Nov 27 2014

A CONSTITUTION FOR THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND

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Steve Freeman is the convenor of the Constitutional Commission of the Left Unity Party (LUP). As a member of the Scottish Republican Yes Tendency, disbanded after September 18th, Steve has been arguing for the LUP to take proactive position on the issue of Scottish self-determination and in opposition to the Union.

Steve Freeman addressed last year’s RIC conference (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2013/11/25/2nd-ric-conference-after-the-uk-the-future-of-4-nations/). Along with others from the Republican Socialist Alliance, Steve organised the ‘London Says Yes’ rally (see http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2014/09/10/to-scotland-with-love-a-report-from-the-london-says-yes-rally-on-september-6th/) on September 6th.

The LUP held its conference between November 15th- 16th conference, but the leadership ensured that the draft constitution was not taken. Despite the LUP leadership’s continued appeasement of British Left Unionism, these  proposals for a Commonwealth of England have attracted wider attention. There are now other socialist republicans in the Republican Socialist Alliance, A World to Win, open Democracy, Chartist and Red Pepper who do appreciate the significance of what has been and is happening in Scotland. They understand the need for a united struggle against the UK unionist state and its imperial alliance with the US.

Therefore, in the lead up to the to the third RIC conference, and the session entitled ‘Extending Scotland’s democratic revival – Linking up progressive movements across these islands’, Emancipation & Liberation is publishing the LUP Constitutional Committee’s draft Constitution for the Commonwealth of England. Steve Freeman will be at the RIC conference on November 22nd.

 

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DRAFT CONSTITUTION FOR THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND

Introduction

The Scottish referendum provided an opportunity for the largest constitutional change in the UK since 1922 when the Irish Free State was created. The Act of Union (1707) is one of the pillars of the British constitution and its abolition would have had major and unpredictable consequences for the rest of the UK. A majority of Scottish voters rejected this at least in part because of the promise of greater powers. This has heightened the imbalance in the UK constitution and the contradictions of having a semi-federal system as highlighted by the ‘West Lothian’ question in which Scottish MPs vote on matters which affect England and not Scotland (e.g. NHS).

The ‘no’ majority has not resolved the constitutional problems. It put Cameron in the driving seat and UKIP not far behind in appealing to English nationalism. The Tories have called for ‘English votes for English laws’. This has raised other issues including demands for an English parliament, regional assemblies and federalism. The Scottish referendum changed left politics in Scotland by showing how alienated working people are from the ‘Westminster’ system and how people can be mobilised for political change.

A Republican Constitution

2.1 The Commonwealth of England

2.11 The Commonwealth is a democratic and social republic.

2.12 The Commonwealth guarantees the democratic rights and civil liberties of the people

2.13 The Commonwealth guarantees the welfare of the people before the rights of property.

2.14 All land and natural resources are vested in the Commonwealth

2.2 Sovereignty

2.21 The people of England are sovereign.

2.22 All State power and authority accordingly derives from, and is subject to, the sovereign will of the people, and those exercising State power and authority are accountable for it to the people.

2.3 Self determination

2.31 The Acts of Union between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are abolished. Future relations between sovereign peoples or nations of Britain and Ireland are voluntary whether as independent republics or as a federal republic. In the latter case the right of nations to self determination must be included in the constitution.

2.32 The people of England have the sovereign right to self-determination. This includes the right to referendum to determine freely whether they want to form or withdraw from union states with other nations.

[Note further discussion required on the position of Cornwall]

2.4 A secular republic

There is no official or state religion. All religions have equal status and citizens have the right to practice their religion as they choose. These rights apply to atheists. All state institutions, including educational establishments, are secular.

2.5 Civil liberties and social rights

2.51 Democratic and social rights and the liberties of citizens are set out in the Constitution.

2.52 These include: [Equals rights for all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age. Right to work, right to minimum income, right to a secure home with minimum standards, right to health and safety, right to join a trade union, right to strike, rights of free speech, freedom of information, assembly, demonstrate, association, religion – This clause if agreed in principle as amended will need to be redrafted]

2.6 Democratic Government

2.61 The principle of the Commonwealth is that the government of the people is conducted by the people for the people.

2.62 Citizens have the right to participate directly in governance and decision making through ‘people’s assemblies’ at local or community level and in workplace assemblies.

2.63 Citizens have the right to stand for any elected office and to vote in the election of representatives.

2.64 All officials and representatives will be elected, accountable and subject to recall and paid no more than the national average income.

2.7 Parliament

2.71 A single chamber (Unicameral) parliament or national assembly will be elected annually by universal suffrage.

2.72 Between elections parliament will represent the sovereign will of the people of England

2.73 All legislative authority will be vested in parliament.

2.74 All citizens aged sixteen or over will be eligible to vote

2.75 Parliament will be elected by proportional representation and have equal representation of men and women.

2.76 Each parliament will elect one of its members to act as its Speaker or Chair and to uphold the constitution of the Commonwealth in parliament.

