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A new Magna Carta? A constitution fit for the 21st century

The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is an opportunity for reform that we must all seize.

Graham Allen
10 December 2014

In a modern democracy we need a written constitution to act as a clear rule book for the conduct of our politics and the exercise of power.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, which I chair, launched its report A new Magna Carta?’ in July of this year. Publication of this report marked the start of a major consultation, asking the public whether we should adopt a written constitution for the UK and, if so, what it should contain.

There is still time to share your views with me and the Committee – the consultation closes on 1 January 2015, so please use these remaining few weeks to let Parliament know what you think our constitution should look like for the future.

How to get involved – a conversation about the future of our democracy

In addition to a customary call for evidence, we have used social media to generate discussion and gather opinions – anyone can join this conversation using the hashtag #UKconstitution. This has proved a great means of communicating with a broader range of people than might usually engage with Select Committee enquiries, as can been seen from the storify record of my live twitter chat, held as part of this November’s Parliament Week.

To make it as quick and easy as possible to let the Committee know your thoughts, we’ve also developed an online survey which I would encourage everyone to complete.

The Committee has been working with colleagues through a series of seminars focusing in more depth on various aspects of the report. These seminars will culminate in a conference in Westminster on 11 December, jointly organised by my Committee and King’s College London. The conference will consider:

  • - What are the prospects for constitutional reform in 2015?
  • - How should British democratic principles best be reflected in a Written Constitution?
  • - Should a codified constitution describe existing arrangements or include elements of reform?
  • - What constitutional reforms are most likely to engage the public in politics?

All views that we receive in response to our consultation will be reflected in a follow-up report, which I hope will be published by the end of January. But that will not be the end of the conversation.

The general election – parties, politics and constitutional reform as a priority

As we approach the general election in May 2015 it is vital that political parties demonstrate that they are aware of and understand the strength of feeling about the perceived inadequacies of our politics and our political system. The need for reform must be taken seriously by all major political parties and should feature in their general election manifestos.

The great democratic adventure in Scotland starkly illustrated that people are fundamentally interested in their democracy, and want to have their say when there is a meaningful opportunity to do so. The cross-party commitment to introduce legislation to achieve further devolution in Scotland and the establishment of the Smith Commission to inform that process show that constitutional change can be achieved—and can be achieved quickly—when the political will exists.

The party leaders now need to look beyond Scotland and think about the bigger picture. Our constitution is in need of modernisation, and political leadership is now necessary. Promises to establish a Constitutional Convention without a clear timetable and direction of travel risk kicking the issue into the long grass. Such promises represent the politics of delay.

I would like all party leaders to commit to an assessment of the adequacy of our current constitutional arrangements and to act where those arrangements are no longer fit for purpose. In my view, a Commission for Democracy should be established immediately after the general election to carry out such an assessment and to keep these issues under review.

There is no need to start from scratch. Our report demonstrates that our constitutional arrangements can be written down in a variety of ways. We have produced a serious and viable starting point for discussions about the future of our democracy, and all parties now need to engage with how we move forward.

2015 – Time for a new Magna Carta

On 15 June 2015 we will commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the first Magna Carta. This is undoubtedly important. Magna Carta is one of our earliest constitutional documents, and is widely acknowledged as the foundation of the concept of limited government. It is one of the first examples of a document used to subject the power of government to the law and to reduce the scope for arbitrary exercises of power.

But this ancient document is now of largely historical significance. Although it has influenced the development of our democracy and the constitutions of many other democracies around the world, Magna Carta is now of only limited practical use.

Our traditionally ‘unwritten’ constitution has changed significantly over recent decades, and much of it is now written down. We are on the brink of a period of profound constitutional and political change. The very real prospect of further devolution in Scotland has already led to legitimate calls for similar steps to be taken in Wales and for serious thought to be given to the future of governance in England. We have seen a pledge from the Conservative Party to repeal the Human Rights Act, which will call into question our relationship with other member states of the Council of Europe. And our position within the European Union looks increasingly precarious.

Against this background we can no longer afford to be complacent. A number of difficult questions about our democratic arrangements need to be addressed: is our current constitution clear enough? Does it enable us adequately to hold those in power to account? Could codifying our constitutional rules help combat the current widespread suspicion of politicians and of our political system?

So in addition to marking our past achievements, we should use the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta to think about our future. We should seize this opportunity to undertake an honest appraisal of our current constitutional arrangements, acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, and write them down in a new Magna Carta, fit for purpose in a modern democracy.


For more articles on reform and constitutional change, see our new series, the Great Charter Convention, examining the case for a people's constitutional convention and with an eye on next year's 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

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