An Agreement of the Free People of England: or, the Ready and Easy Way to Party Like it's 1649

The people of England need to discover their sovereignty and make a constitution of their own. Here are some ideas.

Elliot Bulmer
25 October 2015

(Image: Backbone Campaign, Rolling Rebellion Sparks in Seattle to Defend Internet and Stop the TPP, CC-BY-2.0.)

The broad left in the United Kingdom, north and south of the border, is caught between three conversations. One conversation is about tackling poverty, rolling back the power of the corporate and financial oligarchies that now seem to dominate both policy-making and public discourse, reducing economic inequality, and opposing austerity. This conversation focuses on bread-and-butter issues: banking regulation and housing costs, environmental protection and wages, working conditions and public services, schools and hospitals, library closures and council redundancies. This conversation is championed by the Corbynite wing of the Labour party, as well as by groups such as UK Uncut, the New Economics Foundation and others, who seek – while rejecting the dull collectivism of 20th century socialism – to promote a more humane and communitarian vision of society, in which we each help secure the economic well-being of all our fellow-citizens by the pooling of risks and the sharing of rewards.

The second conversation is about democracy and participation, accountability and transparency, corruption and privilege. This conversation focuses on the structures and processes of government, and on the relationship between the state and the citizen. Its concerns are electoral reform and referendums, localism and civil liberties, privy councils and legal aid. This conversation comes most easily to the Liberal Democrat wing of the broad left (what remains of it), the Greens, the Electoral Reform Society, Liberty, and the sort of people who – like me – remember Charter 88 with a certain degree of fondness.

The third conversation is about the future of the UK and its place in the world. Should England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain unequally yoked together in this lopsided Union? Should we be moving towards ‘home rule all round’, with a view to creating a ‘loosely united’ kingdom? Or should the United Kingdom be brought quietly and gently to its natural end, so that each of its constituent countries can take their place as free, equal and friendly neighbours? Should we – whoever ‘we’ are – be in or out of the European Union? Should we retain the power to nuke all of human civilisation out of existence? Or is it better just to concentrate our efforts on neo-colonial wars in far-off sandy places with plenty of oil? This conversation divides people who might find themselves on the same side in the first two conversations. People who agree on opposition to austerity may be bitter enemies over the future of the United Kingdom, on leaving or remaining in the EU, or on replacing Trident.

Despite the efforts of some to keep these three conversations separate, and thereby to maintain the boundaries of party tribalism, my contention is that they are inextricably interlaced. There is a clear and unavoidable connection between the core nature and identity of the state, its form of government, and the type of policies it will tend to pursue. A war-forged dynastic imperial state, which exists only as the remnant of a once-mighty empire, will tend towards a closed, oligarchic and increasingly paranoid form of government, and will pursue policies that favour the maintenance of existing hierarchies of wealth and privilege; being founded in conquest and in the subjugation of the peasantry, it will be bellicose towards others and remorseless in the harrying of its own poor citizens. On the other hand, a nation-state that is born of peace and compact, is founded upon common-right and justice, and is constituted on civic, democratic, principles, will usually pursue policies that promote the common good.

This interlacing of the conversations, and this intimate connection between the identity of the state, its form of government, and the policies to be pursued, was most clearly expressed in the Scottish independence referendum. The Yes alliance that arose during the referendum campaign started to connect the dots. The SNP, the Yes Campaign, the Radical Independence Campaign, the Scottish Green Party, Labour for Independence, Nordic Horizons, National Collective, Women for Independence, and Common Weal, all recognised that state-identity, constitution and policy were closely connected. These organisations appreciated that the constitution and structures of the state determine who has power, how they handle that power, to whom they are accountable, and, therefore, how the state will respond, in policy terms, to people’s needs. The unjust, short­sighted, elitist, London­centric policy outcomes of the UK were deemed by the supporters of independence to be an inevitable product of its ramshackle and oligarchic political structure.

Independence, to its advocates, was seen as a way of changing not only the locus, but also the nature, of government, through the creation of a new state built on a democratic constitutional basis. This is why the SNP made a commitment to a written constitution for Scotland such an integral part of the independence campaign. What was on offer was not just the rejection of rule from Westminster, but a more fundamental reassessment of the Westminster way of ruling. The imperial, dynastic, oligarchic, warlike British state would be replaced by a peaceful, democratic, rights-respecting Scottish state. From this change in inner nature, a change in external behaviour – in terms of policy processes and outcomes – would follow.

In England, breaking away from the UK and creating a new state has hardly seemed like a viable option. Instead, all the effort is focused on who will be the next prime minister. But those who expect the UK to start delivering progressive policies, if only there were a new prime minister in 10 Downing Street, are expecting a bad tree to bring forth good fruit: they are expecting an oligarchic system to behave and to deliver like a good democracy should. But that cannot and will not happen. Oligarchy does as oligarchy is: it brings forth rotten policies and rotten behaviour from its rotten nature. To enjoy good fruit, in policy terms, we do not need a new government, but a new state: not another rotten fruit from the same corrupt tree, but a new tree.

