Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Best left unsaid

David Beetham, Stuart Weir and Stuart Wilks-Heeg write down our unwritten and undemocratic constitution

January 20, 2010
4 min read


David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


  share     tweet  

Subscribers to this edition of Red Pepper will find as an insert the Democratic Audit pamphlet The Unspoken Constitution. Many attempts have been made in recent years to draft a written constitution for the UK – by John MacDonald QC, Tony Benn and the Institute for Public Policy Research, to name but three – setting out the respective powers that government, parliament and the courts should have, and the rights that should be guaranteed to citizens. And the case for a codification of Britain’s system of government has most recently been made by Vernon Bogdanor, arguably the leading contemporary academic authority on the British constitution.

However, the prospect of achieving a written constitution looks more remote than ever, given the way that the major parties together block crucial constitutional issues and prevent them reaching the political agenda. It seems we will continue to be one of only two countries in the world without one.

This is where our pamphlet comes in. We thought it was time to write down or ‘codify’ not what should happen to make our system democratic, but what happens in practice; and to do so from the standpoint of the governing elite that exercises power on our behalf but would prefer that its operation be mystified as much as possible. They recognise how important it is that such a document should never see the light of day.

The constitution begins by extolling the virtues of being unwritten:

It is a collection of laws, fictions, powers left over from the old monarchy and powers that we make up as we go along. It allows us to decide what governments can do; and best of all, only we have the power to change it … The great advantage of this flexibility is that once we have hit on a new way of behaving, it becomes part of the constitution. And we can modernise easily. So we have moved on from old-fashioned cabinet government to sofa government by the prime minister with trusted allies and special advisors. Presidential, yes, but faster and more efficient. This excellent state of affairs allows us to exercise executive power more or less as we please while the whole world admires us as a democracy.

There then follows a list of the ‘unspoken articles’ of what Jack Straw has termed our ‘executive democracy’. We understand that Sir Humphrey and his colleagues have chuckled particularly loudly at the following articles:

Government, like every subject, shall be free to do whatever is not unlawful. The government shall decide what is unlawful.

The government shall have the power to enact ministerial edicts, known as statutory instruments or Orders in Council, this secondary legislation being in effect law-making that can almost wholly escape parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

In the event of controversy over government actions, the government may have recourse to carefully chosen judges or former civil servants to hold an inquiry that has due respect for government’s need for support and discretion. The government shall set the terms of reference for any inquiry, have powers to suspend it or restrict public access to it, and may censor an inquiry report to prevent any information emerging which we say may harm state economic and security interests.

Civil servants … shall be allowed to enhance generous pensions by taking advantage of their departmental experience and contacts through lucrative appointments in relevant private companies.

We hope you will read the whole document with similar amusement. But we expect that it will also make you angry that this is the way we are governed in the 21st century.

We like to think that it makes an irresistible case for a written constitution, rooted in sound democratic principles and in popular sovereignty; but we would urge proponents of the status quo to come forward and make their case for its defence, on democratic, or indeed any other, grounds.

Of course, debate is not enough in itself, and particularly not if it is limited to converts to the cause. Some matters are simply too urgent to be left until the glorious day when our written constitution is unveiled. At the same time, voters need to be offered more than a Hobson’s choice at the 2010 election between political parties making rival claims about which areas of government spending they will cut.

The issues of how power is exercised, by whom and in whose interests, must be forced to the fore of the election debate. Over the next six months, the Power 2010 initiative will seek to bring these issues back onto the political agenda. It is a good job somebody is – the party conference season confirmed that it would be foolhardy to leave it to our political masters.

Download a copy of the pamphlet here

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going