THE United Kingdom is one of just five countries in the world without a written constitution. As we approach next year’s 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, we are asking whether it is time we had one.
The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which I’m a member, has launched what we hope will become a national debate on the issue. Our report – entitled A New Magna Carta? – aims to inform Parliament and the public of the arguments for and against.
It outlines three fully worked up options for the codification of our constitution while deliberately not coming down on either side of the argument. Instead, the report invites responses from the public until January 1 next year, when every submission will be collated and reported to Parliament in the hope that it will inform thinking by the political parties in the run-up to the General Election next May.
We are asking voters to consider the options and to have their say in the future of this country’s democracy. As well as the three options for codification, the report presents a model written constitution for the United Kingdom.
Many people at home and abroad have nothing but praise for our unwritten constitution, saying that it has provided this country with long-term stability as well as the flexibility to react to circumstances and to evolve gradually – thus avoiding the political upheavals which have blighted and scarred so many other nations in the world.
Others, however, feel that all citizens should own the rules by which their democracy is run and have the right to change them as needed. In any event, radical change may never happen unless forced by a political crisis, for example a “yes” vote in the Scottish Referendum or a government taking power next May having won a minority of the votes cast on a small turnout. Expected – or unexpected – events can shake complacency and often induce the change that is badly needed.
Today much of our traditionally unwritten constitution is actually written down in a variety of ways and in many different places.
However, these are often inaccessible, requiring what the late John Smith once called “judicial archaeology” – which is at odds with both the internet age and a modern democracy.
So we need to ask some searching questions: is our current constitution clear enough? Does it allow us to hold those in power sufficiently to account? Would a written or codified constitution dispel the current suspicion which most electors have of their elected representatives and, indeed, of our entire political system?
I believe strongly that we do need to enact a new Magna Carta to enshrine in law the rights and responsibilities of all our citizens. But it must be one which is owned by those citizens and crafted with their consent, contribution and agreement. That would enable us to ensure the powers of government remain accountable and limited, now and in the future.
In 1792, Tom Paine famously declared: “A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government, and government without a constitution, is power without a right”. Add to this the power of our Parliament being continually usurped by an indirectly elected Executive and it is clear that political legitimacy is now under threat from many quarters, including the media, the demand by some for separatism, over centralisation of government, and of course, voter apathy.
As a result, many of our once unquestioned institutions are now widely regarded as not fit for purpose. Surely, our democracy needs to be re-founded and re-secured on a new, strong legitimacy with the consent of the people?
Because our political leaders today often seem to be controlled by fear and trapped by worries about tomorrow’s headlines, it falls upon Parliament to act. Parliament is in a better position to do so, partly because it now has a fixed five-year term and also because, for the first time, MPs are actually elected to select committees by secret ballot, so they can think and propose ideas independently of the whips who used to control committee membership.
As a result the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is asking for a consultation with the public – and with as many organisations and institutions as possible.
The US Constitution was dreamt up by 40 men in a hall in Philadelphia but in the 21st century we can do better – using all the modern methods of communication now at our disposal – so that our constitution can have millions of founding fathers and mothers and that the future of our democracy and the legitimacy of our Government truly belongs to them.
That would be quite a prize, so let’s begin the debate right now.
• Fabian Hamilton is Labour MP for Leeds North East and a member of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.