The Case for a Citizens' Assembly on the British Constitution

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  • Picture of Adam Clarke FRSA
    Adam Clarke FRSA
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It may be painfully simplistic to make the point, but don’t recent events demonstrate that there should only be one national citizen’s assembly coming to a town near you soon?

I applaud Matthew Taylor for pushing the deliberative democracy agenda and thus giving a sharp focus to the paper-jam in our legislature and executive. Government can’t print or scan; only by downloading the latest version of democracy can we get things moving again. We might even need a factory reset to the constitution itself – this deserves deliberating at least.

The response to the RSA’s poll to gauge public opinion on a citizen’s assembly for Brexit was, most succinctly put, ‘meh’. It didn’t grab my imagination, mainly because (as hard as it might be to believe) the issues that have got us to this place go beyond our membership of the EU. 

These issues are structural, historical and culturally deep seated. Democracy didn’t begin to fail the moment the word ‘Brexit’ entered our vocabulary. People have been pointing it out for decades; perhaps most eloquently in Jonathan Freedland’s 1998 polemic ‘Bring Home the Revolution’. Unfortunately, a revolution of sorts in our constitution by the then Blair government faltered. We have since been left with an even bigger hotchpotch of devolved democratic structures coalesced around a parliamentary democracy that is incoherent and unequal (for example: no one has ever answered the late Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian Question).

Dropping deliberative democratic methodologies into a hopelessly convoluted, outdated, inequitable and willfully uncollaborative machine won’t create the radical change to drag politics and government into the healthier place that I think we all crave. Those of us that don’t trust politicians, those of us that don’t vote, those of us that think ‘they’re all the same’, those of us who are fundamentally opposed to Brexiteers, Remainers, Centrists, Liberals, Neo-Conservatives, the Hard-Left, the Hard-Right (and so on) are all actually saying the same thing: 

THIS isn’t working.” 

Even when placing existential issues like Brexit and the Climate Emergency to one side, in historical terms this is as good a time as any to begin to reset the constitution. 

We have just passed the centenary of when the first women were given the vote and we are within ten years of the centenary of what was termed ‘universal suffrage’.  Deliberating (and acting upon) a range of constitutional issues up to the centenary would give time and space to develop and deliver through bottom-up structures and push back top-down doctrines. Reflecting on the 1928 Universal Suffrage Act might be one of three ‘enquiry questions’ a citizen’s assembly might investigate.

Three questions worth knocking about might be:

  1. Is there actually universal suffrage? (for example: votes at 16 and for foreign nationals making a contribution to society.)
  2. Is democracy distributed equitably? (for example: demographically, geographically and so on.)
  3. Shouldn’t we have written down some values, rights and responsibilities to underpin our democracy and help prevent the situation in which we find ourselves?

Wouldn’t this be the most coherent, prescient, rational and yet radical place to start if we really want to embed deliberative democracy into our political decision-making processes?

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  • I take it that 'the British Constitution' has worked in the past ... and for some time. I know it's an evolved beast - indeterminate, indistinct, and unentrenched - as the text books say. It looks like even conventions of the Parliament are probably part of the constitution. I think it would be difficult to start again with a new process and document. But even the best-drafted doc from a Parliament that can't agree on very much is not perfect. I live under the constitutional and administrative enlightenment of the Australian Constitution. It was a well thought out doc then ... and still is remarkably relevant, but it throws up occasional and inconvenient surprises. E.g section 44 on MPs prohibited from being in receipt of a benefit of a foreign power ... all very sensible, but recently caught out a Senator whose mum ticked a box on her application for Italian citizenship ( Mum !!!). the Senator was deemed to be sitting unlawfully - resigned, re-contested his seat - and won - his Mum was so proud!

    One thing that may be of interest could be compulsory voting (!). It pushes everyone to the centre to communicate with the centre , and supports intense negotiation when the various centrists talk - not a bad thing. It works 'kinda well'. I'm not even raising preferential voting!

  • I think this is a great proposal.  It matches one of the earliest and best known citizens assemblies, on electoral reform in British Columbia in 2004 and it seems to me a more appropriate subject for this process than Brexit.  In fact the constitutional issue is highly relevant to Brexit given that there's no formal provision for referendums in our constitution and the rules get made up anew each time.  So we have the bizarre situation where an enormous change is prompted by a vote of little more than a third (37%) of the electorate, exactly the figure that voted for Scottish devolution in 1979 but it didn't go ahead because a 40% threshold had been set.  This proposal needs to be taken forward in my view.  The only issue for me is whether 'the constitution' is too wide-ranging a subject to be manageable in one go and it needs to be narrowed down in some way.

    • Thanks Ron. I agree it's a wide-ranging proposal and therefore cumbersome hence my suggestion we take our time and seek to complete by 2028 - a century since (so called?) universal suffrage. I reckon quick wins could be acted upon during that time but the big questions answered by then... I'm now off to look more into BC's trailblazing!

  • You’re right – “THIS isn’t working” and nor will any proposed solutions work either until the nub of the matter is properly addressed, viz. the PROCESS of decision-making.  
    As it stands, decision-making is a dark art which disguises incompetence, ignorance, corruption, nepotism and patronage.  With a freely-available, structured, universal methodology that can be applied to any decision, involving any number of people and which always shows the best choice, we can begin to replace the current political miasma with a refreshingly transparent, fully-participatory and accountable system.
    Both citizens and politicians will benefit; it is the basis of government of the people, by the people, for the people – Democracy incarnate.  This, we humbly suggest, should be the first port of call to resolve the conflicting and emotionally-charged politics we have endured for far too long.  Give peace (consensus politics) a chance!

    • Thanks Michael... A genuinely thought provoking response.