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    Why we need a constitution

    by Sunny on 2nd July, 2007 at 9:49 am    

    This week’s New Statesman magazine has a comprehensive and very well-informed article on whether and why we need a constitution, written by David Marquand. Worth reading in full and discussing (via the OK blog). Rather than have a quasi-constitution distributed over several statutes and laws, I would rather Gordon Brown put in place a process to generate a new British constitution that make this a vibrant democracy. Because right now, it isn’t. It would also lay the basis for a political idea of feeling British, in my view.

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    15 Comments below   |  

    1. Tahir — on 2nd July, 2007 at 10:00 am  

      I used to think giving the UK a constitution would do away with vague, hazy conceptions of rights.

      Although recently when we look across to places with a Bill of Rights and a written constitution there is also a considerable lapse in civil liberities.

      Not saying we the UK shouldn’t get a constitution, it would help bring the UK to the 21st century.

      But there seems to be a wider malaise in socieities where civil liberties are being erded irrespective of formal gurantees of rights.

      Are you saying right now, Britishness is caught up with something other than political citizenship? You would be right - and its movign away from other forms of citizenship to political citizenship that is needed in this country.

      For example, Germany has ethnic citizenship, Fr has civic. What should the UK have?

    2. leon — on 2nd July, 2007 at 10:08 am  

      It would also lay the basis for a political idea of feeling British, in my view.

      I agree, talking about Britishness without a written constitution in a sense is a little horse before cart…

    3. sonia — on 2nd July, 2007 at 11:01 am  

      so you think an unwritten constitution is insufficient to creat a feeling of “Britishness”?

      should be fun to see everyone trying to agree on what would be written ‘up’ in a constitution.

    4. Katy Newton — on 2nd July, 2007 at 11:24 am  

      The Human Rights Act contains most if not all of the provisions that other jurisdictions put in their constitutions.

    5. soru — on 2nd July, 2007 at 11:52 am  

      I find it hard to imagine a worse idea that creating some grandiose single document that is supposed to define everything about the running of a country

      Some parts of the country need reform, others don’t particulartly. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Certainly don’t throw it away in preference to some untried, untested and arbitrary dictates.

      A country is complicated. A document is simple. There is a basic mismatch there.

      As someone pointed out on a US blog:

      With no relevant change in the constitution, we’ve had:

      a. Seperate but equal
      b. No overt discrimination in schools (but move with “all deliberate speed” on it so you don’t p-ss off too many powerful people all at once)
      c. Court-ordered bussing to achieve the desired racial mix
      d. Affirmative action programs allowed for universities, so long as you don’t make the numeric manipulation of choices too obvious.
      e. Required race-blind assignment to schools.

      All this is from the same constitution. The justices simply voted on what they wanted it to mean, and it magically meant that.

      It’s perfectly fine to have, as they do in the US, a constitution in place of the monarchy, as respected and symbolically powerful, but powerless outside a coup situation.

      It’s just silly to imagine it could be anything more than that. And as we already have a symbolic powerless figurehead, why would we need another?

      Evolution, not ‘intelligent’ design, is what is needed.

    6. Bishop Hill — on 2nd July, 2007 at 1:13 pm  

      I think that Soru makes a very interesting point. Getting a Constitution and Bill of Rights is only one part of the equation. You also have to find a way to ensure that the courts interpret the Constitution as it was intended, rather than in the way most congenial to the current incumbent government.

      The “Constitution as a living document” school of thought in the US has allowed someone to be locked up for growing marijuana in their back garden. The courts argued that this was permitted under a clause permitting the government to regulate interstate commerce (apparently because growing weed in your back garden affects the inter-state market for illicit drugs).

    7. Uncleji John Singh Blackstone — on 2nd July, 2007 at 1:26 pm  

      Isn’t the whole idea of a written constitution itself unbritish. As already pointed out we already have a bill of rights & flimsy bits of paper have not helped in the 99.9 % countries which have one. One of chances of even getting one, when our political class can’t even get the second chamber sorted out…..

