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How to fix a broken system? Start with the Constitution

Author: Christopher Gooding

Editor: Prachi Saraf

The constitution; two words that tend to send both politicos and ordinary voters alike into a state of idle stupor. And yet two words that in many respects reveal the Achilles heel at the heart of much of Westminster’s current ills.

The fact that the United Kingdom has no formal written constitution means that the UK is, in paleontological terms, a dinosaur. In fact, Britain, along with New Zealand and Israel, is unique among modern nation-states in lacking a coherent foundational document setting out the rights and duties of the state vis-à-vis citizens. Yet while Britain’s unwritten constitution has for centuries been a source of pride for English common lawyers and their ruling classes, it is high time we admitted that it is in desperate need of change.

The first problem is the lack of coherence. Rather than subsiding in one single authoritative document, the tapestry of laws and conventions that make up the British constitution is spread over countless Acts of Parliament, law reports court judgments and traditions that span half a millennia. The resulting milieu means that even the constitutionally basic questions surrounding the rules governing the UK government’s ability to withdraw itself from an international treaty are up for debate (Brexit, anyone?). Such incoherence, and the resulting constitutional opacity it creates, breeds political opportunism – think Johnson proroguing Parliament to ram through Brexit, and Sturgeon’s recent attempt to unilaterally initiate a second Independence Referendum.

Incoherence is intimately related to a second key problem – an over-reliance on convention. The 19th Century statesman and former Prime Minister Gladstone famously remarked that the British constitution ‘presumes more boldly than any other the good sense and the good faith of those who work it’. And yet good sense and good faith seem to be the qualities most lacking in today’s political class. Not a day seems to go by without another allegation of government sleaze or infidelity that it is hard to keep up. (Incidentally, the most recent story involves Tory vice-chair Lee Anderson facing fresh libel claims over the defamation of a food bank charity owner).

The third, and arguably most fundamental problem with the current Westminster model is the omnipresent link between the electorate and the executive, which engenders an inherently unstable political climate. Writing in the 19th Century, English economist and political theorist Walter Bagehot wrote that “under a presidential government a nation has, except at the electing moment, no influence; it has not the ballot-box before it; its virtue is gone, and it must wait till its instant of despotism again returns.” In the 19th century, this may have acted as an argument in favour of a parliamentary system, but in the 21st century, the partial immunity of the government from the whims of the nation for the period of its term is something to be desired.

In the UK, Parliament has no fixed terms (only a maximum limit of five years). Hence why the UK had three general elections in the space of four years from 2015-2019. Moreover, since the UK has a parliamentary as opposed to a presidential system – meaning that executive power is invested primarily in the majority party and the cabinet assembled from that party, and not the leader of the party – the UK can have three government leaders in as many months. The cumulative fragility of a parliamentary system that lacks fixed leaders, as well as fixed terms means that the government is extremely fragile against the court of public opinion as embodied in the 24-hour news cycle and weekly political commentaries. Constant speculation about how long the government will stay in power, or how long a leader will remain leading, disables the government from being able to put policy into practice in the domestic sphere, and to make credible promises and sustainable relationships at the international level.

Reversing the 21st-century decline in British politics necessarily begins with constitutional reform. And so it’s no surprise that Labour – the seemingly de facto party-in-waiting – has appeared to realise this. However, even they appear to have underestimated the scale of the task. Merely abolishing the House of Lords and redistributing power to local and regional governments won’t go far enough. The British constitution is desperately outdated, and nothing less than wholesale reform is needed.

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