Dec 17 2014

What is the UK Constitution? Find out with the new version of Constitute

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A new version of Constitute is now available online. Constitute is a website for reading, searching and comparing constitutions from across the world.The new version has many new features and includes a number of new constitutions, including that of the UK. This will provide a tool for comparing extant UK constitutional laws with constitutional texts from across the globe. 

Westminster 2

(Credit: Amdolu, CC by 2.0)

Back in September of last year, UCL’s Constitution Unit, in collaboration with the Google Ideas and the Indigo Trust, launched Constitute, a website for reading, searching and comparing constitutions from across the world. The Constitute site is host to the English language text of every national constitution currently in force. It not only provides users with free and easy access to these texts, but by drawing on data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP) over the last 9 years, it also facilitates powerful, topic-based searches of over 300 common constitutional themes.

Since the launch of Constitute, we have been accumulating feedback from our users and have now launched a significantly improved site. Among the new features on the site are the ability to compare two constitutions side-by-side, the ability to pin more items, improved sharing of constitutional provisions and, for researchers, better access to the data underlying the site (for a full description of new features, see here).

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Dec 15 2014

Can a constitutional convention offer real and radical change?

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IvanaFollowing an economic and financial crisis in 2009, Ireland became one of the first countries that attempted to provide for a citizen-led programme of constitutional reform. Senator Ivana Bacik speaks about her experience as a politician who took part in the Irish Constitutional Convention. She suggests that a constitutional convention can offer real and radical change.

The establishment of an Irish Constitutional Convention was first proposed in April 2010 at the Labour Party conference in Galway, when then Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called for the establishment of a convention to revise the text of Bunreacht na hEireann, the 1937 Irish Constitution, in advance of the 1916 centenary.

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Dec 8 2014

Abolishing the monarchy would remove an obstacle to genuine democracy in Britain

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RRThe United Kingdom is a democracy, but nonetheless has an unelected and hereditary Head of State in Queen Elizabeth II. Eventually, she will give way to her son, Prince Charles. Should the monarchy continue under a new written constitution? Richard Ridyard argues that this state of affairs cannot be justified, and that the continuing presence of a monarch – particularly an influential one – is incompatible with democratic maturity.

The spectacle of the Scottish independence referendum was an occasion for a long-postponed national debate. It was an opportunity secured by a campaign, full of vigour, that challenged the assumptions of the present system. Voters, however, remain ballot-deprived of at least one other question with epoch changing properties: should we have an elected head of state? Continue reading

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Dec 5 2014

Magna Carta can still challenge the orthodoxy and help resolve today’s democratic difficulties

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Blick150x225What influence does Magna Carta, signed 800 years ago at Runnymede by King John, continue to have over UK democracy and governance?  Andrew Blick argues that Magna Carta is a surprisingly enduring document which still influences our political and democratic choices to this day. Part of Magna Carta’s great legacy has been the written constitution. 

Even after eight centuries, Magna Carta is a contemporary document. The 800thanniversary of this text, taking place in June next year, is already generating interest that extends beyond a mere focus on its place in history. It is an ancient legal instrument that remained in force for little more than two months in its original form. Yet it remains central to our understanding of the most important features of any society: our rights and the way we are governed. It is invoked, for instance, by both sides in the debate about Conservative Party proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, replacing it with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, and to end the binding force on the UK of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

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Dec 1 2014

A constitutional convention conundrum: Lords reform and a senate of the regions

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Donal Coffee and James Hand discuss the prospect of a constitutional convention and the question of Lords reform in light of Ed Milliband’s statements on a senate of the regions. 

House of Lords

House of Lords Chamber: (Credit: UK Parliament) Flickr cc by 2.0

Ed Miliband’s recent proposal for ‘an elected Senate that properly represents the towns, cities, regions and nations that make up the United Kingdom’ included reference to a ‘UK-wide Constitutional Convention’.

There has, of late, been increased talk of a constitutional convention, fuelled particularly by the Scottish Referendum and the question of devolution. Earlier this year, the Labour Peers Working Group proposed that there should be a convention to consider ‘the next steps on further reform of the House of Lords and any consequential impact on the House of Commons and on Parliament as a whole’ (para 3.14) but there was support for a wider constitutional convention when their report was debated in the House of Lords. Ahead of the Labour Party conference, the day after the Scottish Referendum result, Ed Miliband announced that a full Constitutional Convention would be set up in 2015 to discuss further devolution and reform at Westminster. As noted above, his more recent announcement that the House of Lords should be replaced with a senate of the cities, regions and nations again refers to the ‘UK-wide Constitutional Convention’ but its role seems to have changed markedly in the six weeks between announcements. The proposal for such a senate was greeted with arguably unfair allegations of hypocrisy following Labour’s role in the demise of the Nick Clegg’s House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 but of greater concern is the premise behind the proposal and the role of the UK-wide Constitutional Convention. Continue reading

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Nov 24 2014

Should a UK constitutional convention consider the clarification and codification of parliamentary privilege?

