On March 25th the House of Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee published Do We Need A Constitutional Convention for the UK? Though the report acknowledged widespread opposition to the idea – from the government, from the Scottish National Party and from the Conservative party in Wales, as well as from some members of the committee itself – it concluded that a convention was necessary, in order to address the growing strains on the UK’s constitution caused by "a huge amount of incremental constitutional change over the past two decades" (p.17).
As the report puts it, "while there is not yet a constitutional crisis in the UK, it is better to identify and analyse potential weaknesses in our constitutional framework before a crisis arises" (p.17). And while we have serious economic problems, addressing them will require, among other things, constitutional change. After all, "having a system of politics and a constitution that are “fit for purpose” is a prerequisite for an inclusive and fully functioning economy" (p.35).
The committee report focuses to some extent on the so-called English Question, the anomalous position of England as a relatively large political unit governed centrally but surrounded by devolved administrations. The Chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, went so far as to call England "the last part of the British Empire, still run, as we concede, in a way that might have worked with running India from the India Office" (p.18).
As it happens a coalition of left-wing groups have recently announced their plan to establish People’s Assemblies Against Austerity. Everyone has their own hopes, wishes and fears for the assemblies. For myself, I hope that people pick up on the idea of a constitutional convention and use the assembly form to discuss the fundamentals of British governance.
The economic problems we face are deeply integrated with the political system. The financial sector is a collection of private businesses that can call on a range of state and state-like agencies to promote its interests. The Bank of England, the Corporation of the City of London and the offshore jurisdictions are part of how the British economy operates and they are obvious objects of interest to a constitutional convention based on very widespread participation. A constitutional convention worth the name will ask whether it makes sense for Britain to operate as an offshore hub, given the corrupting effects it has on our public life and the costs it imposes on the rest of the economy.
The BBC is another institution that has so far escaped the attention of the reforming imagination. But its journalistic failings derive from its nature as a creature of parliamentary opinion. If the executive and most of Parliament are uninterested in seeing an issue debated then the BBC remains silent. Given the centrality of the BBC in our information system its dependence on cues from an out of control political class lends mainstream coverage of public affairs an increasingly hallucinatory quality. When Westminster wants something – from a war in the Middle East to the privatization of the NHS – the BBC falls into line. Needless to say, it cannot describe the economy in ways that deviate from the parliamentary consensus.
The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones AM, told the committee that he was worried that a convention that involved too many people would become unwieldy:
"The challenge for the convention is that it is not just the great and the good, which royal commissions tend to be … but also that it is not so big that it becomes unwieldy."
The assemblies offer us a chance to demonstrate that general debate between citizens about the fundamentals of our political settlement can be wide-ranging and nuanced, that there is no need to leave matters in the hands of academics and professional politicians.
This is a project that can unite revolutionaries and reformists. The unreformed City of London is a longstanding affront to the liberal imagination and a reality-based BBC would provide the radical left with many more opportunities to be heard. If we can do more than demonstrate outrage at cuts in public services and begin to develop and publicise a programme for deep reform of the British state and economy, then we will force our politicians to change direction. They will sacrifice austerity to save the fundamentals of British political economy. But it is up to us to put those fundamentals in play.
One final point: an assembly ceases to be a talking shop or a tool of the existing parties when it can discover and share its preferences in the context of the existing political geography. It will make sense for an assembly to back a new party, or to support an existing one, depending on the balance of opinion in a particular constituency. This balance of opinion can be both discovered and changed through the widespread use of assemblies. Politicians can live with a general mood of discontent, with widespread outrage, even. They cannot bear the prospect of being voted out. Therefore the assemblies are best organized with reference to particular constituencies, or to groups of constituencies.
That’s just my take on the assemblies and what they might do. There are other things to say, and I am sure that other people will say them. I write in more detail about deep constitutional reform in Maximum Republic and I also explore the politics of assembly in Common Sense.
Get our weekly email