(Except where constitutions are involved)

As recent debate about benefits in the UK has demonstrated, there is no agreement on what constitutes fairness or fair distribution in the UK. Now it seems, even the obligation to distribute via taxes is up for debate. In the UK, as there is no legal definition of ‘fairness’, what ‘fairness’ means is a constant mystery: For some it means the same treatment for all, for others it means addressing disadvantage by treating some differently in order to attain a level playing field, for many it means something in between, for others it means something more mysterious. This manifests in competing currents of policy and legislation emanating from a bipolar government. Should a motion be successful in Parliament, there is little for which Parliament cannot legislate. This is partly due to the unwritten nature of the British constitution.

Most societies have a written constitution which is the highest law in the land, which cannot be easily changed and which places limits on what government can do. Interpreting and defining constitutions can be tricky enough even when written in clearest terms, but in the UK where the constitution is not written the definition of its contents depends to a greater extent on how it is shaped by those in power. In a democracy, in theory, those in power respond to the demands of society. In the UK however, recent history suggests that when that demand takes the form of a protest it is met with criminalisation rather than policy change. Or when it takes the form of a song? – Censorship.

The 2012 report on democratic processes in the UK from the independent research organisation Democratic Audit showed (promising) marginal increase in democratic participation in 2010 but generally sustained decrease in political participation since the 1970s. Democratic Audit’s report showed a tenfold increase in membership levels since the early 1970s of the largest three such organisations – the National Trust, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, – accompanied by a corresponding decrease in membership of the three largest political parties. With dwindling democratic pathways between individuals and the centres of power, it is no wonder that many feel more inclined to support a nature organisation than a political party. Voting is simply not enough. Even if the party you vote for makes it into power, they are not bound by the promises they made in the past.

How then to ensure that access to these activities do not fall prey to a market-led government in this era of austerity? Now, more than ever, communities need to be creative in finding ways to engage in government decision-making, and in some cases that may mean competing with corporations and self-organising for ownership or control of public goods. Lessons can be learnt from a recent campaign in Edinburgh against the closure of council run swimming baths; Leith Waterworld. Despite protest, the facility was closed in early 2012 and a series of closing dates for offers to acquire the pool, either to buy or lease the building, followed.
Yet no offers were received. In August 2012 campaign group Splashback put forward what turned out to be the only bid, but this was rejected on the grounds that it did not represent ‘best value’. They had offered to buy the facility for £1. Splashback were invited to submit a second bid in response to the council’s feedback and therein projected additional revenue to the local area through reopening plus projected savings in public spending through the social value of the facility. In Spring 2013, their final bid was well received by Edinburgh council who considered the “huge community, health and social benefits” which a revitalised Leith Waterworld would bring. The bid will now enter the next feasibility stage.

The Waterworld campaign is just one example of where community engagement has served as the last line of defence in protecting economic, social and cultural rights in the UK. Without constitutional protection of rights, the baseline of common law rights in the UK is limited and does not extend to social and economic rights. Our black-hole of a constitution is why the Human Rights Act was created and, paradoxically, that is why it can be removed. It is why the benefits system can be removed and why people can be made homeless through lack of social housing and why public facilities which serve to support the right to education or an adequate standard of living can be closed overnight. Constitutional safeguards are becoming increasingly significant in the UK and increasingly conspicuous by their absence.

Excerpt from lecture for Dundee Arts Café public event series, April 2013