No one is seriously talking about Britain adopting a US-style constitution. Republic proposes a parliamentary constitution, basically what we have now but made democratic top to bottom.
A government with too much power
A parliamentary system should put parliament at the centre, accountable only to the voters. In the UK parliament is weak in the face of government power, and that's largely because of the Crown and the monarchy.
The Crown gives the government huge powers to take decisions without parliament or to control parliamentary business, whether that's deciding when parliament will be running or having the power to ensure proposed laws they disagree with have little chance of getting passed.
A game with no referee
The monarchy also denies us an independent, effective head of state. That means there is little check on the use of royal powers and no-one to arbitrate during political crises. It's like having a football match with no referee.
If one team is clearly winning that might not be a problem, but if the teams are evenly matched or goals are disputed, leaving it to the two team captains to sort things out while one of the captains has the referee's whistle isn't going to work out all that well.
The suspension of parliament in late 2019 was an example where the government exercised power over parliament, despite the decision later being judged to be unconstitutional. The Queen was the only one with the power to suspend parliament and she did so because she was told to by the Prime Minister.
While the Prime Minister is entitled to ask for a suspension, an independent, effective head of state could make their own decision about whether that was a constitutional decision to make.
A powerful parliament in the hands of government
Parliament is weak in the face of government, largely there to do what it's told. But in terms of the power of make laws, change our constitution and determine our rights, parliament is all powerful.
In the UK parliament is sovereign, which means it's the highest power in the land. No court can overturn a decision made by parliament, no treaty can override laws passed by parliament. A court could rule that a law conflicts with a treaty, or with another law, but a judge can't override or scrap that law.
That's not how a democracy should work. Parliament is there to work for us, not to rule over us. And given the control government has over parliament, the current constitution ends up concentrating huge amounts of power in the hands of the Prime Minister and government ministers.
In terms of domestic law the British government is one of the most powerful in the democratic world.
A real parliamentary democracy
The answer to this is simple enough. There's no need to throw the whole constitution out the window. We just need to make every part of it more democratic and re-balance power between people, parliament and government. Here's how.
- Create a written constitution that sets out what power each part of the political system has.
- Ensure the constitution can only be changed by referendum or by a 'super-majority' in both houses of parliament (two thirds or three quarters of MPs, for example).
- Give the power to set parliament's timetable to MPs, not the government.
- Scrap royal powers currently used by the government, including scrapping the Privy Council.
- Introduce a fully elected upper house, giving elected representatives the power to challenge and, if necessary, block laws and decisions proposed by government.
- Elect an independent, non-political head of state who can act as referee and defender of the constitution. With the power to refuse to sign a law if they believe it's unconstitutional, and to help the parties negotiate in times of political paralysis this gives all sides of politics a more equal position in the constitution.
Of course the government must still have the power to govern, and parliament must have the power to make laws. But governing and making laws are two different things, and both should be done withing a system that has limits on the power of government and parliament, limits that are protected by an independent, accountable head of state.
It's not a revolution
It is pretty simple, and it works. We know it works because it's how most democracies function. In Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Iceland, Greece and many other countries, there is a constitution with clearly defined powers and proper checks and balances.
These constitutions aren't perfect and sometimes politics creates real problems the constitution can't handle. But in the normal course of events a properly organised parliamentary republic means a fairer, more democratic system in which powers are balanced between legislators, government and the people, with proper enforceable limits.
Republic's isn't proposing a revolution, or adopting a constitution used by another country. We're making a very simple proposal: take what we have and make it democratic, top to bottom. A very British parliamentary republic, governed by the people and for the people.
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