Melanie Strickland explains how a constitution created by the people can best protect democracy. She draws on the experiences of Bolivia and Iceland and how they have attempted to distribute power to citizens.
A constitution sets out the duties and limits of state power, and the rights of the people. In a democracy, governments rule by the will of the citizens. In the UK today the government is pushing through an unpopular neoliberal agenda including a comprehensive austerity programme, the privatisation of the NHS, a range of corporate-benefit measures including deregulation and economic ‘growth’ laws, corporate tax cuts, tax breaks and other incentives to engage in fracking and other extreme energy projects across the UK, and the stealthy removal of institutions and policies to curb climate change emissions. Such unpopular moves frequently go unchallenged by the corporate and compliant media, who remain silent on issues of public interest, or side with the Establishment by only selecting voices that represent business and Establishment interests. We can see this with the entirely media manufactured popularity of Nigel Farage and UKIP, supposedly a ‘man of the people’. It cannot be said that we live in a democracy, at least not in any meaningful sense of the term.
Before considering what a constitution for the UK could look like, we should first consider who has power in the UK. Today, those who exercise most political power are those who wield greatest economic power. In the UK, the City of London, as a financial centre, perhaps exercises the greatest political power, by influencing (if not dictating) what laws get passed and what people and policies are promoted. The rewarding of those who helped cause the economic crash and subsequent austerity measures, with taxpayer funded bank bailouts and ongoing support is a stark example of who wields power in the UK.
But it does not have to be this way. If the people organise, they can build movements strong enough to exercise political power, that is, to influence the behaviour of others to achieve political aims. Some inspiring recent examples of this include social movements in parts of Latin America – including Ecuador and Bolivia, and Iceland. Ecuador passed a new constitution in 2008 – recognising the importance of nature (respect for nature is a deeply held belief particularly of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador), and the duty of the State to improve the wellbeing of the population through education, nutrition and social security for example.
Bolivia, since the election of its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, has passed a Law of Mother Earth in 2010, which rejects the capitalist system which keeps Bolivians poor and defines their lands as a commodity to be exploited. The Law of Mother Earth sets the blueprint for a new economy based on respect for the Earth and puts the legal framework in place for embedding respect for nature and a sustainable way of living in all institutions of the State, including schools. After the banking crisis hit Iceland, people organised, elected clean politicians, and crowdfunded a new constitution which promised more equality and more democratic accountability, as well as recognising the value of nature as the source of life, as with Ecuador’s constitution and Bolivia’s law of Mother Earth. The project in Iceland has met some difficulties, but progressive politicians continue to press for far reaching reforms.
As feminist and legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon wrote: law organises power. That is to say, the law legitimises, lends authority to, and strengthens the positions of those who exercise power. At the moment, the legal system works against the majority of ordinary people in the UK. A new constitution for the UK must take power away from those corporate interests who have captured it for their own ends, and distribute power to the people, and it must recognise our duty to future generations, and indeed all life on this planet. This is not going to happen by chance – those with power never give it up willingly – we the people need to organise for it.
Melanie Strickland is lawyer for a health charity and an activist. She participated in social movements such as Occupy and Reclaim the Power. Melanie will be facilitating the ‘Sovereignty Session’ during our Constitutional Carnival on 26 June 2014.