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Brown's 'National Council for Democratic Renewal'

In an extraordinary interview on the Today programme this morning the Prime Minister single-handedly announced the formation of a National Council for Democratic Renewal.

He did so in the way that it takes a magician only one hand to produce a rabbit from the hat. Only his legerdemain is showing.

"I advocated freedom of information twenty years ago and have been advocating the case for a written constitution for some time," he said. Well, no. As perhaps the person who did the most to persuade Brown to embrace the case for constitutional change twenty years ago, in his Charter 88 Sovereignty lecture, and who has talked with him on the topic since and followed his announcements carefully, I know of no instance when he publicly and unequivocally advocated a written constitution, or even ‘the case for one’ (that magician’s positioning again). He often showed a codified ankle to attract the following of those us who found it attractive. But it was flirt.

I always suspected that what he himself found most attractive about the idea was that he might sit down and write it, to be hailed as the father of Britain.

A written constitution must not be a rock of ages

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): At the end of last month I wrote a post objecting to a phrase by A.C.Grayling. A written constitution should never  be described as "rock solid" and were it to be so it would be failing its democratic purpose. The slip was twofold, a written constitution can't be rock solid (academic point) but also we should not want it to be (political point).

Grayling did me the great compliment of responding swiftly and courteously on a subject that is a great issue. I then broke the First Law of Blogging NEVER POSTPONE A POST! Many apologies. I am engaged in a new project (more on which anon, I hope) that was intensely distracting at that moment and I wanted to gather my thoughts.

The problem with insisting on the argument is that it runs the risk of the narcissism of small differences, when two figures on the edge of a cliff with a landslide approaching and a storm brewing decide to have a punch up! One of the most striking things about British journalistic and political culture over the last twenty years, that I have become very aware of since campaigning for a written constitution as one of the key demands of Charter 88, has been this. For all the fine words and radicalism, and now even when Prime Ministers talk about the need for a new constitutional settlement, this obvious need is rarely addressed and then usually in passing. The media is part of the political class that benefits from the informal, unwritten order. The need for a proper constitution is passed over, drawn back from, or at best referred to as a gimmick.

No such thing as a "rock solid" constitution

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): There  was a short, strong overview of the threat of an authoritarian, corporate cash cow database state by A.C. Grayling in yesterday's CiF. It reinforced the alarm set off by No2ID's Phil Booth in his excellent OK post. I particular liked Grayling's raised eyebrow over Seimens of Germany who are "already supplying 60 countries with a device that monitors and integrates data from phone, email and internet activity". Apparently its system is notorious for throwing up "huge numbers of false positives". I like that phrase "false positives". I suspect it will run and run, as in "We are all false positives now!"

My only objection was to Grayling's stirring conclusion,

We need to stop this assault on civil liberies going further, we need to roll back the attritions they have already suffered, and we need a rock solid written consitution to protect us from those who aim to make us all suspects in the gaze of the unblinking universal eye.

He should know better than that. No constitution, written or unwritten is "rock solid", nor is ever meant to be. Of course he is spot on to see that to roll back the surveillance state we need to constitutionalise our governing settlement. But this is in order for it to be lived in a democratic fashion, not to be set rock solid. Simply to change the governing culture we have to show everyone that our values are rooted in popular sovereignty encoded in a democratic constitition. This is the precondition for stopping the mandarins treating us as colonialised natives. But the constitition that results will be flexible as well as principled, an aid for us to better govern ourselves, a step on the road to emacipation and freedom, not a rock-like fixed point that we will have to bow down to. 

Why Tories should back a written constitution

Scott Kelly, a researcher for the Conservatives, explains why the party should back a written constitution.

Scott Kelly (Parliament):
I recently joined my students from New York University at a lecture by Professor Vernon Bogdanor on the subject of the British and American Constitutions. The leaflet advertising the event stated that “many in Britain are calling for a Constitution”. The author of this leaflet may be surprised to learn that we already have one. What we lack is a written, or more correctly, codified constitution – most of our constitution is already written in one form or another although it has never been codified in a single document.

Although the leaflet may contain factual errors, it is true that the issue of a written constitution has moved up the political agenda. The terrorist attacks of last summer obscured the fact that constitutional reform was central to Gordon Brown’s “big idea”. The Green Paper issued during the first week of his premiership stated that "there is now a growing recognition of the need to clarify not just what it means to be British, but what it means to be the United Kingdom. This may lead to a concordat between the executive and Parliament or a written constitution."

