As we celebrate 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta, many believe that it is time British values were clarified in a codified document for our age. The place to define them could be in a written constitution, given that the UK doesn’t have one.
But the UK is a melting pot of cultures – with 270 nationalities and 300 different languages spoken in London alone – so these values are not easily defined. Efforts to do so by the government have proved hopelessly embarrassing. They have essentially amounted to parroting universal values and attempting to repackage them as British.
We’ve been trying a different approach to the problem by crowdsourcing views on how to drag an 800-year old charter into the 21st century. It turns out, when you try to hack the constitution, you get a rather different view of how the UK should be run.
So far, some particularly strong views have been expressed on the future of the House of Lords. The question of whether the upper house of the parliament should be abolished is gaining traction, with some people calling for a directly elected senate to address what they see as cronyism.
And when it comes to the Queen, there is division. At the moment, a majority of people support having an elected head of state and there is considerable support for at least defining the ceremonial role of the monarch in the constitution.
Cracking the whip
The public has also shown support for restricting the prime minister’s powers to appoint and remove cabinet ministers at their whim, instead handing that responsibility over to parliament. Some also want to bind politicians to their election pledges via legislation.
Others have proposed new powers for the electorate to trigger an election or referendum and veto bills passing through parliament. Something similar operates in Switzerland, where a kind of semi-direct democracy enables people to trigger a referendum on any proposed law if they can gather enough signatures.
And with the general election just three months away, the voting system has also come under scrutiny. Some good arguments have been put forward to lower the voting age to 16 and also include residents who have lived in the country for five years or more.
If you can fight for your country at 16, argued one respondent, you should at least be able to vote for the people sending you to war. And if you have chosen to make the UK your home, you should get a say in its future.
There is also significant debate about the role of Europe – another central issue in the forthcoming election. Some have argued that the UK should claw back some power from Brussels and Strasbourg by making the decisions of foreign courts non-binding.
Doing the right thing
As we hack the constitution, we’ve been asking people about what should go into a British Bill of Rights. There have been suggestions to enshrine the right to free education; equal access to legal representation; the rights of the citizen over the corporation; workers’ rights; and even the right to be obscene in the document.
It’s important that the constitutional debate is not hijacked by the elite – particularly not the politicians who already make so many of our decisions on our behalf. This project aims to collect as many views as possible and is still going on.
It will culminate in a constitutional convention hosted by LSE in March, at which the top 20 participants from the crowdsourcing project will be invited to help finalise a written, codified constitution. We’ll then present it to parliament and see whether our politicians are ready for the kind of change being put forward by the people .