British Democracy is on Life Support. We Need a Written Constitution Now | Opinion

For the past few days, the streets around Parliament have been festooned with flags and home-made banners. Inside Parliament, the House of Commons has been packed with MPs debating the biggest political change to our country for decades.

It has all the trappings of a vibrant democracy. But behind the speeches and the shouting, our democracy is on life-support.

Parliament, the bedrock of Britain's democratic system, has been suspended by an executive dangerously out of control. Government over-reach under Boris Johnson is at new levels. The crisis facing us is no longer just a no-deal Brexit, though that is serious enough. We are now facing an assault on our democracy itself.

This has been a long time coming. In Hemingway's book, The Sun Also Rises, a character asks a man How did you go bankrupt? The answer comes "first gradually, then suddenly."

For bankruptcy, read "lose democracy". We risk overlooking the threat to our democracy because it is not being swept away by a sudden coup, with tanks and soldiers on the streets. It is much more insidious than that, and it's been happening for some time.

First, our public debate has been debased. Experts are ignored, their opinions denigrated. Years of expertise and understanding count for nothing against soundbites, lies and empty promises based on fantasy.

Second, language is coarsened. Political opponents don't simply criticize each other's position. Political speeches are laced with accusations of treachery, betrayal, a lack of patriotism. Parliament is accused of betraying the people, even though every MP has been democratically elected.

Third, the pillars which support our democracy are undermined. It isn't only Parliament, it's also the judiciary whose independence is critical to a liberal democracy. Who can forget that infamous Daily Mail headline, "The Enemies of the People", over the photographs of three High Court judges who had simply done what the law demanded, and ruled that Parliament must be consulted over the start of the process of the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

With Boris Johnson in Number 10, we are in danger of reaching the "suddenly" in Hemingway's phrase. The disregard, even contempt, for democratic norms has accelerated. We are now faced with the extraordinary prospect of a government ready to ignore a law passed by Parliament, in order to push ahead with its reckless plans for a no-deal Brexit.

I take some hope from the fact that our institutions are refusing to be swept aside. In Parliament, MPs have strongly protested the suspension of Parliament. And the Scottish Court of Sessions has ruled that the suspension is unlawful.

What lies at the heart of this crisis is our broken democracy, and a system of government which is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was. We have the most centralized state in Europe, which concentrates power in Westminster and increasingly in Downing Street. Our voting system, based on first-past-the-post, leaves two thirds of voters without the representative they wanted. Opaque funding rules means it's often impossible to know who is really financing our political parties. And government by conventions and a set of uncodified rules—many dating back hundreds of years—makes it possible for the powerful to manipulate the system for their own ends. No wonder the Leave campaign's slogan "take back control" was so appealing to so many.

If democracy, in Lincoln's famous words, is "government of the people, by the people, for the people", then it needs to work for them and be designed by them.
That means taking power away from Westminster and restoring it to local communities so people can take decisions over the issues which affect their daily lives. It means a full constitutional convention to write the rules of a modern democratic state. A convention made up of citizens, empowered to call experts, and to draw up a written constitution which is then put to a public vote.
It's not a fanciful idea. Ireland introduced changes to its constitution following such a procedure legalizing abortion and gay marriage without the schisms which have followed the Brexit vote.

This isn't just about modernizing our current system of government. It is also vital to guarantee the protections that citizens in a democracy are entitled to. Without a written constitution, and without the protection of European human rights laws, a UK government could pass a law abolishing any right it didn't like. Minority groups have already been targeted in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. How confident can they be that their rights will be protected in the future?

It isn't only minorities which need protecting. The natural world is under extreme pressure; we are destroying what we depend on to live. The constitutions of both Bolivia and Namibia enshrine protections for nature. With the combined threats of the climate emergency and biodiversity loss, we should do the same.

Some will argue that our current system has served us well in the past and will continue to do so if the parties involved respect it. I would argue that a government threatening to ignore the law, as Boris Johnson is doing, is a sign that the respect has gone.

Our system is based on trust, and as a former Conservative Attorney General said in the House of Commons this week: "The great difficulty we now have is this terrible, compelling sense that trust is eroding."

We will only get it back with a radical overhaul of our democracy, and that includes a written constitution.

Caroline Lucas is Co-leader of the Green Party and Member of Parliament for Brighton Pavilion, U.K. Twitter @CarolineLucas​

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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