Richard Holme 1936 - 2008

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Richard Holme, or Lord Holme of Cheltenham (being a peer suited him), who has just died, deserves a place in the pitifully meagre pantheon of modern British democrats. Trevor Smith’s fine obituary in today’s Guardian has already set out the important role he played in establishing the Cook-Maclennan pact in 1997 as well as assisting the agreement between the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats and his work in various bodies committed to democratic politics and constitutional reform, not least his own Centre for Constitutional Reform.

Iain Dale comes out for a constitution

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I'm watching BBC 24 with Iain Dale and Alex Hilton sweeping up the email detritus of Question Time. Discussing the Goldsmith debacle over children swearing an oath of fealty to the monarch, Iain picked up on the member of the Question Time public who pointed out that in the US people swear loyalty to the constitution not the president and showed the kind of overview that the panelists ought to have and in this case didn't. George Osborne was useless. But not as conceptually challenged as Alex Hilton of Labour Home, who in a classic Labour way seemed not to understand what Iain was saying: that we don't have a written constitution and should. I've long thought that the Tories were more likely to propose a new constitution than Labour (if only for good conservative reasons). Alas, David Davis didn't win the leadership.

Parliamentary sovereignty is a dead parrot

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): In a sympathetic review of Keith Ewing's lecture this week, Debbie Moss suggests that the Professor is onto something:

Government has to be checked by a reinvigorated sovereign parliament. Ewing is surely right on this point. It must be preferable that our democratically elected parliament prevents the executive from passing statutes that contravene human rights, rather than hoping that judges will step in after the event when many of the measures will have already worked their effects.

Peter Riddell and the Magna Carta

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I've just seen this the opening para of a report by Peter Riddell in the Times (which is still learning the courtesy of linking to websites):

What a difference a few hours make. In the morning, Jack Straw’s heavily qualified hints about working towards a written constitution were welcomed by Unlock Democracy, a leading reform group. Then, in the afternoon, Mr Straw’s full speech, entitled “Modernising the Magna Carta”, received a more hostile response: “what a load of cobblers,” as the OurKingdom website put it.

You could not make it up

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Here is Jack Straw's speech on our constitution in full. Its official title is

Modernising the Magna Carta

This defies satire. Tiring of modernising the 20th century and before even they have managed to 'modernise' the House of Lords, they are now modernising feudualism!

Writing down what is?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):  According to ePolitix Jack Straw is on his way to the USA and...

Justice secretary Jack Straw visits the US, where he delivers a speech on constitutional issues. "We now need to think very carefully about whether a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities should be a step towards a full written constitution, which would bring us in line with the most progressive democracies around the world," he will say.

A real ray of Sunshine

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): As well as starting websites Sunny Hundal of the Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics is going to set us on course for a written constitution. He starts to spell out the case in a new article in CiF. He takes up the issue from the point of view of the integration of immigrants and the forging of a shared identity,

Brown's listening agenda - come on!

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): One questioner managed to get back at Gordon Brown in today's press conference, the BBC's Nick Robinson. He posed the issue of the election call by contrasting it to the Prime Minister's declaration of principle that he would listen and could be trusted. Thanks to this, Brown said the following,

Balls in favour of written constitution

Jon Bright (London, OK): Ed Balls was quoted fairly widely for coming out in support of a written constitution at a Fabian fringe in Bournemouth, and his remarks have now been published:

'I do not underestimate how difficult it is. It would take years and be hard', said Balls. With the issue currently being debated within government, Balls said his personal view was that they should take the plunge and embark on a written constitution.

Has Ming got it right at last?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Just last night I was talking with an influential Labour advisor and we asked ourselves, 'Where are the Lib-Dems?'. I was arguing that one of the problems with the Government's approach, reinforced by the mood music (sleepy, lulling, intermittent) from the Ministry of Justice which is supposedly in charge of the great national conversation, is that it seems to be in denial about the problems with British democracy which all this effort is supposed to put right. If Gordon Brown wants to see a democratic equivalent of Make Poverty History, which he highlighted again in his speech on Monday and in his answers to the questions, then there needs to be agreement that there is indeed an  equivalent to the problem of world poverty in terms of the UK's democratic deficits.

