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Taking a reformer’s axe to the constitution: Graham Allen reviews 'Bonfire of the Decencies'

Taking a reformer’s axe to the constitution: Graham Allen reviews 'Bonfire of the Decencies'

London 2019: A rally against the prorogation of Parliament | Alamy

Graham Allen

3 min read

Heavyweight democratic academics Andrew Blick and Lord Hennessy unflinchingly tell it like it is and how our constitution could be improved

The authors – two of the biggest democratic beasts in the constitutional jungle – have no party-political axe to grind. Instead it’s the reformers’ axe they take to the mystical, the unwritten, the spontaneous and the deliberately obscure. They drag our hideously barnacled and malformed constitution into the daylight. It is not pretty. This book argues that the Johnson administration – devoid of the “decent chaps” – laid bare serious vulnerabilities in the United Kingdom’s constitution. It evidences a bewildering list of transgressions of our “unwritten” constitutional rules, by measuring actual conduct against the principles to which ministers and civil servants are (theoretically) committed, found in the ministerial code and elsewhere.

They tell us something that many of us in Westminster would rather not hear, that the problems are deeper than mere faults of maverick prime ministers. While many democrats of all parties wanted to see the back of him, the authors argue that Boris Johnson merely intensified existing tendencies that will continue after his departure. We have already seen, under Liz Truss and then Rishi Sunak, further constitutionally objectionable events. 

But Andrew Blick and Peter Hennessy also offer hope. It is incumbent upon the elected and the unelected to prepare now so our democracy can evolve and be fit for purpose. Options for restoring stability and renewing the constitution are at hand. They support recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life for the strengthening of the ministerial code. The authors advocate the introduction of an oath of office for incoming prime ministers, committing premiers publicly to uphold constitutional standards.

The problems are deeper than mere faults of maverick prime ministers

They also suggest a more ambitious objective: a full “written” constitution for the UK. Such a project is attainable, the authors suggest, particularly if it employed innovative methods, drawing on deliberative techniques including citizens’ assemblies, comprising members of the public chosen at random. No “great and the good” marking their own homework here, instead listen to citizens deliberate, recommend and – as deliberative doyen Professor Jim Fishkin of Stanford University preaches – “practice democracy in good conditions”.

Winning back the trust of citizens in democracy requires their engagement and renewing the partnership with their elected representatives, not just at election time. The 600 recent citizens assemblies (according to the OECD) are democracy’s success story, finding ways forward on complex issues like abortion in Ireland to climate change in a rash of countries. If we are to escape the yoke of executive sovereignty in the UK and become a plural democracy then governments and party leaders must use the best modern means to listen to the voices of citizens. This happens not by turning knotty issues into crude yes/no referendums but after the careful, respectful deliberation where citizens unfettered by party discipline, lobbyists and media pressure, solve long-term problems that traditional politics finds intractable.

Not having repaired our democracy in easier times, Blick and Hennessey’s unforgiving eye shows the plumbing of the depths by recent governments may be the jolt needed to turn Westminster complacency into a UK plan of action to reinvent democracy with citizens at its heart.

Graham Allen is the Convenor of the Citizens’ Convention for UK Democracy and former Labour MP for Nottingham North

"Bonfire of the Decencies: Repairing and Restoring the British Constitution"

Written by: Andrew Blick & Peter Hennessy
Publisher: Haus publishing

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