Some comments on Brexit and the Republic Campaign.
Firstly, 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.
However, any referendum on abolishing the monarchy needs to avoid the Australian precedent whereby the monarchy (narrowly) survived in a choice between the Queen and a very specific and uninspiring alternative. The solution, I believe, is to acknowledge the need for two referenda. The first referendum will be a simple binary choice – “YES – I wish to replace the hereditary monarch with an elected Head of State”. If “YES” wins there is a subsequent referendum in which between three and five models of elected presidential job descriptions are showcased. These alternatives will already have been showcased and discussed during the first referendum campaign. But hereditary monarchy must be taken off the table first. It would be disastrous if the status quo were to squeak by with 21%, 26% or 34% of the vote as one of five, four, or three alternatives offered the electorate.
So I think the two referenda strategy is the only means of combining the competing desiderata of offering a clear statement of principle and offering a clear and specific plan.
But the other main 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. Parliament is supposedly sovereign and could technically simply disregard the 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”. A referendum should not be a used to register a general sense of unease and disenfranchisement but such a sense appears to be widespread. 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.
From a specifically republican standpoint – any written constitution that affirms the sovereignty of the people (a popular, indeed irresistible idea) cannot help but destabilise the monarchy. Once the people are sovereignty, then the culture of deference and top-down governance that sustains the monarchy will have been dealt a fatal vow. Once a written constitution acknowledges popular sovereignty, it is a smooth and logical step towards reforming oaths of allegiance in parliament, in the military and elsewhere. The de-mystification of monarchy soon follows and without mystique, the monarchy is nothing.