In the last week, we’ve witnessed some of the most brazen abuse of parliamentary procedure seen in modern times. In an attempt to deliver his extreme no-deal Brexit vision, the Prime Minister moved to prorogue parliament. This means that parliament will be forced into recess for five weeks; the longest shutdown since 1945.
While MPs scrambled to pass legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit before the shutdown, people took to the streets to protest this attack on democracy. Mobilised largely by the organised left, 100,000s of individuals across the UK swelled rallies calling to ‘stop the coup’ and defend democracy. The question that seemed to be on everyone’s lips was ‘how could a prime minister, with a mandate from just 0.2% of the population, work the political system in such a way as to pass such an extreme measure with no clear majority support?’ Naturally, this reawakened an age-old and oft-neglected subject: the maze of conventions and common law that we call our uncodified constitution.
Commenting in the Guardian, columnist and senior economics commentator, Aditya Chakrabortty, stated that Britain is ‘mired in a democratic crisis’. He further acknowledged that this is not just confined to one particular part of the political system but something that ‘features across our everyday lives’. To end this crisis, he argues that we need to go beyond just thinking in terms of legalistic systems and the physical location of parliament. We need to achieve practical goals to show the public why they should engage with politics. For this, he prescribes, among other things, ‘laying on classes in how politics and economics work and why they matter’.
The problem is, as sorely needed as better education is, anyone looking to learn more about our political system may notice a glaring issue with it: it’s not designed for most people. At the heart of that system are state structures barely reformed since 1689. It is said to be a flexible system that is meant to evolve over time, but in reality it has concentrated power in the hands of a small elite who know how to play the system. As the late Tony Benn once wrote, the few democratic measures that have been built into this system, largely after periods of great struggle, are “accepted on sufferance by the governing class”.
In 2017, Labour fought an election with a manifesto calling for a constitutional convention. Though this didn’t specify what exactly this would mean, it reflected the need for the left to tackle the issue of our out-of-date political institutions. Traditionally, Labour and the wider left has shied away from the cause of constitutional change, instead focusing on the need for legislative change to win crucial improvements for the working class. As long as the political climate and electoral-favour held out, we could more or less count on this strategy of using the state as it is to win material demands. The growing democratic crisis, however, coupled with the regrouping of the global right, shows us that now, more than ever, we need to get serious about a democratic revolution.
We should not underestimate the anti-democratic potential of the wave that leaders such as Boris and Trump have rode in on. It’s not a coincidence that we can now see populist right-wing demagogues around the world echoing each other’s inflammatory rhetoric, looking to scape-goat minorities and turn whole communities against one another. Over the last three decades, neoliberal capitalism has sought to buy our consent with the promise of unprecedented wealth. We could have it all if we simply accepted the corporate takeover of public assets, a bonfire of regulations meant to protect our rights and stagnant wages to maximise profits. The public largely complied with this, that is until the credit bubble burst in 2008; a result of the inherent chaos of a system based on debt.
Faced with new challenges, such as the loss of legitimacy and environmental breakdown, the old order has had to work hard to find new ways of maintaining our consent. From Brazil to the US, from Hungary to Indonesia, we can see the flourishings of a new kind of dictatorial capitalism, scarily reminiscent of ghosts from our not-so-distant past. The pretence to individual liberty that underpinned neoliberalism has been stripped in favour of security. It is in this context that we should view the Prime Minister’s most recent actions. The parliamentary shut down is pure shock therapy. The aim of Boris’s no-deal aspirations is to further remodel the economy and political system in favour of the mega-rich through sheer brute force.
Facing this crisis, our structural lines of defence are extraordinarily weak. An analogy that could be used to describe our constitutional arrangements is that of a house. To be safe enough to live in, a house needs to be built with strong support beams. Instead of having solid beams made of steel, our home relies on a number of people to hold it up. There’s nothing really stopping those people from moving out of place, leaving the structure to collapse in on us, other than the fact that they’ve always held up the house and for some reason we trust their intentions.
A new and written constitution would not be a magical cure-all tonic for the problems we face. What we have seen in events around the world in recent times is the way in which power can be abused in any political system. What a new constitution could do for us is simply give us a better fighting chance. With the reemergence of a serious parliamentary left with a shot of gaining power, we have a historic opportunity to start building the kind of society founded on equality and justice we’ve always dreamed of.
We need to take confidence in this opportunity. The change we seek shouldn’t be limited to what one government may be able to achieve in one electoral cycle, only for those gains to be easily swept aside should the Conservatives ever return to power. Constitutional projects from Ecuador to Portugal show us that it is possible to take key social and economic rights and embed them at the very heart of a political system. Our own project of this kind, engaging the public in shaping the political system, could help build the popular consent for a long-lasting democratic socialist transformation of our society. After all, when it comes to such generation-defining issues as austerity and the climate, polling shows just how big the gulf between the public and the political establishment is. So, let’s not keep burdening ourselves with the weight of our out-of-date constitution. It’s time to bring the house down and start again.