      A much greater blow would be for the removal of the Crown Prerogatives which the Prime Minister & other ministers to exercise considerable powers without check from parliament, Crown Immunity & proper oversight of the securtiy services

      I have to say I was encouraged by Jack Straw’s talk of reweighing the balance between Parliament & the Exective (but then I’m just being naive)

    8. Sunny — on 2nd July, 2007 at 4:17 pm  

      Having a constitution doesn’t mean that laws are unchangeable. The ‘founding fathers’ of the US constitution intentionally made certain things vague so that they could be interpreted and re-interpreted over time as attitudes changed.

      That is the whole point of a democracy - that it is constantly mutating and changing. But that doesn’t take away from the necessity of bringing together some sort of basic ideals and rights.

      They may be all incorporated in other pieces of documents but there is too much politicking there. The European Constitution of Human Rights gets slammed because it is a EU doc that we ratified. At least with a British produced document based on the same principles we can avoid the way it is used as a political football.

      In addition to that, if people read the article, David Marquand also points out how such a constitution could take things forward and make improvements where necessary to strengthen our democracy.

    9. soru — on 2nd July, 2007 at 5:59 pm  

      ‘too much politicking’

      I really think you don’t get the point of the word ‘representative democracy’, as opposed to ‘republic’. Rule by the people, as opposed to the rule of law (or, in practise, lawyers: in the extreme, it’s a variant of a theocracy).

      If you really want a judicial dictatorship, you should be required to make your case explicitly, not hide under slippery words like ‘ideals and rights’: how is your proposed system going to maintain them? Why is it better than other systems at doing so?

      I suppose you could have elected judges, but then you would need some mechanism to restrain and slow down un-thought through changes. Perhaps you could have special heriditary or self-selecting ‘politicians’ who would have partial veto rights over any decisions made by the judges.

    10. Muzumdar — on 2nd July, 2007 at 6:04 pm  

      Evolution, not ‘intelligent’ design, is what is needed

      I think that the UK is painfully slowly heading, via ‘evolution’, towards Republicanism anyway, and a constitution will naturally follow.

      Time to get rid of monarchy/unelected peers etc and then Britain can perhaps one day become a meritocracy in the truest sense of the word.

    11. Rumbold — on 2nd July, 2007 at 7:34 pm  

      “But there seems to be a wider malaise in socieities where civil liberties are being erded irrespective of formal gurantees of rights.”

      Tahir hits the nail on the head in #1 (as do others later).

      Britain should never have a codified constitution. We have survived and thrived over hundreds of years thanks to our system of government; we have not been successfully invaded for nearly 1000 years. How many countries can say that? Edmund Burke correctly predicted the chaos that engulfed France when they brought in their ‘Rights of Man’ constitution. Organic growth is far better, a fact which Tony Blair and his minions failed to realize when destroying centuries of tradition in order to ‘modernize’.

    12. Katherine — on 3rd July, 2007 at 1:38 pm  

      I don’t want to be the pedant Sunny (well actually I do), but Britain already has a constitution. It’s always had a constitution. What it doesn’t have is a written constitution.

      Me, I’m utterly undecided on whether Britain should have a written constitution or not. On the one hand, it is far too damn easy to twist what we have currently. On the other hand, there are serious consequences to moving from the “negative rights” model to the “positive rights” model of, say, the US.

      The downside to the “postive rights” model is that people can then start saying that those are the only rights you have. The upside to the “negative rights” model is that you are assumed to be able to do whatever you damn well please as the base position.

      I rather like the muddled situation we have at the moment - positive rights in the form of the Human Rights Act and negative rights in the form of, well, everything else in the constitution basically.

    13. Leon — on 3rd July, 2007 at 4:37 pm  

      Some details of his plans…

      Mr Brown said he would “surrender or limit” in 12 areas including royal prerogatives such as declaring war without parliamentary approval.

      But this must “never limit our ability to deal with emergencies… or operational decisions”, he added.

      Mr Brown also said the prime minister should lose the right to choose Church of England bishops.

      He added that MPs would hold US-style confirmation hearings for appointees to important public posts - such as the chief inspector of prisons and the local government ombudsman - and to ratify international treaties.

      Mr Brown also suggested the possibility of lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.


    14. Leon — on 3rd July, 2007 at 4:51 pm  

      The Guardian does a better piece on it here:


    15. Don — on 3rd July, 2007 at 4:54 pm  

      Sounds very promising.

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