“Our democracy would look like a creeping, crypto-oligarchy to the ancient Greeks – and many today may be coming to a similar conclusion.”
Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek Culture, Cambridge.
Reconstituting British democracy, a personal account by Dr Chris Forman, of the “Constituting Democracy” event organised by Assemblies for Democracy.
On Saturday, 16th July 2016, a diverse group of British citizens gathered to discuss how the entire population of the UK could contribute to, and legitimize, a new constitution for the UK. The event, held at Southbank University in London, was organised by Assemblies for Democracy in response to the growing corpus of individuals in the UK who are deeply unsatisfied with the fundamental relationship between citizens and the state in the UK.
The attendees were drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and professions including consultants, IT professionals, scientists, teachers, activists, community leaders, students, CEOs, retired, unemployed or otherwise to discuss how this lofty political objective might be approached.
Since it was launched in 2014, Assemblies for Democracy has been working with other notable campaigns and movements such as Occupy Democracy, Unlock Democracy, openDemocracy and the Haldane Society on involving citizens in an initiative for a new democratic constitution. The campaign has been supported by John McDonnell MP, the shadow chancellor, Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party and academics from Oxford and University College London. A week after the EU referendum, Assemblies for Democracy organised the publication in the Guardian of a letter calling for a citizens’ convention on the constitution.
It is abundantly clear that the will exists in the UK to upgrade the fundamental processes on which our democracy rests by combining the lessons of history, science and political theory with the promise of 21st century information technology.
The Brexit referendum was the first time that many individuals have actually been able to exercise direct power over a truly significant factor in their lives and it has woken up a lot of people to the possibilities that may exist if the decision-making process were different from its current form.
One outcome from the referendum is the recognition that huge parts of our society are disenfranchised and unrepresented in the current mainstream political decision-making process, and many people are asking why that is the case and are there alternatives? Many people are asking what they can do about it. If you are one of these people then you are not alone.
The manipulative and misleading manner in which both of the Brexit campaigns were conducted has expanded, transformed and re-energised the movement to draft a written British constitution that codifies and resets the relationship between the people and the state. Such a constitution has enough potential to push democratic involvement of every citizen far beyond voting for incumbent political parties.
There is an opportunity to change everything about our democracy from how agendas are formed and how information is gathered and distributed to how decisions themselves are made. Parliament, the judiciary, government, the civil service and other organs of state could be replaced with 21st century upgrades. Even voting itself isn’t safe; there are many possibilities such as the ancient Greek idea of sortition, or variations thereof.
A massive political overhaul could be a chance to completely re-write the core values of the political system. Perhaps the people would decide to build a constitution that not only responds to and adopts the will of the people but which also has preservation of our ecosystem built into it from the very foundations and in such a way that financial and economic processes are designed to co-exist with the planet that supports us rather than to exploit it.
The mandate of the current organs of states arises from the citizens themselves, and it would be the citizens who would have to choose to write the new constitution. The challenge is to create the conditions and the framework necessary to co-ordinate such a gargantuan effort in a fair and transparent way that does not introduce new biases or weak points or fail to solve the many problems that exist in today’s ”creeping crypto-oligarchy”.
The ambitious purpose of the meeting on July 16 was to begin tackling precisely the thorny problem of defining such a fair and transparent process, which has been named ”The Citizens Constitutional Convention” or just ”The Convention”. If such a convention can be successfully defined and implemented then all the citizens of the UK could have the opportunity to choose for themselves the manner in which they exert their sovereign political power over the group policies adopted by society.
Many people who were in attendance at the meeting have been thinking about these kinds of questions for a long time. Notably, however, many were new to the discussion. There was one commonality: a feeling among all present that if they themselves didn’t do something about upgrading our democracy then who else would? Certainly not the incumbent parties and precious few individual MPs. So how does one go about tackling such a mammoth task as redefining the nature of the transfer of sovereign power among citizens? There are many questions, and even fewer answers. The first challenge is to acquire a deeply-held conviction that addressing such a difficult task is not only possible but that it will be worth the effort.
So having acquired such conviction the real challenge then presents itself. What, precisely, is to be done? Is it legal? How can we meaningfully design a process that includes all 70 million people in the UK in the authorship of a single document? Without presupposing the details of such a constitution, what broad issues should the document address and how? Is it indeed a document? or is it something else? What are the problems in the existing system that need changing? Will we know whether or not we have improved our political system or merely swapped it out for some other corruption?
Assemblies for Democracy aims to work with many organisations to provide leadership throughout this difficult process. Since the end of 2015, an open Convention Planning Group has carried forward the project. They have held numerous open meetings in which they identified the need for, and defined, the discussion that was to be held on July 16. At one previous meeting, Professor Alan Renwick of UCL, proposed that six core questions need to be answered before a convention could be introduced. Renwick originally outlined his six core questions in a briefing for the Constitution Society.
- What is the purpose of the process? 2. Who is represented by the process? 3. What would the agenda be? 4. What is the proposed structure of the convention process? 5. How should it conduct its business? 6. How can it secure its voice? (i.e. how can the constitution attain legitimacy?) More details about the previous meeting and these core questions can be found here.
The meeting on July 16 was an attempt to answer all of these questions. Each question, and related sub-questions, would be discussed at five separate tables and a mediator would be present at each table for the entire day. Throughout the day, in half hour intervals, denoted by the ringing of a bell, delegates would move around the tables and conduct mediated discussions in groups of six or less people. The groups formed were always different. The individuals in each group were free to chose their interpretation of the questions, and to supply their own answers.
The input from the event organisers was minimal and consisted of the overall objective, the format of the day and a set of initial thoughts to kick start each discussion. On the day, 25 parallel discussions took place over a total of three hours. Each person was present at five of those discussions and each took part in at least one discussion on every set of the core questions. Following these discussions a plenary meeting then took place in which the mediators from each table did their best to collate and present the output from the five discussions on their set of questions to the entire conference.
The final stage of the day was a group consolidation exercise where proposals were invited from the floor in response to the five sets of questions. There was time for only brief discussion around these proposals. I, for one, was proud of the calm and polite manner in which we discussed not only such difficult issues, but also the process that we would use to arrive at a consensus, and how best to use the time available.
To summarise the output, one proposal is the people’s parliament approach in which a weighted representative set of delegates, who could potentially be aided by a secretariat of advisors, are constructed to draft the constitution. The other approach that I saw emerging was an open source process in which a number of constitutions are constructed in parallel, on or offline, and they can be contributed to by anyone and everyone. These proposed constitutions would be peer reviewed through an iterative and transparent feedback process perhaps involving face-to-face sortition (random selection) events held throughout the country.
The next meeting of the convention planning group (whose membership is open to all who agree with their aims and principle) will take place on 31st of July in London.