Graham Allen is the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and MP for Nottingham North
As the nation celebrates the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta we need to look forward as well as back. What should a written constitution for the UK look like?
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has today approved my draft Chair’s report which asks whether we need a written constitution for the UK. Entitled ‘A new Magna Carta?’ the report briefly sets out the arguments for and against a written constitution for the UK, and outlines three possible options for future codification of the UK constitution.
This report offers a significant opportunity for the public to consider these options – each of which is open to debate – and to have their say in the necessary and important debate about the future of the UK’s constitution.
For many, the UK’s uncodified constitution is an acceptable, even desirable means of regulating state power. They point to the long-term stability of our democracy, and highlight the flexibility that has allowed our constitution to evolve gradually and to avoid the political ruptures experienced in many other countries around the world.
But political crises – perhaps following the Scottish independence referendum, or if a government is formed in May 2015 having won only a small minority of votes on a low turnout – have a way of shaking complacency and inducing change.
Over the coming months we will see and hear much about Magna Carta, first sealed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is undoubtedly important. It is one of our earliest constitutional documents and widely acknowledged as the foundation of the concept of limited government, subject both to the law and to the people.
However, it is equally important to re-examine our current constitutional settlement and to think about the future: what should the next 800 years look like?
Our traditionally ‘unwritten’ constitution has changed significantly over recent decades, and much of it is now written down. But this does not necessarily mean that it is easily accessible or readily understood. We must ask some difficult questions: is our current constitution clear enough? Does it enable us adequately to hold those in power to account? Could codifying our constitutional rules help combat the current widespread suspicion of politicians and of our political system?
In short, do we need to enact a new Magna Carta, based on public engagement and consensus, to ensure that government remains limited and accountable in the 21st century and beyond? This debate is long overdue: as long ago as 1792 Tom Paine famously declared: ‘A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government, and government without a constitution, is power without a right’.
My Committee’s report will be launched next week at the British Library, near to a copy of the first Magna Carta. I want the public consultation that will follow about the future of our democracy to be widespread and diverse, with contributions from as many organisations, institutions and individuals as possible. I hope that you will take part in this conversation. Let the debate begin.
Please do send your views to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee so that they can be taken into account as part of our consultation on ‘A new Magna Carta?’: