If the past week has achieved nothing else, it has illustrated the fatal weakness at the heart of the UK’s supposedly flexible constitution. Arguably, the referendum and the subsequent tortuous two years of attempts by Government and Opposition alike to understand what it means and how to respond suggest that the time has come for the UK – if it survives intact – to confront the reality that our system of government is hopelessly flawed and a complete overhaul is required.
Traditionalists may revere our inherited structures and laud the fact that, being based not on a written constitution but on a tangled weave of precedent and statute, it is uniquely flexible. That is of course lovely, and in many ways, especially insofar as Parliament’s supremacy is concerned, I’ve been one of those traditionalists. But it’s now painfully clear that the system is incapable of dealing with nuance and with reconciling the demands of an electorate marked by multiple and often subtle divergences in age, wealth, education, geography, culture, opportunity, experience and values.
There is one key reason for this: every problem posed to our system of governance is treated as if it only had two possible solutions. Embedded in the confrontational nature of a two-party system, every issue becomes reduced to black-and-white simplicity: not just in Europe or out of it, but also tax or spend, private or public service provision, cars or bikes, society or individual responsibility, and so on across all the many decisions that have to be taken in a modern economy.
The real world, of course, is much more complex than this. And while it’s comforting to have simplistic “this or that” options, the impacts of the decisions we take on those options are far more wide-ranging and difficult to understand and accept, as we’re all seeing played out now.
This failure is reflected in other democracies built on, or at least working from experience of, the British model. Most notably in the United States, where the binary conflicts between Democrats and Republicans and between the President and Legislature have led to an unprecedented breakdown of government. While we might think the US Constitution to be an exemplary attempt to create a genuine people’s democracy, with some of the finest minds of the time creating eloquent and lasting words of wisdom, it clearly doesn’t work now. In fact the reverence with which those words and principles are held to be untouchable may well be part of the cause of that functional breakdown, 250 years later.
So it is with our cobbled together system, which has always looked to be an uncomfortable compromise between monarchy and representative democracy. It has been constantly fiddled with, amended, expanded, abused for party gain, interpreted on the hoof by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the courts, and interfered with half-heartedly by Prime Ministers. Now we find ourselves in a national crisis, with a Prime Minster who seems to have decided to ignore a sequence of setbacks any one of which would have caused her predecessors to resign. And yet we are still unable to move towards any sign of a solution to the problem we have created for ourselves – or which our system has led us to.
It is hard to see that tinkering further with the UK’s non-constitution will give us relief from the causes of all this. I believe that we have to start with a look at the very concept of what a democracy should be. The best examples to me are those which deliver the most stable, most economically successful and the most egalitarian societies. These have three common (although not universal) characteristics: they are republics, they separate voting for the Executive from voting for the legislature, and they do not use first-past-the-post voting systems. Even then, sometimes such countries have constitutional problems from time to time. No system is perfect, especially when significant power is at stake.
Why would being a republic be helpful? Because it shows a genuine commitment to the supremacy of the people as shown through their votes. Whether you think our monarch exercises her power much, or wisely, is irrelevant: so long as the monarch is involved in any way in government, then the existence of inherited power throughout the system is legitimised. You don’t have to abolish the monarchy to end this: all that’s needed is to remove the monarch as head of state, and elect someone to head up the executive branch of government – much as we have begun to do with big city mayoralties.
Then, why change the system of elections? Again, our current mess of systems shows that the much heralded British constitutional flexibility is nothing more than a lack of conviction in any given electoral system. We have, variously, single member parliamentary constituencies, multi-member local government wards such as we see in Canterbury, single member European seats combined with “list” system area MEPs, and the same two tier system for the Greater London Authority. Northern Ireland (for Stormont) and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies use variants cherry-picked from these options, usually according to party calculations at the time of establishing the bodies as to what would work best for whoever was in power at the time. Three obvious conclusions we can draw from this are that there is no single “best” system; that first-past-the-post is far from sacrosanct; and that we can’t trust political parties alone to choose the most appropriate system.
So we need change in our representative democracy, to make it more representative and more democratic. That is a long term challenge which won’t help us with the dilemma facing us all now, for which a short term resolution has to be found.
But if we don’t address the evident shortcomings which have led to the present crisis we run the risk of making the same, or a similar, mistake all over again. And if the last week has proven anything, it is that you can’t run a country like this.