2.8 Executive

The Government, or executive, is elected by and accountable to the Parliament and to the people through regular election.

2.9 Law

2.91 All judges and magistrates are elected to uphold the law and apply it fairly and justly to all citizens.

2.92 Citizens have a right to trial by jury.

[The scope of a written constitution can be wider. This is illustrated by reference to the Scottish Independence Bill]

The Case for Democracy

3.1 The present constitution – Crown, Parliament and People

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a protestant constitutional monarchy. Government depends on the relationship between the Crown, Parliament (Commons and Lords) and People. The Church of England is the established church and the Bishops sit the House of Lords. The central principle of the UK’s ‘unwritten’ (i.e. uncodified) constitution is the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament.

The United Kingdom is a multi-nation state built on the Union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. England has been and remains the dominant nation. The Acts of Union with Wales in 1536, with Scotland in 1707 and with Ireland in 1801 are part of the foundations of the UK state, until the latter was amended by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. The UK is not a voluntary union. There is no right to self determination in the constitution.

The Crown represents the state and the sum total of governmental powers. The monarch is head of state. The business of government is conducted by Ministers of the Crown, Whitehall mandarins, chiefs of Her Majesty’s armed forces, heads of the security services, police, judiciary and prison service. The powers of the Crown are concentrated in Whitehall and make the UK one of the most centralised governments in Western Europe. The culture and practice of secrecy is embedded in the state making many decisions and actions unaccountable.

Her Majesty’s Treasury is at the centre of state power controlling the ‘purse strings’ through taxation, spending and borrowing. Today the axis of the Treasury and the Bank of England are central to economic policy. The Crown represents the primacy of financial interests in domestic and international affairs. The City of London has maintained its dominant position at home and abroad since the foundation of the present state over three hundred years ago.

3.2 The ‘Glorious Revolution’

The UK state and constitution has its origins in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which began in 1688. James II was ousted and power was seized by William of Orange. The absolute power of monarchy was overthrown. The Crown would now be constrained by a parliament of landowners, merchants and bankers. In 1694 the Bank of England was established to provide finance for the new state, its armies and Royal Navy. The interests of the City were now at the heart of government, were soon embedded in the fabric of the new state.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ did not create a popular democracy. The Whig aristocracy were the main beneficiaries. As power shifted, a new oligarchy began to emerge and establish its central position in the state. There has been major economic and social change over the last three hundred years. The industrial revolution created a working class. By the early 20th century political struggles has established universal suffrage. The working class won a political voice in parliament through the Labour Party. Yet the oligarchy, modern heirs of the Glorious Revolution, are still running the country in the name of the Crown.

3.3 The democratic deficit

Radicals have long accepted the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’. This is the view that democracy is not fully developed in the UK. The existence of hereditary institutions such as the monarchy and the House of Lords were taken to symbolise the lack of democracy within the British constitution. Therefore there is still room to improve, reform, or perfect the system we have. Various organisations such as Charter 88 have campaigned for democratic reform. The Liberal Democrats have promoted proportional representation and reform of the House of Lords.

In the 1980’s the Tory peer, Lord Hailsham, described the political system as an ‘elected dictatorship’. There is some merit in this. Important freedoms and civil liberties exist. There is universal suffrage. People elect MPs to parliament. Yet elections are a fleeting moment before the central power resumes its domination of politics. This is no democracy. It is more like the kind of workers participation scheme run by German business. It gives the appearance of some form of ‘democracy’ whilst keeping real power in the hands of the shareholders.

The UK is a liberal state not a ‘democracy’. The people are not sovereign. Power does not derive from the people but from an historic compromise between the Crown and the City of London. A few people hold power and govern in their own interests whilst claiming to act on our behalf. The myth of ‘democracy’ is assiduously promoted. In reality the system of government is top-down. Parliament is largely ineffectual and unable to control the executive. Civil rights and liberties are not secure. There is a constant struggle to defend them against further encroachments.

3.4 Neoliberal revolution

During and after the crisis of the Second World War the Crown, first as the wartime coalition and then as the 1945 Labour government, adopted under popular pressure the policy of a ‘welfare state’. Under the new ‘social monarchy’ the NHS was created and the public sector increased. This expanded the scope of public accountability and public scrutiny. This war-time social contract remained largely in place until the defeat of the miners in 1984-5.

The Thatcher government begin the process of dismantling the welfare state. This ‘revolution’ included privatisation, deregulation of the labour market, anti-union laws, restricting local government, cutting public expenditure, outsourcing public services to private business. These policies began removing public services from, albeit limited, public accountability and parliamentary scrutiny. The impact of neoliberal policies has been to replace a culture of citizenship and social values with the private interests of individuals as consumers.

The neoliberal revolution has strangled UK ‘democracy’ for all its limitations. Parliament and local government has been hollowed out and become like an empty shell. More and more decisions are taken by private businesses, Quangoes, an independent Bank of England, the European Commission, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund. Vital services such as housing, higher education, and care in older age are in the hands of private profiteers. The ‘democratic deficit’ has widened significantly.

