openDemocracyUK

A new Magna Carta?

Do we need to enact a new Magna Carta?

Graham Allen
10 July 2014
Graham Allen.jpg

Graham Allen at the launch

This afternoon Parliament will launch a national debate on a Written Constitution for the UK, and I hope all readers of openDemocracy will join in this conversation at www.parliament.uk/pcrc-constitution.

The launch will take place at the British Library, within touching distance of the original Magna Carta. As the nation looks to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta we need to look forward as well as back. It is the perfect moment to ask ourselves: what would a written constitution to last another 800 years look like?

Entitled ‘A new Magna Carta?’ our report briefly sets out the arguments for and against a written constitution for the UK and then outlines three fully worked up options for future codification of the UK constitution, including a model Written Constitution.

The Committee deliberately do not prefer one option over another. Instead we ask you to consider the options – amend your favourite and have your say on the future of the UK’s democracy. All responses received by 1st January 2015 will be synthesised and will form the basis for a further report to inform thinking up to the May General Election and the evolution of our politics thereafter.

For many, the UK’s uncodified constitution is an acceptable, even desirable means of regulating state power. They point to the long-term stability of our democracy, and highlight the flexibility that has allowed our constitution to evolve gradually and to avoid the political ruptures experienced in many other countries around the world.

But others feel that all citizens should own the rule book of their democracy. Change may seem unlikely, but political crises - perhaps following the Scottish independence referendum, or if a government is formed in May 2015 having won only a small minority of votes on a low turnout – have a way of shaking complacency and inducing reform.

Over the coming months we will see much ceremony, dressing up and "Merrie England" around the Magna Carta. We should remember, though, that Magna Carta was and is about raw political power. It is the vital foundation of the concept of limited government, subject both to the law and to the people. Is it possible that we would travel another 800 years without a serious upgrade of our democratic foundations?

Our traditionally ‘unwritten’ constitution has changed significantly over recent decades, and much of it is now written down in a variety of ways and places. But this does not necessarily mean that it is easily accessible or readily understood. Discovering the content of our constitution often requires what John Smith called "judicial archaeology", which is hardly the hallmark of a modern democracy.

We must ask some difficult questions: is our current constitution clear enough? Does it enable us adequately to hold those in power to account? Could codifying our democratic rules help combat the current widespread suspicion of politicians and of our political system?

In short, do we need to enact a new Magna Carta, owned by our citizens, to ensure that government remains limited and accountable in the 21st century and beyond? 

In 1792 Tom Paine famously declared: ‘A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government, and government without a constitution, is power without a right’. We - the people of the UK - have never constituted our government. And our indirectly-elected government has, over time, usurped the power of our Parliament. The result is that political legitimacy is now under threat from many quarters: the media, separatism, over-centralisation, voter antipathy and apathy. Hence many of our once unquestioned institutions are now widely regarded as not fit for purpose. Does our democracy need to be refounded and resecured on new, strong principles of legitimacy and consent?

As our political leaders appear paralysed and fearful, trapped in the headlights of tomorrow's headlines, it falls to Parliament to act. It can do only so because the 5 year fixed term has allowed the Committee to plan its work, and because MPs elected for the first time to select committees by secret ballot can think and propose public debate without anxiety about the Whips.

The result is a major consultation about the future of our democracy which needs contributions from you and as many organisations, institutions and individuals as you can encourage. Forty white guys in a hall in Philadelphia? We can do better than that. Social media means we can now think on a far bigger scale: our new constitution could have several million founding fathers and mothers!

Let the debate begin.

 

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