Justice and Britain's democratic crisis


Why oD-UK launches openJustice, focusing on the dismantling UK justice system.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
1 November 2016



Lady Justice. Press Association/Nick Ansell. All rights reserved

Today, openDemocracyUK is proud to launch openJustice. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Let me explain why.

In the past two years or so, the old British state has lost control of one of its two biggest countries, one of its two main parties, and one of the legs holding up its foreign policy. When openDemocracyUK was founded in 2010 – we were called OurKingdom back then – the purpose was “to address the unfolding crisis in British democracy, its root causes and the injustices which stem from it”. But few, even then, could have predicted the sheer number of folds, the complexity of the concertina crisis, that we would have to get to grips with.

In one sense, the question is economic. The 2008 credit crunch and ongoing stagnation have ruined lives and led huge numbers to feel a deep distrust of Britain’s key institutions. To try to understand this better – and to create space to discuss what is to be done – we have launched a new online space: New Thinking for the British Economy.

In another sense, the question is global. Britain doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is, and has been for a long time, a notable node in the international flows of money, wealth, power and people. You probably can’t understand our politics without thinking about London’s place as a money-laundering capital of the world; without having at the back of your mind the lingering memory that most of the land and wealth for which our government is in some way responsible isn’t in these islands at all, but locked up in our global network of overseas territory tax havens[1], without considering how we live in the shadow of the biggest empire that ever was.

All of this is why we aren’t a separate UK website; but a section within the broad openDemocracy family: a sub-plot in a global story, followed closely by some protagonists in this arc, and occasionally by other readers.

And in another way, the crisis is constitutional. Britain’s democratic revolution was never completed. Our constitution remains uncodified; to be bent into whatever shape fits whoever has power at any moment. We retain the only unelected parliamentary chamber in the Western world. Our voting system is outdated. Political power is distributed asymmetrically across the country, and Westminster retains the ability to tinker with all other levels of governance as it pleases.

Our approach to this has been to look in depth at some of the key institutions which make up the broad British state as people experience it. OurNHS, for example, does an amazing job of explaining – and resisting – the dismantling of what is perhaps the most loved institution the country has ever produced. OurBeeb poses key questions of another. We'll be doing some serious work on English civil society over the next couple of years: watch this space. All the while, Shine a Light uncovers some of the grimmest realities of the consequences of the crisis.   

Similarly, we have developed a number of strands looking at what you might call formal constitutional questions. We focussed lots of time and attention on the Scottish independence referendum, because of the vast implications we felt it always had for the whole of the UK, and because we anticipated the surge in support for a yes vote, which finally transpired shortly before the referendum.

The first half of this year was defined by our Brexit coverage – again, in part, because we always believed that a Leave vote was possible, and profound (not that we would claim to have predicted it). In between, with the anniversary of the Magna Carta, we ran what we think may be the most comprehensive online discussion about the British constitution ever to have taken place: the Great Charter Convention.

But there is an element of all of this which we haven’t ever exactly focussed on. It has been a strand through all of our work: Shine a Light often deals with vital parts of it, and does key work exposing where it has failed. We’ve run crucial essays from those involved in it, discussing how it too is facing a crisis. But we’ve yet to develop a strand dedicated to understanding what is happening to this vital part of the British constitution: until now.

Just as regular elections are key to democracy, so too is the rule and fair application of law. A local magistrate or sheriff’s court building is as much an icon of democracy as is a house of parliament. As any American can tell you, questions about the judiciary are as much a part of healthy democratic debate as are questions about the legislature or the executive.

And Britain’s justice system – or, rather, web of systems – is going through as much of a crisis as any of the other key institutions in our country.

And so today, we launch openJustice. Edited by Charlotte Threipland, herself a lawyer and activist, and with the support of the fine folks at Leigh Day, it will, we hope, become a buzzing centre for discussion about what’s going wrong, why it matters, and how to mend it.

Whether you are a lawyer, a campaigner for justice, or a citizen who understands the vital importance of a system which works for us all, I do very much hope that you enjoy it.

[1] How is it possible, for example, that a we can manage to have a national debate about airport expansion without mention of the fact that the most popular destination for the 15% of people who take 70% of flights from the UK is tax havens?

At openJustice we inspire debate and mobilise support for positive change within the UK justice system. Please subscribe to our newsletter here. Contributing writers and potential funders should email [email protected].

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