Jan 20 2015

We want to hear from YOU!

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The Status Quo is Not an Option

From the 15 January 2015 ConstitutionUK are running an online forum to crowdsource a new written constitution for the UK. We want to hear from YOU! Visit us at constitutionuk.com!

How to get involved

LSE’s Institute of Public Affairs invites you to participate in an exciting and innovative project which will crowdsource a written UK constitution. By visiting constitutionuk.com you can share your thoughts and ideas and discuss a range of issues including the powers of Parliament and the Prime Minister, the role of the Head of state, how should we elect our representatives, what rights should we have and what place, if any, should the European Union have in our UK Constitution.

Why get involved
Your opinions and ideas will be displayed and you will have the opportunity to comment on and vote on your fellow contributors ideas, question experts and have access to resources to assist you in your decision making. At the end of the crowdsourcing process the Institute of Public Affairs will hold a Constitutional Convention in March to bring together the crowdsourced data to form a written constitution. Experts, the public and 20 Constitutional Champions representing the online community created over the 10

Please join in and have your say on the following topics:

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Jan 23 2015

Unions and Constitutions

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David McCroneHow do you write a constitution for a state in which 45% of the population of one of its founding partners voted to leave a political Union which it helped to create over 300 years ago? It certainly is difficult, and probably impossible. Why should that be? David McCrone talks about unions and constitutions.

In the first place, it is important to understand the nature of the 1707 Union which created ‘Great Britain’. (For the purists, the ‘United Kingdom’ came about in 1801 when Ireland (all of it) joined the Union.) That Union was what the French call a ‘mariage de raison’ such that Scotland got access to economic and political power in the unfolding British Empire, while England severed the old alliance Scotland had with France since the 13th century. It was a marriage which ultimately suited both nations, with Scotland retaining key institutions such as law, education, religion, local affairs, and leaving Westminster to deal with ‘high’ politics; taxation, warfare, and in the 20th century, welfare.

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Jan 12 2015

Internet Rights – the crucial role of online rights

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Paul Bernal

The internet has become a critical part of almost everything we do. Dr Paul Bernal argues that if we don’t protect human rights online, we can’t protect them in the ‘real’ world. ‘Online rights’ should not simply protect the right to privacy but must cover all civil rights, including freedom of expression. 

The internet, which has been held up – often appropriately – as offering huge hope and opportunities for liberation and human rights, now seems to offer even more for surveillance, oppression and control. The most direct reason for this is the amount of time we spend and the wide variety of activities that we do online – the internet has become a critical part of almost everything we do. We don’t just use the net as a source of information and a means of communication with our friends, relatives and colleagues, we use it for our social lives, our political lives, our work lives, to search for jobs and to search for love. We explore things that are interesting to us – and things that are important to us, including all those things we do to protect our own human rights. If we don’t protect human rights online, we can’t protect them in the ‘real’ world.

Less than zero privacy

An examination of a user’s web browsing, the search terms they use, who they’re ‘friends’ with on Facebook, whose tweets they retweet, what music they listen to, what places they look at on Google Maps and so on can tell you an immense amount about them. In 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, said ‘you have zero privacy anyway, get over it.’ These days, it might be more accurate to say that we have less than zero privacy: it is possible for surveillance to reveal more about someone than that person even knows themselves.

Digital Rights

(Credit: aubergene, CC by 2.0)

The impact of this is immense – and it covers not just privacy but all the traditional civil rights. It impacts upon freedom of expression – both through the chilling effect of knowing that you are observed and from the direct use of surveillance to find out who people are speaking to and what they are speaking about and using that information to stop them. Websites can be and are found and shut down: the same kind of technology introduced to deal with things like pornography and copyright infringement can be used to block sites for all kinds of reasons. It impacts upon freedom of assembly and of association – not just where we meet and who we meet with online, but in the ‘real’ world, because real world meetings are generally arranged and coordinated online. Again, this is not just theoretical but real – from pre-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt to the UK authorities’ monitoring of social media in order to ‘head off’ badger cull protests.
Surveillance of the net can also have an impact on freedom of religion and of thought – because the same profiling systems developed by corporations to work out what kind of music you listen to or products you’d like to buy can be used to determine your religious belief or political views. It can also affect your right to a fair trial – as the recent revelations of GCHQ and the police intercepting communications between lawyers and clients, journalists and sources, even prisoners and their MPs have shown. As almost every activity, no matter how sensitive or confidential, these days has an online element, surveillance can interfere with it – and then the technology can directly use that surveillance.

