Earlier this year, I spoke with Tom Brake from Unlock Democracy about the idea of implementing a written constitution in the UK. At the time, I was intrigued by the idea but did not see why we needed to be so urgent about the issue. It seemed to me that, yes, there would be advantages to a codified constitution, but that this was just a nice idea for intellectuals to debate. Given the ascending pile of other issues we had to deal with from corruption, the revolving door and climate change, to the huge levels of inequality, a slow-down in productivity, a falling birth rate, the unbridled growth of big tech and now, most visibly, Covid — given all these obstacles, constitutional matters, I thought, could be placed on the backburner. Far better, I reasoned, to sort out the parking on the high street or get the bins collected more often.


Britain is crumbling

I’ve spent a lot of time since thinking about our crumbling institutions, voter apathy, and the stunning (albeit justified) levels of mistrust in our media and government. On my podcast, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with some fascinating academics and experienced journalists, all of whom seem to demonstrate an exceptional grasp of the issues facing us as a nation. Yet when it comes to the end of my time with them and I press them for ways in which we can achieve the reforms needed to deal with whatever problem we’ve been discussing, few are able to offer a concrete way forward. This is not a slight at my guests — who are incredibly dedicated and knowledgeable folk. Rather, it is a cry of apathy about our lack of options. All the possibilities seem intangible and ethereal. We just have to mobilise millions of people behind a cause they vaguely understand. The climate movement alone demonstrates how difficult that task can be.

The alternative, however, to some kind of major reform to our system is collapse or violent revolution. In my interviews with the authors of Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson explored the suggestion that the UK is on a dangerous path. They argue that nations fail because their economic and political institutions are not inclusive enough. In other words, they fail to represent the majority of the populace and work instead for the top 1 per cent — something Mark E. Thomas suggests began with Thatcher in the 1980s.

How then can we renew trust in our institutions and make them more inclusive? Indeed, how can we craft a system of government capable of dealing with the trials and tribulations of climate change, inequality, financial collapse, automation, and AI? Our 17th-century institutions are no longer fit-for-purpose — but don’t mistake my criticism as a demand for their abolition. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So where do we begin?

Tom Brake lays out the case for a written constitution:

‘The way that we run our democracy is that the flexibility of it is one of the virtues of it and one of the real advantages of it … The flexibility, of course, can be a weakness and we saw this in relation to Boris Johnson’s plans to close down Parliament. In a written constitution, for instance, you could make it very clear that the Prime Minister did not have the power to do that. Other things that could be made clear in a written constitution are, for instance, that the UK would not seek to break international law. Then the other sorts of aspects of the written constitution that could be included would be to lock in the rights that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have as separate nations within the United Kingdom.

‘What we currently have I think, as you’ve pointed out, is a sort of hodgepodge of different laws, precedent, and established practice which means that it’s very hard to know precisely where on different issues we stand. Now … if we were to introduce a written constitution, it would be substantially more detailed than the US, for instance, and would be more modern, if I can put it that way in terms of its content’.

Reform or face collapse

Tristan Harris pointed out in his latest appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience that we need to build institutions that are strengthened, not undermined, by technology. The nature of change in a democracy is somewhat glacial — it’s a slow grind — but if we fail to reform, there are only two options: collapse or revolution. I believe we need a written constitution to deal with the plethora of systemic problems we now face. Some things, like the House of Lords, should be immediately abolished, whilst others only need mild reform. I propose we do this through a series of citizens’ assemblies and cross-community conferences. We need to give Millenials and Zoomers a part in rebuilding the institutions that have failed them. Now this would truly be democracy in action.

I have spent the last year questioning under what authority the government has the right to restrict freedom of movement, protest, expression, and to close down businesses for safety. A written constitution would ensure that we knew what our rights were, what powers the Government and Parliament can legitimately exercise, and what rights stand as inalienable. And the best bit of all? We don’t need an agenda to reform the country; just a desire to enshrine more democratic norms, rights, and processes to safeguard the next century.

I’ve no idea what form all this would take, but it has to be better than the alternative of being pulled and prodded by each and every new Covid-related shift.