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Opening up a new British constitution

A Commons Select Committee has called for members of the British public to send them a model Preamble for a new UK constitution. Anthony Barnett tries his hand.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
6 January 2015

Last year the Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform published a bulky report with a question as its title: A New Magna Carta? The Committee’s Chairman Graham Allen MP launched it in July at the British Library. It set out three options for the overall reform of the UK’s constitution: a codification of what exists; a consolidation of existing laws and conventions into a unified framework; a written constitution. It issued a call for public responses.

To encourage the imagination and inspire people the Committee also lay down a challenge: come up with your own preamble to the Constitution of the future.  

The air is full of talk about the constitution, about Magna Carta, about the need to renew democracy. So this is a neat opportunity to think creatively. In particular we – that’s everybody – need to connect the requirement for territorial democracy (the English question, decentralisation, electoral reform) with the need to defend liberty in its modern forms (limit surveillance, ensure right to speech, defend privacy, make corporate power accountable). Only a new overall settlement can achieve this.

Originally the Committee's deadline for submissions was the first of January. I managed to submit my draft preamble at 11.45 on December 31! Now the deadline has been extended to 12 January, so there is time for readers to submit your own. Please  let others know who might want to have a go. You can also help improve mine, as I now have time to re-submit.

Here, below, is what I sent in at the mid-night hour. I have not gone for an inspiring, 18th-century style, ‘We the people’ approach. I wanted to keep it cool and educational. The prize for the winning entry is a bottle of House of Commons champagne. If the entry wins, everyone who suggests an improvement that I incorporate will be invited to come along and share a sip. (But you will have to pay your own expenses!) Even better, send in your own Preamble.

Welcome to the British Constitution.

 

All societies have constitutions. All constitutions seek four things for their societies:

  • To establish the rights of individual citizens, our claims on the institutions of power and the authority that institutions can exercise over us as citizens.
  • To set out the power relationships between the different institutions of authority within the society.
  • To lay down how the constitution itself can be changed.
  • To express what kind of community the society aspires to be.

These aims may be set out in one document or many, or not be codified at all. In all cases, what always matters most is how a constitution is lived. Constitutions are not merely legal arrangements; they are moral claims about the purpose of a society’s institutions and its way of life. They are themselves a living claim of purpose: they can be modest and healthy, full of boastful pretention, or dying through lack of self-belief.

We say all this to remind ourselves, and to alert the generations that follow us, that this, our current British Constitution, endorsed by us, the peoples of the United Kingdom, in 2019, belongs to a long, changing history that goes back via the introduction of votes for all, the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Charter of the Forests and the Magna Carta, to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and its Doomsday Book. An exceptional tradition emancipated our country from feudalism, conquered an empire, whose 800 millions souls were ruled by the absolute sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament, held out against Fascism and co-founded the United Nations.

We salute this tradition of flexibility by building into this, our now contemporary constitution, a regular Convention, to be held once every thirty years, to assess its working, with the power to reshape it.

By replacing the previous, informal and uncodified constitution with this written one we have the following aims: to re-establish the integrity of our government, to renew our liberties, to protect our self-government within the European Union, to ensure the freedom of our press and media, to protect of our fundamental rights and to guarantee the rule of law, securing equal access to it by all.

In our fast changing, digital age this constitution is intended: to secure in an open tolerant fashion our common resources, both for us and those who follow us: our built and natural environment, our public health service, our public service broadcasting; to delimit the clout of international corporations; and to help us invent new forms of self-organisation.

The great change we seek by means of this new constitution is to replace one form of democracy with another. Hitherto our country enjoyed rule by a broadly trusted elite, based upon the consent of the people. But trust was lost, consent drained away, scaremongering became the order of the day. Now, with the solemn pledge of allegiance to this document that all citizens will make to the laws and procedures set out, we replace that state of affairs with government of the people, by the people, for the people.

We look forward to parliaments that have the mettle to be open about their decisions, the modesty to be realistic about their capacity, the courage to think and act for the long-term, and the vigilance to defend our liberties and freedom in a fast changing world.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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