Attacks from many directions

The authorities watch us for one set of reasons, corporations for another – but both can interfere with our freedom and the two interact many ways. Authorities can co-opt corporate surveillance and control, can hack into data and systems, can subcontract services and system development – and corporates can and do lobby governments to ensure that laws are ‘business-friendly’ which, in practice often means that they are also ‘surveillance-friendly’. In many ways corporate activities can often have more impact on people in their daily lives than anything that the authorities can do – our job prospects, our credit ratings, the cost of our insurance and indeed of other products, as well as the information we see and so forth matters. The so-called ‘Facebook Experiment’ that took place earlier this year demonstrated that by manipulating the messages seen by Facebook users, Facebook were able to manipulate the users’ emotions – making them happier or sadder. That in itself should be something to concern us.

All of this is one of the main reasons that the ‘counter-terror’ industry has migrated to a great extent to the internet. Governments, intelligence services, police forces and others are doing their best to convince us that we should let them use surveillance more and more. The spectre of the ‘dark’ or ‘deep’ web has been raised in speech after speech, and the prominence of extremism in the social media pushed harder and harder – all to soften us up, to make us accept more and more surveillance and more and more censorship.

Resisting – and saving human rights

We should resist that push, and resist it strongly. If we do not fight hard for a free, privacy-friendly, human-friendly internet, we will find it impossible to keep our whole world human friendly. Human rights in the ‘real’ world cannot be protected if we don’t protect human rights in the online world. Authoritarians all around the world know this – we need to remember it too.

That means fighting for privacy in particular, for privacy underpins all those other rights. It means fighting against censorship – and against censorship infrastructures built for seemingly good reasons. It means fighting against ‘real names’ policies – for without the freedom to protect your identity, to protect the link between your online activities and your real person, you cannot be free online. It means fighting against corporate restrictions of internet freedom as much as it does fighting against the activities of the authorities, because the two are seemingly inextricably linked.

The role of a written constitution

A written constitution would give an opportunity to set down the crucial principles – not in precise, technological terms, but in ways that can and will adapt as technology changes. A right to roam the internet with privacy. A right to monitor those who monitor us. A right to create, assert and protect an online identity. A right to delete personal data. These are rights that I have written about in my book Internet Privacy Rights, Rights to Protect Autonomy – but we need more. Ensuring that the right to freedom of expression covers a right not to be censored, a right for your online presence to be found if you want to be found – placing obligations of fairness and neutrality on search engines, for example, and on those implementing filters to make those filters transparent, proportionate, accountable, optional and reversible.

The November 2014 adoption of a resolution on privacy in the digital age by the UN General Assembly could be seen as a starting point, but needs to be taken a lot further and the fight needs to be taken a lot more seriously, particularly in the face of the concerted efforts of some governments in the opposite direction – the UK’s at the head of the list. If online rights are included in a written constitution governments could find it harder to use the invidious, insidious and perfidious tactics they have to infringe upon our internet freedom. It would be no guarantee – far from it – and the constitutional rights must emerge from what we understand to be our rights – but it could be one weapon in a critical fight. If we want to protect human rights, we have to fight that fight for internet freedom. There isn’t any choice in the matter.


Dr Paul Bernal is a Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the UEA Law School. His research centres around privacy and human rights, particularly on the internet, and the role of social media. His book Internet Privacy Rights, Rights to Protect Autonomy, was published by CUP in March 2014. He tweets as @paulbernalUK.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of ConstitutionUK, nor of the London School of Economics.




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Dec 19 2014

We want to hear from YOU!

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The Status Quo is Not an OptionFrom the 15 January 2015 ConstitutionUK will be running an online forum to crowdsource a new written constitution for the UK. We want to hear from YOU!  

In October 2013 the Institute of Public Affairs began its unique project ConstitutionUK which aimed to crowdsource the UK constitution. Since then, ConstitutionUK has held a number of public engagement events here at LSE and across the UK, inviting members of the public to participate in drafting a new UK constitution. The highlight of these events was our Constitutional Carnival held in June 2014. We have also built a large online community, receiving over 13,000 comments on our blog posts.

On Thursday 15 January 2015 ConstitutionUK will launch a new online forum, Continue reading

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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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