3.5 The crisis of democracy

The impact of the neoliberal revolution and the economic crash of 2008 have left growing numbers of people alienated from politics. Government austerity measures have widened the gap between rich and poor. Incomes and living conditions for working people are in decline. What people need and what the broken political system can deliver continues to undermine the credibility of ‘Westminster’ politicians.

The crisis of ‘democracy’ is the growing recognition that the existing politics cannot deliver. The rise in support for UKIP is one manifestation of this. UKIP recognises that ‘Westminster’ politics has failed. But they blame it on the European Union and ‘too many’ immigrants. The crisis of democracy will not automatically shift politics to the left. The authoritarian right is well placed to make gains. However in Scotland a different politics has emerged in response to the growing alienation from Westminster. Forty five percent of people voted to leave the UK.

3.8 Democratic revolution

It is useful and necessary to distinguish between democratic reform and democratic revolution. The former aims to improve the old constitution. The latter seeks to abolish it. The UK’s unwritten constitution will be abolished along with undemocratic institutions and laws:

Monarchy
House of Lords
Privy Council
Acts of Union
Official Secrecy laws
Disestablishment of the Church of England
Democratic revolution is the mobilisation of the mass of people acting politically to democratise society. The process of democratic revolution is not an event but a process taking place over months and years. It involves the abolition of the old constitution and the establishment of a democratic constituent assembly to discuss and decide a new constitution to be proposed to the people for endorsement.

APPENDIX

Three sources and component parts

There are three documents which we can reference 1) The Agreement of the People 1649 2) The Commonwealth of Britain Bill (CBB) 1992. 3) The Scottish Independence Bill (SIB) 2014. Each of these constitutional documents was presented to parliament – the first two at Westminster and the third to the Scottish parliament.

1) The Agreement of the People 1649

2) The Commonwealth of Britain Bill (CBB)

In 1991 Tony Benn produced a ‘Commonwealth of Britain Bill’ which he presented to parliament. Whilst we should not simply copy this bill, it provides us with a useful marker to improve upon. It proposed “abolishing the British monarchy, with the United Kingdom becoming a “democratic, federal and secular commonwealth”, in effect, a republic with a codified constitution. It was read in Parliament a number of times until his retirement in 2001, but never achieved a second reading. Under the bill:

The constitutional status of the Crown would be ended;
The Church of England would be disestablished;
The head of state would be the President, elected by a joint sitting of both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament;
Many functions of the Royal Prerogative would not be transferred to the President, but instead to Parliament;
The Privy Council would be abolished, and replaced by a Council of State;
The House of Lords would be replaced by an elected House of the People, with equal representation of men and women;
The House of Commons would similarly have equal representation of men and women;
England, Scotland and Wales would have their own National Parliaments;
County Court judges and magistrates would be elected; and
British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland would be ended”. [Wikipedia accessed 4 October 2014].
3) The Scottish Independence Bill (SIB)

In June 2014 the SNP government produced a draft Scottish Independence Bill. Had there been a majority in the referendum this would have been an interim constitution for Scotland. It “provided for establishment of a Constitutional Convention to draw up a permanent constitution for Scotland”. Over one million six hundred thousand people voted to go down this route. Below are subheadings which indicate the scope of the constitution.

Scotland’s Constitution (part 2)

Sovereignty of the people
The nature of the people’s sovereignty
(1) In Scotland, the people have the sovereign right to self-determination and to choose freely the form in which their State is to be constituted and how they are to be governed.

(2) All State power and authority accordingly derives from, and is subject to, the sovereign will of the people, and those exercising State power and authority are accountable for it to the people.

Interim constitution for Scotland
Name of the State
The territory of Scotland
Form of State and government
(1) Scotland is an independent, constitutional monarchy.

(2) The form of government in Scotland is a parliamentary democracy.

National flag and anthem
Head of State
(1) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is to be Head of State, as Queen.

Legislature
(1) Legislative power to make and modify the law continues to be vested in the Scottish

Parliament.

Executive
State accountability to the people
Independence of the judiciary
Supreme Court
The rule of law
The Scottish civil service
Local government.
Scottish citizenship
International relations and foreign policy
International organisations
Ratification of international agreements
Incorporation of international agreements
Nuclear disarmament
Incorporation of European law
European citizenship
Respect for human rights
(1) Every person has the rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the European.

References to the European Convention on Human Rights
Equality
Children’s wellbeing
Island communities
The environment
Natural resources
Provision for a permanent constitution
Repeal of the Act of Union
The Union with England Act 1707 is repealed.

________

Russell Brand summed up a widespread feeling. “Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than bureaucratic means to further the augmentation and the advantages of the economic elites.” He says. “Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people. A system that is apathetic, to the needs of the people it was designed to serve.” He protests that “Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change.”

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4 Responses to “A CONSTITUTION FOR THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND”

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