Let the People Lead

iceland-1I am more and more convinced that we need to raise awareness of having a written constitution for an Independent Scotland. We live in one of only three democracies that does not have a written constitution (Israel and New Zealand being the other two), despite Scottish sovereignty historically lying with the people rather than with the Parliament. While some praise the “flexibility” or “pragmatism” of Britain’s unwritten constitution, for me it is a symbol of the slow decay of the British state that refuses to be dragged into the 21st century where it counts. The pomp and pageantry of the Queen’s Speech and its arcane procedures may be “cherished” or “historic”, but they also alienate the average citizen from their democratic institutions, making them appear esoteric and distant and not worthwhile engaging with.

A modern country should govern itself in a modern fashion, and not cling desperately to the shiny baubles of the past. Part of this common sense modernity must be a written constitution.

The economic and societal upheaval of recent years presents the perfect opportunity to us all to re-imagine how we are governed and who, with our consent, governs us. As is so often the case, a laudable example of a better way can be seen in our Northern neighbours; in this case, Iceland.

Iceland seized the opportunity following the 2008 financial crisis to ‘crowd-source’ a new constitution, engaging the people in an open, innovative and participative approach to re-imagine the governance of their country that in turn captured the imagination of people the world over. While this process has not been without its difficulties (and the recent election results in Iceland, which returned the pre-crash parties to power, suggests that these difficulties will continue), the basic principle of empowering the masses to debate and decide how they wish their society to be structured is a good principle. In my opinion, we now have an opportunity to conduct our own process in Scotland.

With the independence referendum fast approaching, it is vital that civic Scotland continues to contribute to the discussion about the kind of Scotland we want for the future. Regardless of personal positions on independence, there is a general consensus that an independent Scottish state would need to have a written constitution.

The possibilities presented by having a written constitution are endless, and above all very exciting. The Scottish Government has already said it would seek to ban nuclear weapons, enshrine the right to a free education and eradicate homelessness in any written constitution. I’ve also found that discussing the process or the possibility of a written constitution with people undecided about independence helps them to imagine a better Scotland, and engages and enthuses them in a way that dry statistics about the economic viability of being independent (worthy as those stats are) simply cannot.

We could offer say, 20 different options to every person in Scotland and ask that they prioritise them, or some of them, or add others. This way, it’s not only the politicians and their proposed policies that the voter is asked to consider, but by actually contributing themselves in the process we would lead the politicians to govern the country we want.

I know that there are many organisations and individuals who wish to see the development of a written constitution for Scotland and who have dedicated time and effort to thinking and writing about what could and should be included. To help facilitate those discussions, I have been co-ordinating meetings between those interested in what a written constitution could offer an independent Scotland.

This process is still very much at its embryonic stage, with our second meeting being held at the end of this month, and it may even be the case that nothing concrete or substantive comes from these meetings. Even if that is the case, though, it’s important to hold these meetings and to help build connections between key players in any constitutional process.

It is equally important that any constitutional discussions are as “bottom-up” as possible and include a wide range of voices. As the Scottish Government itself has frequently asserted, they would only be one voice in discussions on a written constitution. The position of the Church, the Monarchy and the structure of the legislature are just three areas where differing views can be found and where a healthy debate can and should be had.

We must also strive to empower those in the No camp to put forward their ideas for a written constitution following a Yes vote. I would imagine at least 30% of the population, and three of the main political parties in Scotland, will vote No in 2014; that is a large portion of Scotland who must be engaged in the event of a Yes vote as we move onwards and upwards to a better Scotland. A written constitution imagined and debated without those voices would be all the poorer for their exclusion. Of course, this responsibility lies largely with those in the No camp, who have so far failed to countenance how they would act following a Yes vote. While this is understandable from a political and strategic viewpoint, I hope that there are at least some figures in the No camp who are beginning to think about these issues, and who may want to take part in our discussions –  they would be more than welcome.

Discussing a written constitution therefore helps to combine the process and practicalities of an independent Scotland with a vision for a better Scotland- a combination, in my mind, that is unbeatably persuasive. With the referendum just over a year away, we need to “educate, agitate and organise” now to ensure that the people can truly lead in an Independent Scotland

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  1. Patrick S Hogg says:

    Fince piece of writing. So often though, the theory diverges from the practice when a constitution lists core principles because politics attracts the most unprincipled of our society – or used to – with the hybrid wheeler-dealers who think principles are fdor dreamers and politics is all about negotiation to get the best we can for well, erm who? The Commonweal! We, the People. Yes, we can cast a light of political enlightenment into the wider world and show that Democracy and Freedom are words that do have real genuine meaning and can be put into practice by genuine policitians. The current team in the Scottish government are the best we have had since devolution and for all the imperfections of the system, we can already see that Scottish Solutions to Scottish Problems can be managed by US here in oor ain country and will NEVER be solved by Westminster, which has often Created the Problems the SG are trying to solve.

  2. muteswann says:

    I agree with much of what is said here, but I have yet to work out how we would guarantee the constitutional rights enshrined in a written document. Most states rely on the courts, but popular access to the judiciary / court system in Scotland is restrictive, so that would also have to undergo reform – not a simple task!

  3. Macart says:

    Concepts have weight if they have consensus. An honest, transparent parliament where principle and pragmatism walk hand in hand. We can have the parliament and constitution we desire, all it takes is will power and motivation. For waaaaay too long the career politico, the shyster, the liar and the outright charlatan have run the show. They’ve made the term politician synonymous with thieving and lies. Let’s face it I’d rather my daughter married an honest gangster than a politician.

