Are you ready for a Constitutional Convention?

– Titus Alexander, Convenor of Democracy Matters, asks if we are ready for a Constitutional Convention in this guest blog for Demsoc.

The footprints of history spook this election: the next parliament runs from the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta on 15 June to the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, when Scotland proclaimed independence.  Next year is the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, then part of the UK. This led to Irish independence in 1949, seventy three years after Ireland first elected a majority of MPs calling for Home Rule within a federal UK. These events will resonate in a Parliament next year. If a majority of MPs from Scotland are from the SNP, and a majority of English MPs demand English votes for English laws, the current constitution could be unworkable, particularly if no party has an overall majority.

Although no one is talking about it, the footprints are leading to a constitutional convention after the election. All three main parties promise devolution of powers to local councils and communities as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All parties promise more “power to the people”. Labour promises a “people-led Constitutional Convention” on the future of UK’s governance. The Conservatives “will build an enduring settlement for the United Kingdom” and an in-out referendum on EU membership in two years. These are big constitutional issues which cannot be contained.

Less than a quarter of voters are satisfied with the state of British democracy according to research by the University of Edinburgh: 77% are dissatisfied, with little variation across the UK. Somehow the whole system needs a major overhaul.

The establishment is preparing

There has been a lot of quiet preparation for a constitutional convention over the past few years:

The LSE is crowdsourcing a written constitution at www.constitutionuk.com where the public can post ideas, comments and vote on proposals for ten topics: Head of State, The government, Parliament, Devolution, Local Government, Elections, International Relations, Rights and duties, Values and The Judiciary. The most popular ideas, as voted by the crowd, the public can refine them before the constitutional convention.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has published a valuable document on the UK Constitution in the last week of Parliament. This summarise a massive report on “A new Magna Carta?”, setting out three options for a future constitution. The committee wants people to take a Survey Questionnaire  and continue the conversation on social media using #UKconstitution

The House of Lords Library published a useful briefing on 20 March 2015 (LLN 2015/008) to inform the process (this is more detailed than the shorter note for the House of Commons (19 March 2015 SN07143). It includes a summary of where the parties stand, the major issues to consider, the experience of other countries and further references.

Constitutional reform is accelerating. The only question is whether it continues in a piecemeal ad-hoc fashion, with the possible departure from the EU and break-up of the UK, or whether we have a national debate about the issues and create a new settlement. The Scottish referendum campaign in 2014 showed how a constitutional debate can engage people in politics. That was a slow process over several decades, including a Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989, funded by local authorities, churches and trusts. Its report, Scotland’s Right, was published in 1995 on St Andrew’s Day and laid the basis for the Scottish Parliament in 1999. If the British Parliament does not create a new federal constitution in the next five to ten years I predict that Scotland will vote for independence and we will have to have a new constitution anyway.

So are you ready for a Constitutional Convention?

Read more at the Democracy Matters blog, Hung, quartered and re-drawn: remaking the British constitution