The UK debate on democracy, political and constitutional reform is multifaceted, and long-standing. Some strands of it, such as the reform of the House of Lords, have been going on for years. The discussion is driven by actors from various reaches of society and state, including parliament, academic institutions, think tanks, and civil society, by actors departing from different starting points, with different perspectives, and interests.
Contributors to the debate publish books, essays, assessments, commentaries, and opinion pieces. They organize conference, talks, party initiatives for more voter engagement, and parliamentary hearings on the issues. Following the Scottish vote on independence many participants in the debate presently push for a Constitutional Convention. Writers and activists increasingly use the new media. They write blogs (like this one), sometimes there are replies, but even two weeks later the author of a blog might not even be aware of it.
The problem is, while some of the participants in the debate even suggest that the UK urgently needs a completely “new system of politics for the 21st century”, so far there is no dish, no comprehensive result, no product.[i]
The reason for the failure to generate a product of the highest quality conceivable appears to be that the talks are not structured. They are not managed effectively and efficiently in a joint effort. After years of debate there still is no joint perception even on the need for a new Constitution, no joint goals have been defined, consequently no joint diagnosis of the parameters affecting these goals has been carried out, and, as a result, no systems and processes have been designed to ensure that the goals connected with a new Constitution are achieved.
What has to happen?
- Greatest urgency: People have to realize that setting up a new Constitution is a matter of the greatest urgency. There is no time anymore for activities which are not driven by the goal to generate a comprehensive result definitely fulfilling its purposes. The Citizens expect the political system to deliver. They are becoming impatient as the increasing support for protest parties shows. Any effort on the issue must be designed in such a way that it contributes without doubt to generating the very best Constitution and political system for the UK as soon as possible.
- Clear goal – clear deadline: People convinced of the need for a new Constitution must set themselves a clear goal and feasible deadline, such as drafting a new Constitution for the UK of the highest quality conceivable within a maximum of two years’ time (to suggest a concrete, potential goal).
- Joining of efforts necessary: People must realize that setting up a new Constitution and improved political system in a nation of 60 million people with many different concerns, views, and expectations is a gigantic, highly complex project which requires immense manpower and millions of pounds in financial resources. Individual persons, research institutes, or charities cannot accomplish the project in an adequate fashion by themselves. They need to join efforts and resources to generate a Constitution of the quality required.
- No adequate product without the very best problem solving and project management skills: People must realise that generating a new Constitution and overhauling the entire political system (while certainly maintaining what is good) is a highly complex task requiring the very best problem solving and project management skills. If people taking the initiative and wanting to drive the project forward lack these specific qualifications, the project is likely not to generate a product of the quality the Nation urgently requires.
- A “Peoples’ Commission on the UK Constitution”: To move the project forward the people concerned with issues of political and constitutional reform should, therefore, as soon as possible set up a joint working group, an independent “Peoples’ Commission on the UK Constitution” equipped with the necessary skills for managing the project. Parliament and its Political and Constitutional Reform Committee should help to set up this Commission, politicians should provide support and advice to its work where required. Since the work of politicians and the systems and processes within which they work will be under review, the politicians themselves, however, will not be able to lead the review process. The Commission must work directly on behalf of UK society and largely independently of the present political establishment.
The key success factors for the project, as partly already indicated, appear to be:
- Independence: The Commission must operate independently from the present political system and only be responsible to the people.
- Best methods: The Commission must identify and be equipped with the best problems solving and project management know-how available.
- Best know-how: The Commission must solicit the best know-how available in the country and in the world to identify and recommend the most effective policy making systems and procedures, beginning with the assessment of and with recommendations on the voting system. It must operate in a completely open fashion and use “crowd-sourcing” as a means to identify the very best know-how available, right from the beginning of its work, in principle even already on the issue of what the best methods for tackling the task are.
- Creating joint perspectives: To generate the required support for the project in society the Commission must start by creating a joint perspective on the need for a new Constitution and on the various goals to be pursued by its review.
- Involvement of the people: Considering the increasing discontent of the people, it must be highlighted that the review of the UK Constitution and the work of the Commission provides people with a novel and far-reaching means to get involved in shaping and controlling their political system. They can take ownership of it. Involving the public thoroughly in shaping “their democratic policy making system” will reintroduce vitality into the democracy of the country and offers a valve for channelling discontent and potentially disruptive action into constructive contribution.
