We’re not looking for a new England

Well, we might be. Earlier this month, Toby Perkins MP managed to restart a conversation about a national anthem for England. It’s a fun question – and represents an accessible entry point into thinking about the constitution of the UK and the varying nations, principalities, islands and peoples that make it up. And who decides what, and how.

In a happy coincidence, Compass last week hosted 40 people who run or manage democracy organisations for a day of “Designing a New Democracy.”

My notes are below. I think the crucial question is about authority. It’s only going to be useful and gain momentum if the public considers that the process has power and will actually lead to real, lasting change. That is the challenge that reformers face.

Stuff I noted before we started

  • What does a constitutional convention look like for the information age? (And how does this change the infrastructure for a democracy?)
  • What’s the correct balance between ambition and reality (e.g. on something like the status of the royal family?)
  • How do you build design thinking into the process, when you can’t prototype a constitution (unless you’re Thailand)?
  • The public aren’t about to get excited about constitutional reform – unless it becomes real (after a crisis) or there’s particular ‘constitutional moment’. Does Brexit present such a crisis? Didn’t Gordon Brown look into a written constitution when he was PM? Why didn’t he get very far?
  • Do we assume that ‘designing a new democracy’ involves a written constitution?
  • How do you ensure a national conversation about the constitution is positive, framed as the design of a democratic future we want? (Rather than framing it as a conversation about the failures of the past).
  • What’s the role of identity? Nations, regions, cities… Do we have a good idea of how people perceive themselves as citizens in the UK in 2016, and how that might impact political design?

Notes from the day

  1. The Scottish Constitutional Convention involved no politicians and had clear goals from the off, including a Scottish Parliament. It was pretty successful.
  2. The ESRC has already funded a couple of pilot conventions in Southampton and Sheffield. The results suggest that the involvement of politicians can benefit the process.
  3. An Independents for Frome councillor was there – we could have learned more from this example of a local community being the change, rather than talking about it. Rather than thinking about campaigning for political change, what can be done about it right now?
  4. It’s going to be really hard to do anything effective without the support of the government, despite the idea that several Conservative backbenchers would join in. Why should people take part if they know their decisions aren’t going to go anywhere?
  5. Perhaps the most realistic commitment to be sought from political parties would be to at least vote on the convention as policy at their conferences. Then, if particular ideas from any convention had caught on, the electorate could hold those parties responsible for not adopting them as manifesto pledges in 2020.
  6. I wasn’t clear what we should have been discussing. Was this about designing a new democracy, or was this about reviewing a constitutional convention imagined by Jon Trickett MP? Because I’m not sure they have to be the same thing.
  7. There was a mini-debate over whether political redesign is enough. Should we not also be considering economic power? (This is where you can see consensus among civil society organisations breaking down…). The answer, I think, is that you cannot define the scope in advance. Citizens must do that. Perhaps in an early pre-convention ‘priority-setting’ event a la Iceland.
  8. Again, on scope, an early ‘discovery’ stage allows the following process (convention, assembly, jury, whatever) to be couched in the language of the people, not in the constitutional/legal vocabulary of the folks in the room on Weds.
  9. There appeared to be general support for the idea that a process must involve politicians, while not being led by them. Including only citizens would remove the incentive for politicians to engage later.
  10. Don’t drop £1.5m on a big bang process – do some small-scale deliberative testing first – then use that to direct the next step. The pilots in Southampton and Sheffield are surely a useful starting point. Think in terms of discovery in the early stages – don’t assume that society sees the same problems as you do – allow the problems to be laid out by the people.
  11. Unless you can get a serious, non-partisan partner on board to take this to the millions of people, any process will struggle to gain any kind of legitimacy (and thus authority). What creative partnerships could exist here? How could a TV channel be convinced to carry the debates to create a real national conversation?
  12. If you want conversations in community halls, churchs, mosques and pubs up and down the country, you’re going to need a movement – i.e. you need the process to go viral somehow. You need there to be public demand for the opportunity to have a say. Which means making something pretty complicated and potentially drawn-out a fun, straightforward, positive activity that is easy to copy without requiring bureaucratic support or significant resource. And, again, if it feels like it will lead to change. We didn’t get into it on the day, but finding the best way to use digital to scale up the conversation would be a nice challenge. It ain’t as simple as sticking the thing on Facebook.
  13. We never got around to discussing the timeline for this process. Is the idea to smash together some reform ideas that can be adopted by a (cross?)party group prior to 2020? Or should it be more open-ended than that? What about getting something quick together for the Brexit vote?

Photo credit: Barnyz on CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0



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