Designing a Constitutional Convention for the UK: Getting the details right really matters

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Following the Scottish referendum, most of the main political parties committed to holding a citizen-led constitutional convention to deal with questions over the future structure of the UK. Alan Renwick welcomes these commitments, but argues that a convention will only be effective if it satisfies certain key requisites.

The prospects for a citizen-led constitutional convention in the UK have been transformed over the past twelve months. When I wrote a pamphlet last April arguing the case for such a convention, I was frequently told that, much as my analysis was interesting and the idea intriguing, it just wasn’t going to happen. Politicians care about the institutions that shape their power and they therefore won’t accept processes that give influence over the shape of those institutions to others.

But then came the Scottish referendum – or rather the week of mild panic preceding the referendum, which delivered the ‘vow’ to devolve further powers to Scotland. As everyone acknowledged, that raised big questions about the future structure of the UK as a whole – questions to which there are no obviously correct answers. Faced both with this problem and with the remarkable popular engagement around the referendum campaign in Scotland, most of the main political parties committed to holding a citizen-led constitutional convention in some form. These commitments are now reflected in the election manifestos.

I welcome these developments very much. Serious debate about many aspects of our constitutional framework is sorely needed. Such debate should not be dominated by politicians. However well-meaning politicians may be – and I do not share the popular cynicism on that point – their personal interests unavoidably skew their approach to constitutional matters.

Furthermore, a successful citizen-led constitutional convention could provide the model for a new way of doing politics. A debilitating divide now exists between voters and politicians. That leaves many voters prey to populist voices that make grand promises that don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny. If we want to restore the health of our democracy, we should be seeking ways of engaging citizens actively and thoughtfully in policy-making processes. There is considerable evidence that, when citizens are invited to engage in meaningful deliberations about policy – rather than to participate in empty consultations or focus groups – they do very well. So the citizens’ assembly model could be one that we could use repeatedly to explore options on other issues.

But these good things will happen only if a citizen-led constitutional convention works well – and there is no guarantee that it will. Such citizens’ assemblies have been tried already in Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland, and, in most respects, they have been highly successful. But the UK is much bigger and the agenda of a constitutional convention here is potentially much more complex. Moreover, features of our political system – not least our adversarial tabloid culture – might generate their own barriers.

That makes it essential that a citizen-led constitutional convention be designed as well as possible. The statement published today by the Constitution Unit and the Constitution Society – signed by many of the leading academic experts in this area – sets out some of the key requisites. Speaking personally, my view is that its various recommendations can be summed up in four key points.

First, a constitutional convention needs a focused and manageable agenda. Many people concerned about the state of our politics would like a root-and-branch review of our constitutional structures. And the time for such a review may come. But a comprehensive review would be too much for a single citizens’ assembly on its own. Furthermore, everything we know about how the UK’s – and other countries’ – political institutions evolve suggests that an overarching reform is very unlikely. Incremental changes may be unsatisfactory, but they can at least move us in helpful directions.

Second, ordinary citizens should make up the majority of members. There is a good case for including some politicians in order to ensure that the political elite are connected to the process and take it seriously. But the majority of the members of any constitutional convention should be ordinary citizens, invited to participate at random from the electoral register. I find that this idea often alarms people on first hearing: they are deeply sceptical that untrained citizens can be charged with such a complex task. But the evidence from past citizens’ assemblies is that, if we take citizens seriously, then citizens engage seriously. Those invited to take part are not obliged to do so – and, indeed, once the commitment that is involved has been explained, the great majority typically choose not to do so. So citizens who are definitely not interested need not get involved. But past cases have had no difficulty in obtaining a sample of the population that is representative on criteria such as age, sex, and socio-economic background. And the quality of the deliberations that these people engage in is impressively high.

By contrast, some politicians have been inclined to include representatives of organised civil society or even – heaven forfend – academics. This is a thoroughly bad idea. It is impossible to select such members in a representative way and they would only serve to drown out the ordinary citizens. In any case, including them misunderstands what a deliberative forum is all about. Rather, such a forum should be much like a jury: it should comprise people who are not committed to certain views before the start; it then hears from the experts and from all those who wish to express an opinion; and then it reaches its own conclusions based on careful consideration of all the arguments.

That leads on to the third point: the deliberations of a citizen-led constitutional convention must be carefully structured and supported. High quality deliberation does not happen spontaneously. It should be structured into three phases: first a learning phase, when the basic options are set out and the state of our knowledge about their advantages and disadvantages outlined; then a consultation phase, when members hear from pressure groups, parties, members of the public, and anyone else who wants to put their view forward; and finally a deliberation phase, when members consider the values that they want to promote and the options that might best advance them. This needs the support of facilitators, note-takers, academics, and others. The convention should meet at weekends from time to time so that the members have time to get on with the rest of their lives and also to digest and reflect upon what they hear about. The people who have run similar exercises in the past emphasize the crucial importance of social activities that help the members get to know each other. They also highlight the quality of the food and other such practicalities during the weekends as key for oiling the wheels.

Finally, there should be a clear mechanism for following up on the convention’s recommendations. If convention members suspect that their ideas might just be left to gather dust, they are less likely to treat the process seriously. And if politicians ignore the carefully developed thoughts of a sample of ordinary citizens, that can only serve to increase the sense of alienation between the regular voter and the political world. The issues passed to a constitutional convention are likely to be too complex for it be possible to say simply that the convention’s recommendations will be put to a referendum – the mechanism that several past examples have employed. But government should commit itself to some plausible route forward.

Disillusionment with politics in the UK – and in other countries – today reflects a sharp ‘us and them’ divide. Most voters consider politicians to be an entirely distinct breed from themselves – and anyone who puts him or herself forward for election is placed on the ‘other’ side. Elected institutions therefore cannot be representative in the important sense that they can contain only those people who, by running for election, have removed themselves from the category of ‘us’. A citizens’ assembly overcomes this: it comprises not people who have chosen to put themselves forward for election, but people who have accepted an invitation. Creation of such an assembly thus raises the prospect of narrowing the gap in a meaningful way between ‘us’ and the process of deciding public policy.

That, at least, is the theory. We know it has worked well elsewhere. Whether it will work well in the UK we can’t be sure of, but it is certainly worth a try. In order to give it the best chance of success, it is essential to get the details in the institutional design right.

About the Author

Dr Alan Renwick is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading and is due to join the Constitution Unit in September as Deputy Director (details here). His pamphlet, After the Referendum: Options for a Constitutional Convention, was published by the Constitution Society in April 2014.

2 thoughts on “Designing a Constitutional Convention for the UK: Getting the details right really matters

  1. Pingback: Big Questions from the Election Will Remain Unanswered | Canterbury Politics and International Relations

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