- Resources: Since the people are the highest sovereign in the nation and shaping their policy making system in the best way conceivable ultimately is their own concern and project, they basically must pay for the work of the Commission. Conveying this thought and the relevance of the project to the wider public is likely to take some time, however. The government and individual sponsors should, therefore, finance the work of the Commission to begin with (without compromising its independence in any way). Endowing the project with the necessary funds from public resources appears appropriate even in times of tight budgets, since the work of the Commission provides the foundations for maintaining the nation and the world in a sound state. Cost-benefit considerations will highlight that perhaps no other investment into the future is of greater relevance. Mechanisms offering the public the possibility to contribute required resources to the operation should, however, also be set-up from the beginning. Failure by Parliament (and/or Government) to establish the Commission on behalf of the people would risk contributing to the destabilisation of society, to the destruction of the world, and could well cause grave harm to the nation and its people.
- Long-term citizen control: In order to equip people with a long term means to take ownership of their democratic policy making system and of controlling its performance, it is necessary to establish a permanent “Citizen Control Association” (independently of the progress or result of the review process). The tasks of the Association will be to ensure that the policy making system operates as effectively as only possible, to review policy making structures and processes from time to time, and ultimately, that new constitutional regulations and procedures are implemented and adhered to, once they have been decreed. A model of the proposed long-term system of citizen control over policy making can be found at https://optimizingdemocracy.org/the-model/
- Education: Once the new Constitution has been designed and officially put into operation people need to be educated on how it operates and which means it offers for engaging with policy making in the nation. All in all citizen education needs to be stepped up to highlight the relevance of civic engagement in protecting freedom and human rights.
Why a new Constitution? – Discontent, Underperformance, Creating a Coherent and Sound Society
Back to the fundamental question, whether the UK actually needs a new Constitution and a new, refurbished democratic policy making system. Some readers may still have doubts whether the proposed procedure is necessary at all.
In my view a new Constitution appears urgently necessary for three key reasons:
- To assuage the discontent of the population with present democratic policy making by opening up new ways for citizens to engage constructively in the policy making process. Creating such a possibility for citizens involvement in policy making will contribute to ensuring the long term social stability of the country.
- A second purpose of the review process is to ensure the very best performance of the policy making system, so that it is capable to deal with the highly critical challenges of our time. The present policy making system contains severe systemic deficits compromising its performance. In 2012, as a crucial example, Parliamentarians diagnosed that the strategy making capacity of government, a central element of government policy making, is greatly defective, a factor, which in their view “has led to mistakes which are becoming evident in such areas as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (carrier policy), energy (electricity generation and renewables) and climate change…”. [ii] It will, in other words, affect the quality of policy making of government in most areas.In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe from the universities of Essex and Oxford published an in the meantime probably well-known book with the title “Blunders of our Governments”, a book which illustrates the consequences of such deficits in “real-life”. The book describes in detail how British governments since Margaret Thatcher have squandered billions of pounds on major projects and not achieved distinct policy aims. King and Crewe also suggest that the present government is by no means better qualified than the previous ones. The fact that all governments of the present and recent past commit such blunders correlates with the observation on the lacking strategy making capacity of government y the Parliamentarians and highlights the systemic nature of the deficit. Designing processes to eliminate this and other potential shortcomings in the policy making system would be of the greatest relevance for the economic and political stability of the Nation and for the well-being of its citizens.
- A new Constitution finally appears to be required as the foundation to re-build a coherent, sound, and strong society capable to protect well-being, freedom, and human rights in a time of ongoing globalization and technological change. Over the last decades Western democratic societies including the UK have turned into highly multicultural societies. Due to this development and to more liberal views on life in western nations in general the cohesion of society around shared values has greatly declined. Protecting well-being, freedom and human dignity in a thoroughly changing world as ours at the beginning of the 21st century will, however, demand great energy and ample resources, factors which only a society can muster in which citizens co-operate for the maintenance of these goals. Formulating the fundamental principles guiding society in a new Constitution will help building a society of the strength and resilience required to deal with the challenges of our time and the future. This is an aspect emanating already in the debate, but which, just like the other elements of writing a new Constitution, must be led to a defined result.
A final word on “muddling-through”. Frequently one hears in the debate that the political culture in the UK would be bent on “muddling-through”, rather than on establishing purpose-made, effective processes for generating high quality results. Whether one believes this proposition to be true or not, given the increasing discontent with the present policy making system, the risks for the social and political stability of the Nation, the extraordinary challenges for humanity at the beginning of the 21st century, in any case by no means there appears to be any more scope for muddling through. We are obliged to preserve the Nation and the world in a good state for future generations. Given the complexity and urgency of the threats and challenges in the world of today, aiming for establishing the most effective and efficient policy making system conceivable appears to be the only permitted way forward.
[i] One the need for a “new system of politics for the 21st century” cf. point 20 in the written evidence submitted by Prof Martin J. Smith and Professor David Richards to a parliamentary enquiry on “voter engagement” at http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/voter-engagement-in-the-uk/written/6886.html
[ii] House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, Strategic thinking in Government: without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge?, Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010–12