The year 2015 is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, an event of great historical significance in England. The ruling establishment have attempted to use this anniversary as a way of showing that all is rosy in the garden, and has been for a very long time. Rather than smug congratulation, the people of England should use this anniversary as an opportunity for deep introspection. Why is it that the UK is celebrating an 800­ year­ old royal charter, and not – say – the sixtieth anniversary of a decent democratic constitution? What have we achieved since the middle ages, in the sphere of constitutional advancement? What guarantees does the citizen now have, against the abuse of power, corruption, and other forms of misrule? If the people of England would think on these questions, and reflect on the very inadequate answers that the establishment gives, then they should come to the conclusion that they, like the Scots, are ill-served by the institutions of the UK as currently constituted.

A progressive and democratic English national movement against the establishment is the one thing that can bring the rotten tree down. England’s best hope – and the best hope for the left in England – is to reject the British imperialism that is institutionally embodied in the UK, and to search instead for a new, democratic, post-imperial, sense of English identity. If the English left could be induced to give up its misplaced loyalty to the institutions of the UK, and if it could join together its three disparate conversations, such that bread-and-butter issues and constitutional issues are treated in a holistic way, then there would be a chance for a democratic revival across these islands.

A civic English nationalism would reject the imperialist superiority of British nationalism, as well as the all xenophobia, chauvinism and racism that has in the past been associated with it. Instead, it would embrace an inclusive political community united by democratic values and by a sense of decency and the common good. It would not even require abandoning a residual notion of Britishness, understood in a cultural and geographical rather than political sense. As independent countries, England and Scotland (and Wales, even Northern Ireland, and maybe Cornwall too if they so wish) would continue to share a common physical space and would continue to be closely connected by social, historical and economic ties. It is simply that that connection would no longer be based on domination and dynastic loyalties, but instead on the equality of peoples, friendship, mutual respect, genuine democracy, and co-operation.

The first shoots of such an ‘English spring’ can be detected in the resurgence of interest amongst parts of the English left in the radical democratic constitutionalist movements of the Civil War era. Beneath the last three centuries of Britishness, pomp, capitalism and empire, lies another England – an England in which the claims of prelates and princes are drowned out by the folkish prayers of the Lollards and the steely pikes of the Levellers fighting for the ‘Good Old Cause’.

It is closer today than it’s ever been since 1649, when the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords brought England to the brink of throwing off the Norman Yoke. But the events of 1649, while providing inspiration, also offer a salutary warning. Sadly, the written constitution which would have made the Commonwealth (republic) of England last – the ‘Agreement of the People’ – was not adopted, and the rest is the history of reaction by the landowning classes. The lesson learned from 1649, and all other revolutions, is this: it is not enough to ding down Babylonian and Pharoanic monarchies, you also have to build up sound republican institutions that will establish and preserve a free and civic way of life. Cut down the old tree, by all means, but make sure that there is a new one, firmly planted by the waters.

With that in mind, I’ve drafted a democratic republican constitution for England. The draft is based on what might be described as ‘neo-Leveller’ principles. It envisions a democratic, socially just, peaceful and equalitarian England, in contrast to the oligarchic, privileged, militaristic and hierarchical United Kingdom. It sets out to imagine what a reconstituted England might look like, were the Norman Yoke at last to be cast off, and the barons of the City, Oligarchy, and the Establishment, reduced from their mighty stations. In short, it conceives of a ‘new England’: no longer the last remnant of a dying and increasingly dysfunctional empire, but now the home of a flourishing, free and thriving republic.

The basic features of the draft Constitution are as follows (the full draft is here):

(1)  It is a written, codified and entrenched constitution, which proclaims itself a supreme law, is judicially enforceable, and can be amended only by a special process (requiring in most cases a referendum).

(2) It would vest sovereignty in the people, as the source and ultimate controller of all powers.

(3)  It envisages England as a ‘Commonwealth’ (republic) with an indirectly elected figurehead president as Head of State.

(4)  It would establish a unicameral Parliament, elected by proportional representation for four year terms.

(5)  It would enshrine European Convention rights as justiciable fundamental rights.

(6)  It would also proclaim a range of social and economic rights which, although not directly judicially enforceable, would be politically binding on the Government.

(7)  It would allow members of the public to recall their members of parliament.

(8)  It would make provision for the optional use of electoral quotas to promote gender parity and to ensure the inclusion of marginalised sections of society in parliament.

(9)  It would limit the Prime Minister to a maximum of two (four-year) terms of office.

(10)  It would enable the people to repeal legislation by means of abrogative referendums.

(11)  It would establish a novel system of participatory democracy designed to empower citizens through deliberative ‘People’s Assemblies’. These would enable panels of citizens, selected annually by lot, to discuss public affairs and to hold their elected representatives to account.

(12)  It would relocate the capital to the North of England as part of a plan to redistribute the power geographically as well as between the classes.

(13)  It would abolish the City of London Corporation.

(14)  It would place constitutional restraints on the use of military force.

(15)  It would provide for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Some of these provisions are very standard – the usual stuff of contemporary constitution-making; a few, such as the institution of randomly selected People’s Assemblies, are novel.

It should be noted, finally, that this draft constitution is presented simply as a spur for debate. It is offered merely as an illustrative example, and certainly not as a prescription. Most people in England, even those who would quite like a written constitution, have never actually seen a constitution, and have little idea what one looks like. In my experience, presenting a draft text, even if it is a somewhat hypothetical one, helps to clarify the debate, turning abstract notions into specific constitutional terms that can then be constructively argued over. Having thrown this text out for debate, it is up to the commons of England, whose country is still in the hands of the descendants of a conqueror, and whose sovereignty is as yet unvoiced, to make of it and do with it what they will.

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