On Writing a Constitution for the UK

"We are Very Proud of Our Constitution... It was bestowed upon us by Providence. No other country is so favoured..."  Mr Podsnap1

At the inaugural gathering of the Convention on Modern Liberty on February 28, several voices called for a written constitution as the best means of entrenching fundamental rights and putting them beyond the powers of illiberal governments and supine legislatures. Most countries with democratic pretensions have one. Not so the UK. As speaker after speaker at the Convention complained, our Constitution is unwritten, based on precedent and "understandings", and vulnerable to change at the whim of authoritarian ministers.

Podsnap's descendants remain with us and, so far as one can tell, occupy most of the seats of power and influence. Rare is the politician - David Davis may be one - who is prepared to entertain the idea that our amorphous constitutional arrangements might not be the best way to safeguard fundamental rights.

Altering our political system - which is what a written constitution would involve - is no easy task and will probably take many years to accomplish. But in what way should it be altered? What should a written constitution contain? And who would write it?

Someone raised these last questions at the Convention, but like the carpenter's final question to the oysters, answer came there none. Nevertheless, an answer would be useful - not least to furnish us with a vision of what we would like to see at the end of this process.

Why do we need such a vision? Because if we limit our ambitions to striking off individual pieces of oppressive legislation, nothing will stop future governments from reinstating them. A victory for liberty today can be reversed in cabinet, or even by royal prerogative, tomorrow.

So, instead of merely calling for a written constitution, I decided to try writing one myself; not - I hasten to add - with any semblance of illusion that it might serve as a model, but rather as a learning process, an effort to clarify my own thoughts.

I started by downloading and reading some Constitutions of other countries - fifteen in all. Those from which I learned most were the US, Swiss, French, and German, though I found enlightenment too in the new Constitution of Bolivia, and in those of Argentina and Portugal. I also read through the European Communities Act, the Lisbon Treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights, the US Declaration of Independence and, of course our own Magna Carta and Bill of Rights. And finally, I took another look at some classics: Milton's Areopagitica, J.S. Mill's On Liberty, Tom Paine's Rights of Man, some of Jefferson's writings, and so on.

Result? Pages of notes, and a good deal of uncertainty.

When I at length put pen to paper, I found unsurprisingly that the task proved much more difficult, complex and mind-bending than I had imagined. It didn't take me long to realize that it exceeded my level of competence by a long way, that I lacked adequate political experience, knowledge, and probably - though hard to admit - intellectual capacity to do justice to the myriad subtleties of which the UK's political mosaic is composed.

Even so, I feel that I have learned something worth while from the exercise. In the hope that not all of what I came up with is entirely nonsensical, and that it may prove useful or interesting to others, I offer it for download HERE.

1Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend