We need a new, revolutionary democratic settlement
Tuesday’s Supreme Court judgement was a good one. After all, not only were the options made available to Boris Johnson as Prime Minister reduced, but the principle of legislative authority independent of the executive was upheld. We can be glad that the UK’s labyrinthine constitutional setup produced a judgement that reinforced a key check on the government’s power.
About all this, we should be glad – but not grateful. Yes, our position is unprecedented; after a period of bizarre legislative limbo it is tempting to indulge in relief, and simply to celebrate a system of courts and conventions that delivered something seemingly good for once. But other questions present themselves: what does this episode mean for the system that produced it? What does it tell us about our constitution? What should we be demanding and fighting to win? And as we look at these, it becomes clear that defending our sclerotic semi-democracy is not enough. Greens should be leading the way in demanding a democracy worthy of the name.
Here’s why Green Parties should avoid simply championing the courts and build our case on a popular, participatory notion of democratic government.
Parliamentary sovereignty is not enough
The Supreme Court judgement reaffirmed the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty – “that Parliament can make laws which everyone must obey.” It is a good thing that Parliamentary sovereignty has been established as a key principle, and that prerogative powers (under advice from the government) are not allowed to limit Parliament’s ability to make laws for as long as it pleases.
But this can only be a step towards a fuller, more democratic conception of where sovereignty truly originates. Not only is Parliament unrepresentative of popular opinion – under our electoral system millions of votes do not affect who sits there – but it is hugely unpopular regardless. Even as political power has centralised in Westminster over the past ten years, more than half of people think that parliamentarians put their own interests first. Just seven percent of people believe that MPs serve their constituents’ interests. In this context, fighting to simply strengthen parliament against the government will not cut it.
Instead of pitching equally unpopular branches of government against each other – against the grain of public feeling – we need to push for a conception of Popular Sovereignty. This means bringing political power closer to people; innovating in forms of participatory democracy; empowering people to ‘exercise their democratic muscle’ and decide their communities’ future.
Merely defending Parliament and the courts is a losing battle
Any campaign predicated on defending unpopular institutions is a recipe for failure. In a turbulent environment where political battles are constant and dizzying, it is tempting to jump at the opportunity to escape the political field and look to the judiciary for quick wins. This would be a huge mistake.
The Conservatives are preparing for an election along the lines of people versus elites. In this context, we need not only to defend the rule of law and accountability but also press for real change in the way that our politics operates. The Conservative party is already going to the country with the message that Lords, Ladies, judges, MPs, and other Westminster cognoscenti are obstructing a political agenda that Boris Johnson has a right to execute. Against the backdrop of a litany of unpopular institutions, untrustworthy politicians and distant decision-makers, it is not hard to see how this will cut through.
We can shape a democracy that means more
Instead of being troped as defenders of an established system in gridlock, we need to expound a conception of democracy that is grounded in values that are worth defending. And here, there is reason to be hopeful: in a poll conducted last year by YouGov and campaign group Unlock Democracy, 65% of Britons said they would support a new constitution that sets out the roles and limits of power in this country. When asked which social and economic rights they would enshrine in a constitution, the majority of respondents opted for rights including ‘free healthcare’, a ‘right to work’ for those who want it, a ‘right to a fair wage’, ‘access to housing’ and ‘environmental protection’. It is clear that people are receptive to bold, imaginative visions of what a decent society should be grounded in.
And some political figures seem to understand this. Caroline Lucas has used the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision not merely to defend the court, but to push for a citizen-led democratic settlement that would encapsulate all our wishes for a better democracy. Other figures, particularly in new media groups and the ‘post-crash left’, have joined the chorus. It’s time that all Greens unambiguously centre these calls for a new constitution in our campaigning.
We want people to defend democracy. But unless the vision of democracy we’re defending is one people can truly believe in, we cannot expect them to join us on the front lines. Yes, we need a codified constitution. But most of all we need a blueprint for a democratic society – one that is worth fighting for.
Header image via vgm8383, Creative Commons