There is just the inkling of the possibility that the crises around corruption, poverty and political exclusion in this country could create the conditions for some form of constitutional change. I’m not wildly optimistic, but consider this… Boris Johnson was dragged kicking and screaming from power, but the vast majority of people who watched this epic piece of theatre had little or no say in the outcome.
Nor will they get a chance to have a say or even to protest very loudly. On top of which the country is mired in poverty, hunger, poor health and economic decline. And what we have left of parliamentary democracy is under deliberate attack from within.
A progressive government – should it get in – would have a mountain to climb to restore the broken and under-funded institutions we need, such as our local authorities and National Health Service.
But what’s this … a filigree of hope?
The Scottish Labour Party – not the national body, you may note – has published a manifesto that promised a constitutional convention “to examine and advise on reform of the way Britain works at a fundamental level.” Is this the start of a change in how Britain is governed?
Ever since the Great Reform Act of 1832 extended the right to vote, there has been some, if limited, progress. And for periods, Labour – the electoral version of Alf Tupper “the tough of the track” – dared occasionally to win by being better. But big money always holds sway and has ensured that its own true representatives (the Conservative Party) continue to occupy the winner’s podium.
The race was never designed for runners without pedigree or wealth. So a new government will need to address constitutional change, or face being the last of its kind. Failure to do so will set in concrete Johnson’s weakening of institutions supposed to protect citizens’ rights. It must go beyond policy tweaking and act radically to make society fairer.
True, constitutional change is no vote winner, so power must be achieved with a more popular manifesto, but this must include reforms to bring us back to a more equitable democracy. Privilege must be done away with to rid the country of patronage and inequality of the kind now milking our economy dry.
All citizens must feel they can have a stake in how the country is run.
Keeping the monarchy, but …
Reform needs to start from the “top”. Even if the public is not yet ready for the UK to become a republic, we could make a start. Modernisation of the antiquated monarchy would enable citizens to feel confident that nobody is held in higher esteem or with greater rights than themselves.
For example, the monarch could act as Head of State for a period set by Parliament, with resources aligned to the role defined; there might be only two working royals at any time.
All “working royals” should have been state-educated; have undergone an intensive university course in constitutional affairs and worked for at least 12 months in a foodbank, a care home or agricultural fieldwork or apprenticeship. They would enjoy no preferential treatment or family influence, and live in the same community as their co-workers.
Oh Lord, make our votes count
Then there is Parliament. Clinging to its gothic past, it is far from fit for purpose. The House of Lords, despite the good work and expertise of some members, is now a ludicrous anachronistic remnant of mediaeval privilege supplying partisan candidates for unelected ministerial or other “jobs for the boys” in the prime minister’s gift.
Membership must surely be term-limited and subject to rigorous selection and election.
As for MPs, in my 74 years, I have yet to be represented by someone for whom I voted. Whole swathes of the country are political monocultures, leaving millions similarly unrepresented. Devolution is essential so that citizens everywhere, not just in Scotland and Wales, feel they have some agency over decisions which affect their lives, made by people who live among them, elected in proportion to their party’s local significance.
Put rule of law above our rulers
Then there is the rule of law. Without respect and obedience to law, both of the nation and the wider world, none of the above can be effective. Human Rights have their basis in international consensus which must be respected, as must laws affecting trade and international relations. No citizen of this country can be above the laws of this country nor decide on their own guilt or innocence.
Such principles must be restated and affirmed in such a way that our democracy is no longer dependent on the goodwill or whim of those who gain temporary authority over others. Of course, all of this will arouse the ire of the Daily Mail, which will be a useful indicator of its merits.
Is there appetite for change?
Is there an appetite for all this? The monarchy remains highly popular, and calls for an overhaul of the constitutional system don’t generally excite the electorate. That said, public opinion has become increasingly volatile, and the mistrust, corruption and lies generated by the Johnson government may well help to fuel demand for such a radical shake-up.
So if opposition parties can convincingly put the case for change, they may well find a more receptive audience than ever before.