This post propoposes a Model Constitution for the United Kingdom. In the mid-nineties, when I first started to think seriously about constitutional questions, it was a subject for geeks and anoraks. In Scotland the Constitutional Convention had adopted the Claim of Right, proclaimed the sovereignty of the people, and was on its way to working out the devolution settlement. South of the border, however, despite the efforts of groups such as Charter 88 and the Electoral Reform Society, the issue of constitutional change had little traction. How things have changed. Now even the Prime Minister claims to be in favour of some sort of written Constitution - a circumstance which, if it can be believed, I never expected to see in my lifetime.
Yet, as Anthony Barnett notes, Gordon Brown's ideas turn out to be rather worn and tame. Brown hopes to put together a written constitution by 2015, based on the codification of "existing, piecemeal conventions". In other words, this written Constitution is intended to prevent change, to shore up the old order, rather than to produce a new and more democratic constitutional settlement. These existing, piecemeal conventions, admirably satirised by Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Stuart Weir in their "Unspoken Constitution", do not satisfy public demand for a new constitution.Yet the problem is that few of us have much experience of constitutional design. Despite all the debate surrounding constitutional reform at the UK-level, there have been few detailed "worked examples" of a draft Constitution. The last published draft UK Constitution was produced in 1991 by the Institute for Public Policy Research – it was a bold and comprehensive document, but is much in need of updating to reflect the new realities of our post-devolution State. Since then there has been nothing of note. For many, then, a new Constitution can be concieved only in abstract terms, as principles and ideals, not as specific constitutional forms.
This Model Constitution (pdf) was intended to make the abstract concrete, and to give form and substance to our principles and ideals. By proposing a specific Constitution in chapter and verse, rather than a wishlist of inventive but vague ideals, we aim to undo the most potent (and yet the most ridiculous weapon) in the hands of conservative apologists, namely that “constitutions are too impractical” and “too complex”, and that “it cannot be done” because “people won’t agree about what to put in”.
The Model Constitution represents a serious attempt to apply the established principles of liberal constitutionalism and the best practices of European parliamentary democracy to the United Kingdom’s rather unique circumstances. It does not attempt to be definitive – hopefully it will spark debate, and from that debate further improvement will result. However, it does attempt to be specific: it sets out to offer to the public a complete and workable Constitution, which, if desired, could be adopted exactly as it stands.
This project was inspired by a similar project with which I am involved in my capacity as Research Director of the Constitutional Commission, an Edinburgh-based non-partisan constitutional think-tank. Here in Scotland, even the continued existence of the British State is a matter of controversy, with a substantial minority eagerly pursuing independence. The Constitutional Commission does not take sides between nationalists and unionists, but does attempt to ensure that Scotland's constitutional future, whether inside or outside the Union, is a democratic one.
We seek to build on the progress made by the devolved Scottish Parliament towards a more consensual, rational, deliberative and accountable form of democracy, which better serves the common good. In this respect, Scotland is already far ahead of England: proportional representation, fixed term Parliaments, and the election of the executive by Parliament, are not radical ideas in Scotland: they are our present reality. One of the founding aims of the Constitutional Commission is to draft a Model Constitution for Scotland in the event of independence: the text of which can be found on our website.
The process of drafting a Model Constitution, we have found, helps to clarify the various constitutional options and to focus attention on the specific details of constitutional design. It requires one to go beyond vague ideals or mere statements of intent, and to move the debate along by producing some workable and concrete proposals. In the interests of balance, we decided that it would be useful to apply the same process to the design of a Constitution for the United Kingdom - a Constitution which, amongst other advantages, offers Scotland secure autonomy with a federalised UK.
The Model Constitution is radical, in as much as it attacks problems at their root and is not afraid to cut away at the historical deadwood to get there; but it is not revolutionary nor utopian. It builds on all that is good in the British liberal-democratic tradition whilst fearlessly replacing all that is rotten or decayed. Nothing in the proposed Constitution is untried or untested. The mechanism for constructive votes of no-confidence is borrowed from Spain, Germany and Hungary. The narrowly specified constitutional role of the head of State, shorn not only of the practical reality but also of the theoretical shadow of governing power, is modelled on Spain and Sweden.
The Mixed Member Proportional electoral system for the House of Commons and the balance of power between the two Houses are based on German precedents, whilst the indirect election of the Senate by Regional Assemblies draws on the example of Austria. The system of autonomous regional governments is inspired by that of Spain. Indeed, the 1978 Constitution of Spain, although it has not been slavishly followed in every detail, has been the authors’ constant inspiration: like this proposed Constitution for the United Kingdom, the Spanish Constitution is “quasi-republican” and “quasi-federal”, achieving the practical benefits of transforming the country into a liberal-democratic and parliamentary federal republic, without enraging long-lingering conservative and monarchist sentiments.
This wide borrowing of constitutional mechanisms from other countries does not mean that the resulting Constitution is a hotchpotch of incompatibilities. Rather, these tried and tested elements have been carefully blended into a unified and workable whole, which is firmly grounded in the mainstream of contemporary European liberal-democracy.
A new Constitution is not a panacea for Britain's social, cultural and economic ills, but it has become abundantly clear to many that a new constitutional settlement is a prerequisite of meaningful improvement. Britain’s failure to have a good house-clearing revolution in 1789, 1848 or 1918 – and arguably our failure to get liberated by America in 1945 – has left us with cobwebbed gothic institutions, strained to breaking point by a consumer-populist style of politics, instead of a modern European culture of equality, democracy and human rights.
A new Constitution can, at least in part, redress this historical failing. If this modest proposal can convince the reader of the practicality of reform, and can show how our governing institutions could be improved, based on the best of the British and the European liberal traditions, then the authors shall be content.
You can read the full text of the Scottish Constitutional Commission's Model Constitution here (pdf).