Matt Hann discusses the historical attempts to address constitutional issues. Notably, he relates the ConstitutionUK project to H.G. Wells’ attempt to develop a declaration that reflected the opinions of the masses.
This month, Professor Conor Gearty of the LSE announced a project to crowdsource a constitution for the UK, which he explains in an article for the Guardian.
It’s an interesting idea, and one which addresses a void at the heart of the UK constitutional set-up that is at best somewhat embarrassing, and, at worst, highly problematic. The lack of a single constitutional document leaves pretty much everything open to interpretation, which poses fairly obvious problems around accountability, abuses of power, and so on. The Human Rights Act (1998) provides many of the guarantees of human rights you’d expect to see in a constitution, but as statute law, it’s as vulnerable to repeal – in theory at least – as any other law (and indeed David Cameron has announced that he plans to do exactly that). A constitution would, presumably, be somewhat more deeply entrenched, and, like the law of the Medes and the Persians, it could not be revoked (or at least it could only be revoked subject to the sort of checks in place in the USA for constitutional amendments, for example).
Back in 1940, this sort of technology wasn’t available. What’s more, there was a war on, which you might expect would limit people’s desire to contribute to somewhat abstruse political debate.
Yet, in February 1940, against the backdrop of the introduction of rationing, evacuations, and spreading German (and indeed Russian) belligerence, a debate took place every day for a month on page four of the Daily Herald newspaper. The debate was prompted by the English science fiction writer, internationalist, and socialist, H. G. Wells.
Wells had written a letter to The Times, questioning what the purpose of the war was. He argued that if the war was to achieve anything, rather than simply being pointless slaughter, then Britain, and the allied powers, ought to have a good idea of the sort of peace they were fighting for. His proposal was that a Declaration of Human Rights be adopted. Furthermore, he argued that this Declaration ought to reflect the opinions of as many people as possible.
To this end, the Daily Herald facilitated a debate on its pages, which published contributions from scores of correspondents, ranging from politicians and academics to “the man on the street”. Furthermore, debates were begun in several other countries, with the intention being that the results of national debates could be combined to provide a “Declaration of the Rights of Man” that would be fit for the whole world – human rights that would be truly universal.
It was with some justification that the Daily Herald could boast that:
“No Declaration of Liberties in history – the Magna Charta, the Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence or the French Rights of Man – has reflected as this can, through the medium of a national newspaper, as trustee of public opinion, and through world-wide communications, the true Will of the people.”
Many of the debates seem familiar: why just rights, not responsibilities? Can we have human rights without faith in God? Surely the “Rights of Man” should be the rights of not just men, but women too? How we can make economic and social rights real? Can we really talk of rights without legislation to back them up?
In the end, a revised draft Declaration was produced by Wells’ drafting committee. How much effect it had is a matter of historical argument. However, freedoms similar to some of Wells’ proposals found their way into the Atlantic Charter and the speeches of Roosevelt and even Churchill (no natural ally of the “Rights of Man”). Where human rights had been a minority interest in 1939, they had become the flagship idea of the United Nations by 1948.
Even if the exact proposals of this early experiment in crowdsourcing didn’t make it into the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the very fact that the issue was raised so publicly, and with the participation of so many people – active or passively (the Daily Herald had the second largest circulation in Britain, after the Daily Express of around 1,875,000 in 1939) – brought the issue to wider public consciousness and focused minds to address the problem.
If nothing else – and even if politicians ignore Gearty’s proposals, as many did Wells’, rather sniffily, in 1940 – at least inviting people to take part in crowdsourcing a constitution points out that the lack of a written constitution is something we ought, at the very least, to be aware of, and something that we should probably be concerned about.
This article originally appeared on Matt Hann’s blog on 22 October 2013 and is included here for informational purposes only. This post represents the views of the author and does not give the position of Constitution UK or the London School of Economics.
Matt Hann is a final-year PhD student in political theory at Durham University. His research focuses on justificatory arguments for human rights, in particularly recognition-based approaches. His thesis combines aspects of the work of T. H. Green and Hannah Arendt in putting forward a novel theory of rights recognition, ‘egalitarian rights recognition’.