A written constitution could give Britain the strength and stability that the Conservatives have failed to deliver.
There has never been as much of a constitutional crisis in our history as exists today. Following the decision to leave Europe, Britain has suffered from crippling uncertainty as a result of our flexible and unwritten constitution.
It now looks almost inevitable that there will be another General Election as Theresa May desperately clings to power with a majority of two in an informal coalition with the DUP. In three short years we have had two inconclusive referendums and a snap election with no outright winner, in a voting system in which a few thousand votes in marginal seats matter the most and where minority parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland have been given absurd “Kingmaking” sway over the whole of Great Britain. Our democracy is broken, it seems – epitomized by a period in which voting never ends and action never begins.
The referendum on Europe, in theory a simple question about Britain’s membership of the European Union, has plunged our country into a state of perpetual chaos. As a way of consulting the general public the referendum seemed to raise far more questions than it seemed to answer. What would “Brexit” mean for freedom of movement or access to the single market? Did a Leave vote mean a vote for leaving the European Convention of Human Rights? Lacking any real answers to how departure from the EU would work, the British people voted anyway. David Cameron promptly resigned, abandoning the public to a mess he had created – in which opinion pollsters rather than voters would generate the mandate for the next government.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were tipped to be the next contenders to run the country, due to their heavy involvement in the Leave campaign and implicit within it the public belief that both of them were challenging David Cameron for the Prime-Ministerial position. Yet they both quickly abandoned ship allowing Theresa May to take the position unopposed and unelected. Without consulting the British public via a general election, May began making hasty and problematic assumptions about what mandate the Brexit vote had given her. She doggedly began pursuing a “hard Brexit” which nobody had voted for and resulted in her capitulating at the Supreme Court regarding her ability to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament.
Rather than holding a general election at the start of her tenure, which would have cemented her place as a Prime Minister with the authority to deliver Brexit based on her own manifesto, May proceeded full steam ahead with policies plucked straight out of Britain’s right-wing newspapers. Yet so many questions remained unanswered. Millions of 16-18 year olds had been denied a vote on a decision which would affect the rest of their lives. Scotland, too, felt deceived – by a massive constitutional change to the United Kingdom which they hadn’t been able to take into consideration in their own independence referendum. Many people who had voted for Brexit had already changed their minds, or had different interpretations to May’s about what Brexit should be about. Nobody had voted for May or her agenda; she had gained power through an internal leadership contest and her radically different approach to Brexit bore absolutely no resemblance to the elected mandate of David Cameron.
Spying an opportunity eleven months later to increase her mandate against a perceptively weak Labour Party, May decided to break her promise of “No general election before 2020” and finally go to the British public. She was humiliated with a result which destroyed her overall majority in the House of Commons and created the situation of a hung Parliament. Still, May has managed to stay in power in partnership with a tiny Northern-Irish Party called the DUP. Democratically, she is in a far weaker position than John Major ever was. Rather than being under strong and stable leadership, Britain is going into the Brexit negotiations with one of the most fragmented governments it has ever known.
It is clear, in this case, that the laws which govern our democracy have failed. The first failure came with the resignation of David Cameron, triggering an internal leadership contest within the Conservative Party to choose our next Prime Minister. Had Boris Johnson or Gove won that contest, the direction Britain would be headed in would be very different to the one it is today. Instead, the Conservatives forced Theresa May upon the British public. In this case, it is right to ask whether the new Prime Minister should have called for a new general election – particularly when the policies she wanted to implement were so different from that of her predecessor David Cameron, or the 2015 Conservative Manifesto.
The second constitutional failure was of course the result of the 2017 General Election. May called for an election to strengthen her majority for Brexit, and again made promises that she has since broken, including “if I lose just 6 seats I will lose this election.” Losing double that in an election result which even May’s backers have described as catastrophic should have been enough to force her to resign and for the Conservative Party to select new leadership. Yet Britain’s constitution says simply that any party able to form a majority – no matter how slim – in Parliament is able to govern.
As a result, we have a Prime Minister who has never been able to gain the confidence of the British public and a minority party from Northern Ireland being given unprecedented power in the House of Commons as part of a coalition deal. Meanwhile, May has broken every single one of her promises as well as the promises made by David Cameron in the 2015 manifesto, and in any normal circumstances would have had to resign rather than enter a “coalition of chaos” which she accused other parties of wanting to create. With DUP talks still underway, it also appears that she may not have had the constitutional right to tell the Queen that she was able to form a government. Yet there is no obligation to “do the right thing” in our Parliamentary democracy.
Our two-party system is supposed to ensure strong government as a result of a simple majority in the House of Commons. During the next few weeks, however, it is likely that that myth will be shown to be false. It now seems highly unlikely that May will be able to command the House of Commons, possessing an even slimmer and more fragmented majority than John Major or any other leader in our Parliamentary history. A new general election is the only acceptable solution to the current democratic crisis. But on all of this – all of the events leading on from the EU referendum – our constitution has largely been silent. Hundreds of years of Parliamentary tradition and etiquette mean that situations are able to exist like the one we are in currently. It is simply absurd, and wholly undemocratic, that a tiny party such as the DUP should be granted Kingmaking power over Britain simply because it is willing to work with the Conservatives.
We should be proud of our democracy, but voting is only worthwhile if our votes mean something - in the past two years, it seems, democracy has been ignored, misinterpreted and outright trampled on by politicians in positions of power. The strength of our future governments, and our ability to avoid crises such as these in the future is wholly dependent upon us having a clear set of rules; a written constitutional document which would strengthen our democracy by ensuring that the people – rather than a handful of politicians – always had a meaningful say in our country’s future. But a written constitution would do much more than address the structure of the House of Commons. It would be an opportunity to settle the Scottish and Irish questions by defining the rights and responsibilities of our four nations, to properly outline the role of our Monarchy in selecting our government, and to bring an end to scepticism in politics by making politicians properly accountable to the public rather than making it up as they go along.
A written constitution could give Britain the strength and stability that the Conservatives have failed to deliver. The opening paragraph of the Constitution of the United States reads: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution...” Have we ever needed such ideals more than we do today?
Brian Blears is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @bryanblears