Democratic pressure is building, cracks and fault-lines are emerging and at some point the British political elite will have to let the people speak about where power should lie and how they should be governed. ‘Speak’ in this sense does not relate to the casting of votes — the General Election will not vent the pressure — but to a deeper form of democracy that facilitates both ‘democratic voice’ and ‘democratic listening’.
In the wake of the Scottish referendum on independence the UK is undergoing a rapid period of constitutional reflection and reform. The Smith Commission has set out a raft of new powers for the Scottish Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has signed a new devolution agreement with Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the Deputy Prime Minister has signed an agreement with Sheffield City Council, and the Cabinet Committee on Devolved Powers has reported on options for change in Westminster. One critical component of this frenetic period of reform has been the absence of any explicit or managed process for civic engagement even though the Prime Minister’s statement on the 19 September 2014 emphasized that ‘It is also important we have wider civic engagement about how to improve governance in our United Kingdom, including how to empower our great cities. And we will say more about this in the coming days’.
The days and months have passed but no plan for civic engagement has been announced.
In the meantime, calls for a citizen-led constitutional convention have been made with ever increasing regularity and volume. Petitions have been submitted, letters to the papers have been published, a huge number of citizen groups have come together around the idea and all of the main political parties — apart from the Conservatives — have committed themselves to establishing a constitution convention should they form or be part of the government after the 7 May 2015. But even in relation to the Conservative Party — conservative by name, conservative by nature — the pressure to let the people speak is gradually being acknowledged. The Government’s ‘command paper’ on English devolution, published on 16 December 2014, made reference to a constitutional convention as a means of civic engagement (though it fell short of a full commitment).
Such instruments of deliberative democracy may be distinctly ‘foreign’ and at odds with the elitist British political tradition, with the culture and rituals of a traditional power-hoarding democracy and with the predilection for ‘muddling through’ that defined British politics in the twentieth century. But we are no longer in the twentieth century. ‘Muddling through’ is no longer good enough. The traditional power-hoarding model of British democracy has been hollowed-out and, as a result, new relationships between the governors and the governed must be put in place. The recently published Future of England Survey 2014 provides evidence for this argument with its conclusion that people in England see a ‘democratic deficit’ in the way they are governed (‘devo-anxiety’), and that one dimension of that deficit is a desire for civic engagement. This conclusion focuses attention on the notion of ‘nexus politics’ in which the traditional institutions and processes of democratic politics must somehow engage with, channel and respond to an increasing array of more dynamic bottom-up explosions of democratic energy.
In facing new democratic challenges the UK is by no means unique and arguments in favour of deliberative democracy have been made by scholars including Robert Goodin, John Dryzek, and Tina Nabatchi for decades.
But the recent flurry of devolutionary deals has fuelled democratic discontent in those parts of the UK that seem untouched, unloved and mis-understood by the main political parties. The sudden appearance of cabinet and shadow cabinet members seeking to ingratiate themselves with the ‘Northern powerhouses’ of Manchester, Sheffield, and Leeds has been a sight to behold. But now the time has come to ‘let the people speak’. The issue of holding a constitutional convention has shifted from the periphery of constitutional debates in the UK to the very core. Meanwhile the likelihood of a hung parliament after 7 May and the inter-party deals that will be required to form a coalition, plus the existence of unresolved and urgent constitutional questions which require resolution provides the necessary political backdrop for the establishment of a constitutional convention. How the convention might operate, where it would be based, how convention members would be selected, the use of the final report or recommendations are all second-order issues where experiments in other countries and test-cases in the UK can offer answers. The main question is whether the political elite is really willing to embrace change, take a few risks and let the people speak.
Heading image: Houses of Parliament by By Alvesgaspar (self-made, stitch from 4 photographs). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.