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Blick150x225Andrew Blick discusses a fundamental element of the British constitution – parliamentary privilege. He suggests that the nature of parliamentary privilege might be clarified and codified by a future constitutional convention for the UK. 

The British parliament performs a variety of functions that are crucial to a democratic society. It votes on laws and resolutions, agrees how much money should be given to the government, holds ministers to account for their actions and acts as a forum for debate of issues of significant public interest. To be able to carry out these crucial tasks effectively, parliament needs a series of special legal arrangements that are collectively called its “privilege”.

Privilege has a number of dimensions. One of them involves parliament being able to organise its own internal business as it sees fit – a principle known as “exclusive cognisance”. This principle has extended as far as to mean that health and safety law does not apply within the Palace of Westminster.

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Nov 17 2014

The UK has much to learn from the Irish constitutional convention

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Clodagh-HarrisAt its party conference, Labour called for a UK constitutional convention. What can be learned from the experiences of Ireland and its own convention? Clodagh Harris writes that whatever remit is chosen for the UK convention, it is necessary that its work is inclusive, well resourced, allocated sufficient time, open, and has a clearly defined timeline for governmental response if it is to achieve legitimacy.

Calls to establish a constitutional convention for the UK in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum have cited the Irish Convention on the Constitution as a possible template. Like other deliberative citizen fora (referred to in the literature as mini-publics), the Irish Convention gave citizens a direct and formal role on matters of constitutional reform. Unlike them, however, it included 33 political representatives as well as 66 randomly selected citizens.

Beckett Bridge

Beckett Bridge, Dublin (Credit Roberto Taddeo) Flickr cc by 2.0

Giving citizens a formal role in constitutional decision making in this way can enhance legitimacy and address the so-called ‘democratic malaise’The success of such mini-publics can be determined by their input, throughput and output legitimacy. This post briefly discusses each of these, referring to examples that may be of interest to those designing a Constitutional Convention for the UK.

Input legitimacy is primarily derived from participation, that is, who participates and their opportunities to do so. In case of the Irish Convention, and the British Colombian and Ontarian citizens’ assemblies, the citizens were selected randomly with an eye to gender, geography, age and socio-economic categories to ensure the group broadly reflected wider society. Some mini-publics have also specifically targeted minority groups that may be too small to be picked up through random sampling (for example, first nations communities in British Colombia) and groups that are difficult to reach (for example, the homeless in Belgium’s G1000 citizens’ summit). In addition, concerted efforts are usually made to engage with the wider public ‘outside the roomRegional meetings, websites and social media are some of the ways in which submissions are invited, opinions gathered and ideas shared. In particular, the Belgian G1000 citizens’ summit used ICT to great success. It innovatively included the wider public using sophisticated software that permitted e-deliberation.

However, it is not sufficient to merely bring individuals to the table. Efforts must be made to keep them there and ensure their voices are heard. Keeping younger women involved in a process that meets a number of days/week-ends over the course of a year may require the provision of childcare. Similarly in light of the socio-economic and gendered aspects of deliberation, care needs to be taken to ensure that all have opportunities to express their views. The Irish Convention employed trained facilitators to encourage all members to speak and attempted to achieve gender balance amongst those who presented to the Convention and in the composition of the small group round table discussions.

Finally, input legitimacy is impacted by the openness of the agenda setting process. The Canadian citizens’ assemblies had a fixed remit; to recommend an electoral system. The Irish Convention was charged with making recommendations on specific issues ranging from reducing the voting age to introducing marriage equality. However, iwas also given some limited agenda setting powers as it was permitted to consider other possible areas for constitutional amendment. Having actively encouraged submissions and held a series of regional meetings to gather views on which issues to should beconsidered, the Convention chose Dáil (the lower house of the Irish parliament) reform and the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights in the constitution.

Process is core to throughput legitimacy. Deliberative mini-publics tend to include a mixture of invited expert presentations and facilitated small group deliberations at round tables. Good practice gives citizens a role in choosing the experts. In the case of the Irish Convention a steering committee comprising politicians and citizens approved the programme and the speakers for each week-endThe expert panel was convened to ensure a diversity of arguments on the topic and the speakers were asked to make brief, plain English presentations, this reflected practises used in the Canadian citizens’ assembliesThe experts also made themselves available to answer individual questions at the roundtable sessions and to help draft the ballot paper that the members voted on at the end of the week-end.

The inclusion of civil society organisations in the Irish Convention also added to its throughput legitimacy. Most of the week-ends included a balanced panel of issue-relevant advocacy and other groups that brought the perspectives and interests of their members to bear on the discussions. Achieving balance between information and small group deliberation proved a challenge for the Convention. The tight timelines (10 topics over 8 week-ends) meant little time could be spent on a discussion of broader principles or values as a lot of essential and sometimes quite technical information needed to be covered. In this regard, the learning phases used in the Canadian citizens’ assemblies have much to commend them.

