The other day a professor of politics at Oxford University was interviewed on the radio and was asked if we need a written constitution. Yes, was his reply, but only after we have sorted out the current crisis and brought in any necessary rules, structural changes and regulatations.
Surely he has that wrong. Build an even more complex fix to bolt onto the already rag tag and bobtail that folk call our constitution and then try and sort it into one code? That is the approach that has taken us into the mess that has now become apparent, and the row over MPs expenses claims is only one symptom.
If you wish to set up a limited company you have to produce Articles of Association – essentially a written constitution that clearly defines the activities that will be undertaken and other basics.
When a group of people with common interests come together to form a club or society they soon realise they need a clear constitution and when their activities require a bank account or they seek official assistance, they will be asked for such a document. It is interesting that many of those scrutineers want to know one thing in particular – what happens to the assets if the organisation ceases to exist.
A written constitution is needed to define our principles, our objectives and the relationships between the elements of our society that enable it to function effectively. We lack that clarity.
It has always amused me that there are courses and exams set for study of the British Constitution when there is no actual document or collection that defines it.
Look west and you see the benefit of a relatively clear written constitution that produces a strong nation out of a mass of separate states. It goes through change over time but the strength of the nation that results from that constitution is appreciated around the world.
The American Constitution was part of a fresh start following the War of Independence so it was an obvious move to enshrine basic principles in a clear way. After all, it all grew from the Declaration of Independence with its famous preface:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The UK needs such a preface to its constitution and the second paragraph of the US Declaration gives food for thought. We have muddled through the shift of power from monarchy to parliament. really is time to clear up the historic relationships between monarch and people. Yes, at one time HM Revenue collected taxes for the king to spend on foreign wars but when the Queen does her bit at the State Opening of Parliament and talks of ‘my government’ planning to do this, that or the other, it must often be said through gritted teeth because she has no real say in such policies – they were thrashed out by political parties not her – and must often disagree with what is done in her name.
Should we continue to be subjects of the monarchy or is it time that we became citizens who elect governments ‘of the people, by the people and for the people ‘ with those executives “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”?
That is probably the most basic principle that we should establish, and then write our constitution. With clarity at its core, it is then possible to reform and declutter the mass of legislation that determines (and often hinders) our society’s development. Yes, we need the core document before everything is once again patched up.