Anthony King works over Brown's proposals

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): The subscription only section of today's Prospect carries an essay by Anthony King which is the first sustained critique of the Green Paper on the constitution. The tone is bleak and slightly patronising as you might expect but it is serious and refreshing about the ambition, the difficulties and the issues avoided, including the English question to which the professor's solution is to decimate the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs. King asks,

What are the Tories afraid of?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): In a striking article in London’s pre-holiday Evening Standard (not on line) David Davis had a go at the Chindamo affair. He understood that the decision to let him stay is based on an EU directive not the Human Rights Act, nonetheless the Act was the central target of his piece. The article shows that Davis thinks - but has still not escaped that weird constitutional cowardice that has for so long afflicted Tory attitudes. He writes,

68% say, "Write it down!"

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): With debate bubbling about whether a written constitution is needed to help resolve issues of layered identity and integration, the core anti-argument popped up in response to a feeble Comment is Free article against the monarchy by Graham Smith of Republic that was a response to the wretched John Gray that I blogged yesterday. On the monarchy also what matters is having a written constitution. If a majority vote in a referendum to keep it hereditary it will be a pity, I’d prefer a republic. But I’m a democrat first. What's important is that the monarch swears an oath of allegiance to a democratic constitution which defines the role of the head of state and thus we see the last of divine right. Smith’s article said, mildly and in passing, that he wanted a written constitution and this drew a wonderful example of our ancient regime’s policeman’s plod mentality from “Billy1” (Comment No. 731326)

Our Constitution

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Open Europe, the anti-EU pressure group, have taken the admirable step of publishing a complete English version of the new EU treaty, in effect its - our - constitution. I was surprised that it was not available officially, as the EU translates all its core material into its 23 official languages. But a search of the official EU website did not reveal its whereabouts. So well done Open Europe. Their point is that the government's refusal to give us a referendum on what they argue is 96 per cent the same as the original draft EU constitution is profoundly undemocratic and continues the erosion of British sovereignty. I am sure this is true. What puzzles me is why they and those on the right more generally don't draw the obvious conclusion. It is clearly threatening to be an uncodified entity within a codified one, therefore the first step to ensuring our democracy is to draw up our own democratic constitution.

How much do you want it?

Graham Allen (Nottingham, MP): There is an air of bafflement in the House of Commons. Last Tuesday Gordon Brown chose democracy as the topic for his first ever set-piece statement in the House of Commons as Prime Minister, and offered the prospect of a route map to a written constitution for the UK. “Of course he doesn’t mean it” said all the old hands. But then today, he chooses to make another statement to parliament - not, you notice, the media - this time heralding a debate on the government’s legislative programme some four months ahead of the Queen's Speech. He said,

Smith Institute covers the change

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Just attended the fourth and last of the Smith Institute seminars on ‘Towards a new constitutional settlement’. Vernon Bogdanor and Francesca Klug spoke and the newly returned to government John Denham MP; Dominic Grieve the Conservative shadow Attorney General; and Simon Hughes from the Lib-Dems responded. It was chaired by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News who amused everyone by his bemusement with the rate of change over the last two months. After the first seminar I breached the Chatham House rules by publicising in OK that Jack Straw said he had changed his mind on a written constitution. This time Dominic Grieve was the only person to say he opposed a written constitution. For everyone else it was a matter of either why not, or perhaps but not yet, or intellectually of course but is it feasible, to stop all the excuses about needing to wait (Simon Hughes). Jon Snow asked John Denham in what way he had changed his mind, and his answer was striking. He said he used to be against a written constitution because it would take power away from politicians and give it to judges, now he was favouring one because it would take power away from judges and give it back to politicians! At the end, Bogdanor asked what is the problem to which far-reaching reform is the answer. His reply to his question was, I paraphrase: people now want a direct influence in decisions that impact on them. We will be opening an OK section of the new openDemocracy website soon where full articles can be published, and I hope we will be able to run both Bogdanor's paper and Francesca Klug's who spoke very powerfully about why Britain may now get a new Bill of Rights and Duties.

If not the bad old days, then what?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Few understand better the passing of the old, informal constitution and its virtues than Roger Scruton. Commenting on Gordon Brown’s proposals, Roger has said that rather than a written constitution he’d like his familiar liberties to be returned to him, such as the right to hunt old foxie to his death and then recount the leaps and falls in a cheerful smoke-filled pub, preferably one could add, in the company of a hereditary peer or two who also exercise their judgement in the upper house.