Four courts Dublin

Four Courts, Dublin (Credit: Jim Nix) Flickr cc by 2.0

Output legitimacy is determined by outcomes and responsiveness. Regarding governmental responsiveness, different practices have been used by mini-publics. The Irish Convention had an advisory rather than declaratory role as the government decides whether or not an issue will proceed to referendum (amendments to the Irish Constitution require a referendum). To date there has been a commitment to hold 3 referendums next spring (reduce the voting age, reduce age barrier for presidential candidates and introduce marriage equality), and it was recently reported that the government has signed off on a plan to hold a 4th referendum (remove the offense of blasphemy). However, a number of reportshave yet to be responded to by government indicating some slippage in the timelines outlined in the parliamentary resolution that established the Convention.

The inclusion of political representatives in the Irish Convention, although initially greeted with cynicism, wariness and even hostility, in the end added to the process’ legitimacy as the political members were both invested in the recommendations and parliamentary responsiveness to them. A number of them have acted as champions for the process and its recommendations during parliamentary debates on the reports.

One of the challenges facing a possible constitutional convention for the UK is deciding its remit. The Irish Convention shows that deliberative processes can be successfully used for both matters of technical political reform and controversial social and moral issues. Whatever remit is chosen for the UK convention, care is required to ensure that its work is inclusive, well resourced, allocated sufficient time, open, and has a clearly defined timeline for governmental response if it is to achieve legitimacy.


Clodagh Harris is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government, University College Cork. She was a member of the Irish Convention on the Constitution’s academic and legal support group and an international observer at Belgium’s G1000 citizens’ summit. She tweets from @clharris_ucc

This article originally appeared on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog. This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of ConstitutionUK, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: William Murphy/Flickr cc by 2.0.

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Nov 7 2014

Do we need a Global Constitution for a Globalised Age?

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Blog pictureA new constitution for the UK must include mechanisms that enable ‘the People’ to interact with the structures of power that govern their lives. Traditional nation state constitutions concentrate almost exclusively on power exercised by the state, within the territory of the state. In an increasingly globalised world, however, constitutions must take account of global power structures and systems of global governance. 

A fundamental question that must be addressed by any constitutional convention is how a new constitutional order might redefine the relationship between citizens and global governance. In an increasingly globalised world – a world where power is frequently exercised at international level, across borders, through informal channels – a new constitution for the UK must consider how ‘the People’ might interact with the diverse structures of power that operate beyond the traditional boundaries of the state. Continue reading

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Sep 23 2014

Video: Our Constitutional Carnival

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ConstitutionUK Team

ConstitutionUK Team

Scotland has had its say, now it is the turn of the whole UK – and the LSE has already begun! On 26 June 2014 LSE’s new Saw Swee Hock Student Centre hosted a very special celebration of democracy: ConstitutionUK’s Constitutional Carnival. Featuring special guests including Peter Tatchell, Martin Lewis, and Baroness Joyce Quinn, amongst others, this special one-off event brought together members of the School and of the general public in order to create LSE’s very own constitutional moment in the run-up to the project’s second stage: hacking a written constitution for the United Kingdom.

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Sep 15 2014

There are substantial and unacceptable risks in moving to a legal constitution from our current political one

Sir Stephen Laws

Sir Stephen Laws

Calls for a written UK constitution are not new, but, Sir Stephen Laws argues, a move from a ‘political constitution’, like the one we have, to a ‘legal constitution’, in the form of a new written one, risks paralysing the flexibility that has made the UK model so successful.

I worked at the interface of government, Parliament and the law for 37 years, led the drafters of UK legislation and gave constitutional advice. I’d like to share with the project my doubts about the practicability and wisdom of a written constitution for the UK.

Pre-legislative analysis

One of the first things new legislative drafters learn is that Acts of Parliament can do only one thing: change the law.

The preparation of legislation involves three stages.

  • First, you identify the political objective: the practical change in the real world which is desired.
  • Secondly, you identify whether the law needs to be changed to achieve that objective, and if so what the change is: the legal policy. It may, for example, be the removal of a legal obstacle or “mischief”, such as a restriction on powers or capacity, or it may involve new legal incentives to particular conduct.
  • Lastly, you determine the best way to make that change. Both the legal detail of the change and the drafting must ensure, not only that the change works in purely legal terms to implement the legal policy, but also that it works in practical terms to promote the political objective.

Legislation is likely to go wrong when elements of this process become disconnected. One common risk is the making of false assumptions about how the legal policy might serve a particular political objective. An obvious example is an assumption that prohibiting the way people currently achieve X will prevent them from wanting to achieve X, so they will not try to find another way to achieve X.

Another risk is that, in the development of the legal policy or the polishing of the drafting, those involved will lose sight of how that policy connects with the political objective. Both the political objective and the legal policy are likely to involve modifications of complex systems. Modifications of each will have effects elsewhere in that system, and on the other. Legislating involves assessing the likely impact throughout both systems of the proposed changes. Continue reading

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