We need a democracy we can trust, so we must create it for ourselves
Modern Britain has outgrown this system. It is time for a written constitution drawn up by citizen-led assemblies, writes Caroline Lucas MP
I don’t often find myself nodding in agreement in response to a government minister’s reply to my question. But on the day Parliament resumed after its unlawful prorogation, I asked the attorney general Geoffrey Cox if he would consider proposals for a written constitution, developed with real citizens’ engagement.
He agreed – not only that there were grounds for thinking again about our constitutional arrangements, but that any change would need to include widespread consultation to ensure public support and consent.
The attorney general began his response by saying “as we depart from the European Union”, but it’s not Brexit which demands that we reform the way we are governed. It’s the clear failure of our current system, whatever our relationship with the EU.
Our centuries-old unwritten constitution based on gentlemen’s agreements is not fit for purpose when dangerous populists are in office. It barely works when government is functioning “normally”, let alone when we have an executive which openly flouts the law.
We have grown used to our politics being consumed by Brexit, and everything to be viewed through the lens of our future relationship with Europe.
But this is so much more fundamental. It is about how we are governed, how we preserve our ancient democratic freedoms, and how we stop Boris Johnson’s reckless ignore-the-law-and-pit-people-against-Parliament approach. Because if this becomes the new normal, it will threaten our constitutional and political rights.
Johnson has set a dangerous precedent. Ignoring a code of practice gives future governments licence to do the same.
His attempt to prorogue Parliament at a critical time in our country’s history was, thankfully, stopped by the Supreme Court. But the judges relied on a convention dating back to 1611 in their ruling. Only a few months ago, Parliament was awash with talk of Henry VIII powers. And we are supposed to be a 21st-century democracy!
So what would it mean, creating a written constitution for Britain?
It means a full constitutional convention to write the rules of a modern democratic state; a convention made up of citizens, empowered to call witnesses and to draw up a written constitution which is then put to a public vote.
It also means taking power away from Westminster and restoring it to local communities so people have more say in the issues closest to their daily lives.
This isn’t just about modernising our current system of government so that it better reflects the society we have become. We must also guarantee the protections that citizens in a democracy are entitled to – a UK Bill of Rights.
Without a written constitution, and without the protection of European human rights laws, a UK government could pass a law abolishing any right it didn’t like. Minority groups have already been targeted in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. How confident can they be that their rights will be protected in future?
Drawing up a written constitution is an ambitious project, but we are not starting from scratch. A Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy was launched in August and already has clear ideas for how to write a constitution with public participation at its heart, while respecting the role that Parliament has in our democracy. It will also review the powers and make-up of the second chamber, examine the voting system to encourage more participation, and examine how our politics should be paid for.
Some will argue that our current system has served us well in the past and will continue to do so if the parties involved respect it. I would argue that a government which shows contempt for Parliament, has already ignored the law once and is threatening to do so again, is a sign that the respect has gone.
It’s not enough to simply hope it will return. We need to create a system which deserves respect, backed by a constitution which endures.
Caroline Lucas is Green MP for Brighton Pavilion