And the discussion now begins

Gordon Brown (10 Downing Street, Prime Minister): “In Britain we have a largely unwritten constitution. To change that would represent a fundamental and historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. So it is right to involve the public in a sustained debate on whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of rights and Duties, or for moving towards a written constitution.”

Read David Marquand!

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): I've just read the best article so far on Brown and the constitution. It's written by David Marquand (who has also blogged for OK) and appears in this week's New Statesman. He explains clearly and eloquently why a new settlement with a written constitution is needed. Its refreshing to read something that is clear, fair, far-reaching and best of all puts the radicalism required into its international context. It's not that having a written constitution is so revolutionary. The challenge comes from the fact that Britain's over-centralised state is antiquated and out of date, despite all the talk of being modern. "Brown", Marquand concludes optimistically, "has a chance to build a consensus for democratic change of a kind we have not seen since 1945", noting that if he succeeds "he will go down as one of the greatest reforming prime ministers of modern times." Great stuff. Read it here.

The candidates and the constitution

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): An important, perhaps even historic, shift has taken place. The Labour Party has by tradition been deeply conservative, despite the radical potential of its egalitarian desires. Its impulse to preserve has been most strongly expressed in its loyalty to British institutions and, most of all, to our royal, unwritten constitution. Blair and Mandelson, for all their edgy modernism, loved the core idea behind royalism, namely a monopoly on power and patronage that has as few rules as possible and is exercised by divine right. Now, a sea change seems to have taken place. Annoyed by the failure of both Labour Party members and the media to ask the six deputy leader candidates their views on power and liberty in Britain, we decided to ask them ourselves. They have answered in their own voices, and you can feel their personalities in their replies. A lot of ground is covered: ID cards, the English question, local power and decentralisation, the Human Rights Act. Their answers, even when evasive or nervous, have been thought about. A quiet, below the table-top consideration of these issues amy be underway. This is most obvious in their answers to the question of whether we should now have a written constitution. It is almost a consensus that we should! This is enough to make one suspect that the aim could be to conserve top-down rule rather than replace it. But this is a battle to be had - and welcomed. The full answers are published here in openDemocracy along with an introduction. Your comments and responses will be published and linked to this post in OurKingdom, and we will sort them by their theme. Please let the candidates know what you think, we will make sure they are sent your views.

Is Prospect being too conventional?

John Jackson (London, Mishcon de Reya): In the June issue of Prospect, just out, Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit, in an essay (with restricted web access) titled Gordon’s Go, asserts that "Britain is poised for a second big wave of constitutional reform". Having set the blood running, he then carefully dampens enthusiasm, advocating a cautious step by step approach; the steps being fashioned, one suspects, by ministers and their advisers guided by "practical politics".  Although Hazell nods in acknowledgement to public involvement and public consultation, he seems to see this not as a use of deliberative democracy but as part of a political process of "stimulating" public support.  This is reflected in his damning the notion of a Constitutional Convention with faint praise – "this might usefully be convened for specific projects with specific terms of reference, like preparing a British bill of rights; but not for an open ended exercise like writing a constitution".

The Constitution Unit

Jon Bright (London, OK): Dedicated constitution-watchers will know that the UCL’s Constitution Unit leads the way when it comes to offering independent analysis at a detailed policy level. The think tank has just published the latest version of its quarterly newsletter, the Monitor. Although the Unit’s work is mainly aimed at policy makers and practitioners, the newsletters provide a concise summary of recent constitutional developments for those with a more general interest.

Who gets the pen?

Jessica Reed (London oD): Now that you British are talking about writing down your constitution (and this applies also to the constitution or constitutional treaty of the E.U) one crucial question is sure to give headaches to those at the top: who should write it? Should it be a body of elected politicians? Outstanding jurists? And how should the British public be actively involved? Pam Giddy of the Power Inquiry has said here in OK that she does not want another “bogus conversation”. She did not say that her organisation has a record of holding events which have indeed involved British citizens in political decision making. I witnessed one of these, the recent European Citizens Consultations, which took place in York last March (and which we live-blogged!). Ollie Henman, co-coordinator of the event, later wrote about the deliberative process, and how engaging everyday citizens does work. He also has experience in Brazil. There is much more practical knowledge about legitimate citizens participation, from Canada to Brussels, than you'd know of by reading the London media. Much of it helped by Jim Fishkin of the Center for Deliberative Democracy in Stanford, California. My message to  OK readers is: don't think you are alone!

