Matthew Flinders: William, seize this chance for change

British politics is in the eye of a constitutional storm. The Scottish independence referendum shook the political system and Richmond MP William Hague has now been tasked with re-connecting the pieces of a constitutional jigsaw. Here, in a note to the Leader of the House, Matthew Flinders urges him to put the ‘demos’, the people, back into democracy...

Dear William (if I may),

I do hope the Prime Minister gave you at least a few minutes’ warning before announcing that you would be chairing a committee on the future constitutional settlement of the UK. Could you have ever hoped for a more exciting project before you leave Parliament next May!

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The timetable you have been set is demanding to say the least and those naughty people in the Labour Party have taken their bat and ball home and are refusing to play the constitutional game.

Among all the critics and naysayers who claim the British constitution is in crisis, I actually think that a crisis might be just what we need. Not a crisis in terms of burning cars and riots in the streets, but a crisis in terms of creative destruction and a new way of looking at perennial problems.

The public are not apathetic or disinterested about politics, but they feel disconnected from a London-based system that is remote in a number of ways. The reasons for this are numerous and complex but as a constitutional historian you will know better than most that British democracy has evolved throughout the centuries with a deep animosity to public engagement.

The (in)famous “Westminster Model” that we imposed on countries around the world was explicitly elitist, centralised and, to a great extent, insulated from public pressure.

These features and values – as Scotland revealed – are now crumbling under the weight of popular pressure.

But as I said, this should be interpreted as a positive opportunity for re-imagining, for re-connecting and for breathing new life into the system.

The question is how to deliver on this potential for positive change in a way that takes the people with you?

Could I just offer three little ideas that might help smooth the path you have been asked to map out?

First and foremost, please ignore Russell Brand.

Secondly, make sure all your officials are also ignoring Russell Brand.

Finally, the trick is not to think of constitutional reform as being like a game in which a “win” for one side means a “loss” for the other. The aim has to be to turn the problem upside-down.

This means starting with the people – the “demos”, to borrow from Ancient Greek – and viewing the constitutional puzzle as a multi-level game that suddenly focuses attention on the existence of connections or bonds.

The real challenge is not a lack of political interest among the public but a lack of ways of drawing upon the upsurges of bottom-up civic energy that keep exploding in various forms but to which the “traditional” political institutions seem to offer no answers.

Put slightly differently, the public no longer believe that traditional forms of political engagement are actually meaningful.

In this context the promises of populist movements suddenly become attractive and Mr Farage gorges on a feast of anti-politics.

The focus might therefore adopt a quite different approach to all those committees, commissions and inquiries that have gone before you by focusing on the institutions and processes that can re-connect the spontaneous, the local and the single issue with the pre-existing institutional framework in a way that positively channels, absorbs and welcomes civic energy and activism.

In short, British politics must learn to love democracy in a manner that is quite different to the one-night stand of five-yearly elections.

What we are experiencing is best characterised as a “constitutional moment” in which the existing elite decide what they think is best for the public, rather than the public deciding for themselves.

My plea is therefore a simple one – for the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly on Constitutional Reform that takes party politics out of discussions about the future and puts power in the hands of the people.

What a radical thought...