Carts before Horses. Part 2.
As I was saying a couple of days ago, as far as referenda are concerned – this was about as sorry an example as can be conceived. In essence, the cart was put in front of the horse. Referenda work when clear and practical proposals are worked out and put to the electorate for their approval. The work of costing, legally proofing and detailed negotiation should already be complete before an electorate decides.
In this instance, the electorate was asked to make a critical decision with absolutely no plans for the implementation of this decision being offered. The cart (the electorate) decided on something that no team of horses seems to want to know how to pull (even if it wanted to).
Successful referenda – such as those which established devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland and which approved the arrangements which brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland – were successful because all the organisation and negotiation was already in place.
But one observation on the Brexit chaos is that it offers a supreme opportunity for those of us who want to see Britain with a written constitution that proclaims the people as sovereign. Leavers have told me that the referendum was about “sovereignty”. But as a result of this referendum “sovereignty” within the
UK (itself a dubious concept) seems less secure than ever. Who or what is “sovereign” within the UK? Who or what gets final say and how is this “say” to be interpreted? Constitutional experts might agree that parliament is supposedly sovereign and could technically simply disregard the recent referendum result as a mere opinion poll. Parliament could also, technically, vote to restrict the franchise to millionaires, or red headed people, or golfers. It could vote to extend the life of parliaments to forty years. We assume that parliament will not do these things because to do so would destroy any sense of representative compact with the people of the UK. This sense of compact has been severely damaged in recent years, and ignoring a referendum result would have severe implications for any sense of civic trust and even rule of law.
Furthermore, many people who voted “Leave” in the referendum report a general sense of feeling “left out” and “ignored”. Now lets not be naive about this. Many of these people were racists. The fact is, that
Britain has been becoming a far more disgusting country than we thought it was. I for one feel profoundly ashamed of by cowardly refusal to see what was happening. I’ll have to spend the rest of my life making restitution for my own craven idiocy. And racism is not more acceptable because it is “working class”. The corrosive ugliness and cruelty of racism needs to be fought on the streets of Sunderland as well as the dining clubs of Westminster. If you are a racist then you are an unambiguously wrong human being.
“Reconnecting” with disaffected working class Leavers does not mean reconnecting with their racism – if they are racists. It does not mean meeting their racism half way or any step of the way. I does mean confronting everyone, rich or poor, with the wrongness of racism and re-establishing an anti-racist sense of inclusive governance. It means talking about citizenship.
What better way of addressing this sense of civic disenfranchisement than to promote a written constitution in which the sovereignty of the
British people is proclaimed as the first article. Such a document would, among other things, prescribe the proper use of referenda and the precise means by which their decisions bound parliaments. Such a document would make clear the rights enjoyed by all citizens and the clear and transparent means by which citizens can obtain redress. Such a document would demonstrate that all power is derived from the people and is accountable to it.
This document would need to be embedded in a national curriculum to give it enduring life. Children would be taught about it in schools. They would be tested on it and be able to quote its key provisions. The responsibilities as well as the entitlements of citizenship would be made clear.
It has long been argued that
Britain has organic traditions of freedom and representation that render a single written constitutional document unnecessary. (It is not quite true to say that Britain has no written constitution given that a variety of documents carry constitutional influence and authority, but it is certainly true that Britain’s constitution is not clearly written down all in one place.) No such vague organic compact seems much in evidence in 2016. Britain needs, above all, a new basis of understanding between government and the governed (or between the horse and the cart). It’s time to put in writing what the “our” in “our nation” actually consists of and how it works.