    Hell we put them in those positions to look after us. We believed the lies without doing the questioning. We turned our heads away when they committed crimes both against us and in our names. But just as easily we can change it and put the rules in place which make it hard for these criminal elites of society to operate. A constitution.

    Suggesting we can have a lies free, graft free political environment is simply unrealistic. Its like breathing, it pretty much happens naturally with anyone or any group in pursuit of responsibility, power and influence over others. What we can do with a constitution is hopefully keep the machine surrounding those individuals honest. That service to the people is enshrined and limits the powers of parliament to requiring popular consensus to so much as go to the little boys or girls room. That government is service to the electorate and by their consent.

    There’s a lot of bright people in Scotland, young and old, who I’m sure can come up with the goods on a constitution. The Icelandic model is a brilliant example of the electorate in action when there’s enough will and motivation involved. I’d like to think we could at least do some justice to ourselves and provide a constitution and parliament fit for the 21st century.

  4. George Gunn says:

    A written constitution is obviously a good and necessary thing but am I alone in thinking it represents our responsibilities as citizens to our nation? Do we not also need a Bill of Rights which protects the citizens of Scotland from the Government?

  5. William Steele says:

    A written constitution for independent Scotland is imperative. However, how that constitution is implemented and adhered to needs careful consideration. Canada has a written constitution. The judgement of whether of not an law or act of Parliaments is constitutional is in the hands of a small pannel of 9 judges of the Supreme Court. These judges are not impartial. They have their own biases and may make unjust judgements. In the opinion of many this court has shown bias in cases regarding human rights of individuals. Korea has a constitutional court of 9 judges, which has no functions belonging to other courts. It seems to me that it would be important that the written constitution of Scotland, and it’s interpretation, not be left in the hands of a small group of judges with their biases.

    It’s not the Case that the U.K. has no written constitution. The basic constitutional fact of the U.K. is a written document, the Treaty of Union of1707. The Scottish constitutional principle of the Sovereignty of the People of Scotland is thus part of the U.K. Constitution. This differs from the rest of the U.K. in which the Queen in Parliament is Sovereign. In Scotland the People are Sovereign, the Queen reigns, and the Parliaments govern. The people are not subjects but citizens. In the rest of the U.K., the English constitutional principle operates. Sadly, the Westminster Government has never acknowledged the priority of the Treaty of Union in the U.K. constitution. The documents of the Westminster Parliament are sub-headed, “Parliament is Supreme”. That is not true concerning Scotland. Westminster treats English constitutional principles as applying to the whole of the U.K., and regards the Treaty of Union as merely another act of English Common Law. Thus Westminster consistently acts unconstitutionally with regard to Scotland. A recent example is the creation of the Supreme Court of the U.K., with jurisdiction in Scotland. This is contrary to the Treaty of Union and unconstitutional. Who is to protect Scotland from the unconstitutional acts of Westminster? Could the Court of Session and the Supreme Court of Justiciary simply refuse to recognise judgements of the Supreme Court of the U.K.? I think that the constitutional answer is “yes”, and I think that they should. Could the Scottish Parliament reject and overturn unconstitutional laws enacted by Westminster? I think that the answer is “yes”, and I think that it should. That would provoke a constitutional crisis. The only real solution is independence.

  6. Jean-

    It’s thought-provoking stuff.

    Can I suggest the Calton Hill Declaration (2004) as a good framework to build upon? :

    We the undersigned call for an independent Scottish republic built on the principles of liberty, equality, diversity and solidarity.

    These principles can never be put into practice while Scotland remains subordinate to the hierarchical and anti-democratic institutions of the British State.

    We believe these principles can be brought about by a freely elected Scottish Government with full control of Scotland’s revenues.

    We believe that the right to self determination is an inherent right, and not a boon or a favour to be granted to us whether by the Crown or the British State.

    We believe that sovereignty rests in the people and vow to fight for the right to govern ourselves for the benefit of all those living in Scotland today, tomorrow and in future times. The Government of a country is servant to the people, not master of the people.

    We believe that a written Constitution will guarantee, under law, everyone’s right to freely vote, speak and assemble; and will guarantee the people’s right to privacy and protection, and access to information on all its Government’s doings.

    We vow to fight for the power to refuse to send our sons and daughters to kill and die in unjust wars in foreign lands.

    We vow to fight for the power to banish nuclear weapons of mass destruction from our land.

    We vow to fight for the power to acquire and restrict the use of property or lands controlled by individuals, corporations or governments from beyond Scotland’s borders.

    We vow to fight for the power to turn our depopulated land into a haven for those fleeing famine and persecution.

    We vow to fight for the power to build a more equal society, free of poverty, through the redistribution of our vast wealth.

    We vow to fight for the power to protect our soil, seas and rivers for our children and for the generations to come.

    We swear to oppose all forms of national chauvinism, imperialism and racism. We swear to oppose all forms of discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, religion, place of birth, age, disability, sexuality or language.

    We aim for an independent Scottish Republic in which people may live with dignity and with self respect, free from exploitation, assuming the responsibilities of free women and men.

    An independent Scottish republic will negotiate freely and as an equal with governments of other lands.

    Our aim is not to erect walls of separation, but to build an outward-looking, Scotland that will extend the hand of friendship to all the peoples of the world.

    We vow to continue the struggle for a free, democratic Scottish republic for as long as it may take.

    The fight is for freedom.

    Sincerely, …………… The Undersigned

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