high-minded, talented and independent representatives whom we'd be delighted to pay £100,000 per annum and more."

I differ with him on several of those. I do not share his opinion that some form of proportional representation would improve our constitutional democracy, nor believe the case for fixed-term parliaments is a no-brainer. I suspect he might not share my view that a strong constitution will be a welcome bulwark against ever-closer European Union than the political whim of whichever party controls Parliament at any given time. I do agree with the need for guaranteed free speech, however, and his view of the role of the backbench MP. These are differences of opinion on content, though, and must not detract from the wider arguments for a debate to take place along the lines of the Philadelphia Convention that gave birth to the American document.

Mr Norman concludes:

“We need that written constitution desperately. It is in David Cameron's gift, and his alone, meaningfully to promise one. He should do so at once. This window will close by the day, and may not reopen in our lifetimes.”

Amen to that, my friends, amen to that.

So, what do you think should go in a new United Kingdom Constitution?

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