The unfinished business of British democracy

Graham Allen (Nottingham, MP): Gordon Brown’s references to a written constitution at the 2006 Labour Party Conference were followed last week by Jack Straw’s conversion to the idea of a written constitution for the UK. Next Tuesday 22nd May, I will be able to test the water in a parliamentary debate on the need for a written constitution which is taking place at 12:30pm in the House of Commons. With a change of political leadership there is now hope that for the first time the British political system may be created on a legitimate and understandable basis. It is the last unfinished business of the British democracy – the British people prising the political rulebook from the closed grasp of the executive. As Thomas Paine said in The Rights of Man, "a government without a constitution is a government without a right".

Clash at the World Service

Jon Bright (London, OK): Following the Today programme's packet (see below) on "Should Britain have a written constitution?", I have posted Saturday's World Service exchange on this with Oliver Heald, Conservative Party Shadow Spokesman on Constitutional Affairs, and Anthony Barnett of Our Kingdom. Naturally the World Service got there first!

Today Programme takes out its pencils

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):  This morning's Today programme discussed whether we should have a written constitution. It took as its peg the attempt by Vernon Bogdanor's students to write down what we already have in the Smith Institute publication (OK'd here). Listeners are now emailing in their views on the programme's excellent bulletin board. Its a healthy exercise but too technical. The spirit of a constitution matters as much as its formal content. Filling in the dots won't do much for democracy - see the important exchange between David Marquand and Tom Nairn - just look below.

Responses to Tom Nairn v Gordon Brown

Moderator : Tom Nairn has published a strong warning against a Gordon Brown constitution which codifies in writing the strong, centralised and ill-liberal all-British state. His article, Not on your Life, is published in the OurKingdom section of openDemocracy. Any comments and responses should be posted here.

Tories want to be free to change constitution

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Can it be the case that the main reason the Tories do not want a new codified settlement is that it will prevent them from tearing up the constitutional order whenever they so wish? I was on the BBC World Service for 6 minutes at 1.20pm this lunchtime debating with Oliver Heald, the Conservative MP who is Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. And I was surprised. The issue was should Britain have a written constitution. We sparred in the usual way over whether Britain is so special it has no need to be like other countries. (This is when the lamentable example of the US constitution is always dragged up, as if this is the only example on offer.) But Heald’s main point was one I had never heard before. He said the Tories do not want a written constitution because “we don’t want a block on constitutional change”. For example, they don’t want to have to hold referendums like Switzerland as this prevented women from getting the vote there. As an argument for arbitrary power in a progressive guise it is similar to the one John McDonald made to Red Pepper (see entry below). But for the main Conservative spokesman to pin the the Party's flag to the status quo because it allows them to change the order of things is, well, hardly conservative. I am trying to download an mp3 of the exchange.

Not so fast, Brown holds back

Matthew d'Ancona (London, The Spectator): Asked this morning if he favoured a "written constitution", Brown replied that he wanted a "better constitution". But he was more explicit about rolling back the Crown prerogative, giving Parliament the right of veto over declarations of war, some parliamentary oversight of Government appointments and - it seemed - a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. How does it all add up? Not sure yet - but I have hunch that his repeated promise of a "ministry of all the talents" is not simply an olive branch to bereaved Blairites but also a come hither to other parties. Stand by for a serious constitutional convention - and perhaps much more besides. The Spectator will be there.

Historic Straw

David Marquand (Oxford): Jack Straw's announcement that he is now in favour of a written constitution may mark a historic milestone in Britain's long, slow march to democracy. He is the first British Cabinet minister in history to say anything of the sort and constitutional reformers should rejoice. But constitutional reform must not be the property of any one political party, or even of the political class as such. One of the chief reasons why a new constitutional settlement is necessary is that public distrust of politicians and political parties has reached record levels. The point of a new constitutional settlement is not to put together a series of institutional nuts and bolts. It is to democratise the public culture. That will not happen if the process of reform is dominated - or, just as important, thought to be dominated - by the political establishment. Gordon Brown's approach will be judged in this light.

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