Monday, 18 August 2014

Your chance to shape the UK’s democratic future

Graham Allen MP discusses the future of the UK's democracy.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be able to write your own version of the political rulebook?  Well, now you can, thanks to a unique consultation being run by Parliament’s Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.  As we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta—one of history’s most famous constitutional documents—the Committee is asking people whether they think the UK needs a codified constitution and, if so, what should be in it.  

People living in nearly all democratic countries in the world expect to be able to find in one place the rules that govern how the state exercises power in their society.  They take pride in their constitution.  Every school child in America can quote from theirs. In the UK, there is no single document that sets out our constitution.  Instead, we have a host of Acts, common law, conventions and precedents. 

Now the Select Committee is asking whether this needs to change.  We’ve just published a report, A new Magna Carta?, setting out the arguments for and against codification, and providing three example constitutions.  The report represents the results of a unique four-year project which has seen the Committee working in partnership with King’s College London. The Committee itself deliberately didn’t express an opinion for or against codification, believing it is for the public to decide. There are plenty of people who would defend the status quo.  They would argue that it’s served us well for centuries and doesn’t need changing.

My own view is very different.  I think mainstream politics in the UK is broken and needs fixing.  The signs are all around us.  Differing paces of devolution in different parts of the Union – and the stifling over-centralisation in England – are leading to dissatisfaction that is not going to go away, no matter what the results of the referendum in Scotland. A significant number of people are completely disengaged from mainstream politics. They don’t feel that the main parties represent their views, or that politicians understand what their lives are like.  And some of them are turning to anti-politics parties in protest.  More and more people are deciding not to vote because they simply don’t see the point.  But I don’t think this is because people don’t care about politics—it’s because the world of mainstream politics seems remote and sometimes incomprehensible.

Having a constitution written down in one place is not going to magically re-engage people.  But it would be a start.  To enjoy a game of football or a tennis match, it helps to understand the rules.  If you want to take part, it’s essential.  But imagine if the rules weren’t written down anywhere, or were written down in a variety of different places that were difficult to find, so you never knew whether you were getting the whole picture. 

Recently, some attempts have been made to write down some of our existing constitutional arrangements in documents such as the Ministerial Code, the Civil Service Code, and the Cabinet Manual.  These attempts to write down existing arrangements, have, however, been piecemeal.  I think the time is right for a more coherent approach. 

The three example constitutions we have published represent a range of different approaches to codification: a non-statutory code, an Act consolidating existing constitutional laws and conventions, and a completely new written constitution.  They could be taken separately, as options in their own right, or regarded as steps on the road to codification. 

The Committee’s consultation runs until 1 January 2015 and we’re seeking views from everyone with an interest in the UK’s democratic future—from school children to professors of constitutional law.  To send us your views, visit www.parliament.uk/new-magna-carta-consultation. We’ll be publishing submissions as we go so that you can see the debate unfold and in the new year we’ll report the views to the Government, ahead of the general election. 

In addition to its consultation, the Committee is running a competition to write an inspiring 350-word preamble to a written constitution for the UK.  We’ve already published some entries on our website, including my own attempt.  This is the moment for budding Thomas Jeffersons to get writing.  Please visit our website and submit your preamble online: www.parliament.uk/pcrc-preamble

It’s great that we’re so interested in our constitutional history and that 2015 will see a host of celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, but I find it surprising that we are not more interested in our democratic future.  What do we in the UK want the next 800 years to look like? I see the Committee’s consultation as an opportunity for everyone to become a founding father or mother.  I look forward to hearing from you! 

Graham Allen is the MP for Nottingham North.

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