A citizens’ convention is the last thing we need.

I’ve been following the ever-ongoing debate over constitutional reform in recent weeks, and one thing has struck me very strongly, is that despite a whole load of interesting and diverse ideas, advocates of reform seem to be susceptible to one idea in particular, one that strikes me as going against the history of successful British constitutional reform, particularly that of the last decade. It is the suggestion that an “anti-politics” citizens’ convention would be the most progressive means of drawing up root and branch constitutional reform.

Leaving aside the loaded term “root and branch” for one moment, which most campaigners seem to think signifies a positive, meaningful approach to reform (despite the fact that careful, small c conservative reforms have in general been very successful over the last decade), one wonders why reformers think this is so guaranteed to deliver a consensual, widely-approaved set of rules. It is possibly due to the fallacy the left in particular are prone to, in thinking that if you split society up into demographic focus groups then it offers a fool-proof way of assessing the views of wider society, but it also seems to strike a very definite “anti-politics” note, encouraged by the quite ridiculous blow-up over the expenses scandal.

Now, it is perfectly acceptable to state that the Expenses scandal was wrong. It was wrong with a capital W, but the way it has been drawn out and exaggerated has very much to do with media market dynamics, and very little to do with serious politics. Just as welfare dependency stories are a money spinner for the tabloids (and unfortunately the broadsheets all too often), despite the stasticial insignificance of the amount of public money wasted, as well as the injustice when compared to wider social injustice; so the expenses scandal is a footnote compared to the wider flaws of our political system. This is why, in the saner circles of the left, the topic quickly shifted to constitutional reform, despite such a topic being almost wholly unrelated to expenses rules.

But due to such a shift, some people have got the two confused. Some have gone so far as to state that the expenses scandal has been as severe a crisis in politics as that which resulted in the Glorious revolution, or the civil war. This is arrant nonsense. What has happened is the same as regularly happens from time to time in all democracies, save the unusual aspect of this having been a scandal of parliamentary politics, rather than executive politics. The media has seized on a distasteful story that, to our dislike, reminds us that politicians are as prone to failure as the rest of us, and that given their privileged status have exploited it in ways rather more than the rest of us could hope for ourselves, and as a result it has been extremely profitable for the media, and extremely juicy for us. I cannot say that I myself have not been amused and satisfied by the chance to pontificate on a scandal as delicious as this one, and looking at the reaction of the wider public, I hope I will be forgiven for saying that many seem to have gained even more enjoyment out of it than me.

The truth is, people like to pontificate, and they like to be outraged. They like an outlet, both for their anger and for their desire for more interesting things, and the expenses scandal provided both. Comparing this to the establishment of the constitutional monarchy, or the constitutional upheaval caused by the civil war and re-establishment of the monarchy, is quite simply fatuous. And it has to stop, because common sense shows that a convention should only be needed if there is no other choice.

If a convention were established, I can forsee one of two directions it could take:

Firstly, it could become like the glorified independent review. It would deliberate, it would fall off the sheets of the papers after a couple of interesting weeks, only to reappear suddenly when people had almost forgotten of its existence. The grand pronouncements would then turn into political football with the established chambers for debating and politics, the House of Commons, which would turn into a grand stalemate that lost the interest of both the public and the media. Come the general election, the far more interesting question of who should form the next government would spring up, and the convention would be kicked into the long grasses.

Alternative, the convention could actually be given real powers, and parliament prorogued. Then what could happen could be even more alarming: the convention might start believing that it was actually qualified to draw up a new constitution within a few months, look all over the world for inspiration, draw up a marvellous constitutional curry, and serve it to the electorate and head of state convinced of its brilliance. The public would then be excited by the new political system for a year or two, until the novelty had worn off, at which time the media would dig around for another juicy scandal (pork barrel politics, this time?), find it, dig into it with relish and we would start moaning about the fact that our political system was broken again.

Here is the thing: our political system is imperfect, but it sure as hell isn’t broken — yet. Start treating it as something which can be ripped down and redesigned at the click of a convention’s fingers and it sure as hell might become more unstable. The British constitution might be uncodified, and as barmy as The Unspoken Constitution suggests, but the fact remains the it works in as much as the people are still engaged in it. This means that trying to establish a glorious “anti-Parliament” to do the work of constitutional reform for us, instead of using the existing political institutions, simply goes against the grain of common sense.

Why does the idea of a citizens’ convention sound so wonderful? Because we, the public, as a general whole never make mistakes? Because we’re far more in touch with each other’s reality than our political masters? David Wilshire might not know the minimum wage, but the public sure as hell don’t know the average wage, according to surveys done in the summer. People might be in touch with their own realities — though there’s no guaranteeing of that — but they sure as hell aren’t going to be any more in touch with others’ than politicans are.

If you look at the Philadelphia convention, who drew up the world-famous US constitution, though some were undeniably forefigures of the very real fight for independence, they were hardly a cross-representative sample of the unwashed masses. Despite drafting what is considered one of the finest codified constitutions in the western world, there are still plenty of flaws to be found within it. There is no evidence to suggest that selecting a convention by lot would lead to anything anywhere near as fine being drawn up, and plenty to suggest it could be a disaster. If we are to get true reform, it must unite as many factions of the public, including the “political class”, as possible. Arguing for a lot-selected convention, at a time when it is not necessary and would be unnecessarily costly in a time of recession, is only going to add to those who fail to take the question of constitutional reform seriously.


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