Some things are too important to leave to politicians

Anyone humphing about the First Minister going to London to tell us that we could have a written constitution in an independent Scotland and to pose suggestions about what such a document might contain is missing the point.

It’s all part of the staging as part of the narrative in the SNP’s part of the Yes campaign and suggests that at last, the party is getting to grips with its role in this crowded marketplace.  While the day to day of progressing the process, as well as presenting the ever-growing reasons not to stay in the Union, sits firmly with Nicola Sturgeon as our Yes Minister, the First Minister is freed up to play fully the statesman role which he loves and performs so well.  His is a big blank canvas on which to paint the vision for an independent Scotland.

As for the going to London bit, that’s about him going “abroad” to represent Scotland and her interests on a wider stage, reassuring nervous persuadables about post-independence concerns, such as borders and relationships.  See, here is our leading politician going south scattering bon mots like rose petals and receiving a warm welcome.  And they didn’t even ask to see his passport.

There was a lot to like, too, about the content of the First Minister’s speech.  It didn’t seek to presume that the SNP would control the policy process, the idea of a written constitution wasn’t presented as a done deal, and it had a lot to offer in terms of what might be there, while pointing up neatly the difference and the potential benefits everyone living in Scotland might enjoy if they vote yes.  Unlike currently, of course, which the First Minister wasn’t shy to hammer home, where with an unwritten constitution, rights are a moveable feast and citizenship is a concept predicated on the convention that people who live on these islands are subjects who will put up with what politicians serve up to them.

However, I’m not sure floating the idea of a written constitution as a possible rather than a probable or even, a definite outcome for independent Scotland is the right approach.  It’s taken me a long time to see the importance of having such a touchstone in place for our country, even though I can identify with its benefits for addressing inequality and injustice.  Now, I consider it an absolute essential.  Without a rights based approach and such an approach being enshrined in founding legislation, as well as detail setting out the institutional infrastructure for our country, there is a risk that we end up exactly where we are now.

A written constitution is required to set out what kind of country we will be, how we will govern ourselves, how we will ensure that all our citizens are provided for and how we will realise our potential.  Without it, we would be as subject to the vagaries and flim flam policy initiatives of politicians and political parties as we are now.  If independent Scotland is to deliver a whole new way of being and doing, then our pathway and culture must be embedded from the start.

And I’m also sanguine about the process of preparing a written constitution suggested by the First Minister and followed through on by Andrew Wilson in this week’s Scotland on Sunday.  The idea that “a cross-party commission of the best” should write our written constitution fills me with dread, for this process is too important to be left to the politicians, particularly if we want to use it to sweep away institutional hierarchies and vested interests.

If we are to use the opportunity of writing a constitution to create the beginnings of a better nation, then that process must be owned and driven by the public.  And Iceland’s recent crowdsourcing experiment for new constitutional provisions demonstrates not only that this could be done but that it can be done, and rather successfully.

I don’t want politicians nor indeed, academics to disappear behind closed doors to come out months later brandishing a finished draft.  No one will own or feel responsible for such a document.  I want all of Scotland to feel part of the process and when they get to the end of it, feel that we, collectively, have produced a constitution which sets the tone for the years to come.  This is not to suggest that the actual wording of a constitution should be determined by a committee of five million – we’d never get beyond the first line.  But the general thrust of the content should be determined by the people.

Thus, my own preference would be for a written constitution which sets out the rights of the people – our fundamental human rights – as well as how the apparatus of the state might work.  On the latter issue, for example, a key consideration is what type of legislature to have.  Different options could be set out and people asked to vote for their preference.  The result of that vote would bind how the drafters would proceed.

And on the issue of rights, as the First Minister suggested, we might want to go further than basic human rights such as the right to vote, right to freedom of association, right to liberty and create constitutional policy rights, covering matters such as education, housing and nuclear weapons.  I’d like to see us enshrine the rights of children through the UNCRC in a written constitution, ensuring that children and young people have, for example, a right to play and to be treated equally under the law, as well as setting out things like the age of criminal responsibility, capacity and adulthood in our founding document.  And I’d also like a commitment to gender equality enshrined in our constitution – starting over from an equal footing would do much to create a very different Scotland from the one in which we all currently live.

With his speech, the First Minister has signalled a vital shift in focus, that of starting to imagine the possible and as he puts it, the “why” of independence.  It would be great if it kickstarted discussions all around the country – in workplaces, homes, clubs, pubs, on trains, buses and planes.  What kind of Scotland would you like to live in and how could we provide for that in a written constitution?  It’s only by taking such fundamental policy debates down to grassroots level and out of the hands of the parties and the politicians, that we will enable people to see what independence offers and persuade more of them to at least, start thinking about voting yes.

And if yes-supporting politicians want a role at this stage, they could press Better Together on why remaining in the UK and not having a written constitution guaranteeing our rights is in anyway better for us.

Anyone wanting to see some draft options for a written constitution, and samples from other countries, should visit the excellent Constitutional Commission’s website


13 thoughts on “Some things are too important to leave to politicians

  1. Pingback: Scottish Constitution - Some things are too important to leave to politicians - Kate Higgins | YES for an Independent Scotland |

  2. Baffiebox

    In general agreement with a lot of your thrust but I think having the major issues of a constitutuion identified and the major positions on them examined and debated now is more important than trying to tie them all down at the moment. That I feel should happen after we have secured a YES vote when we can have a vigorous and fearless national debate

    • I don’t disagree Dave. But there needs to be someone steering the debate and managing the process, even if it is loosely. Identifying the major issues and positions, and exploring them isn’t going to be initiated or encouraged by our national press. Unless somebody, somewhere, takes control and ensures a minimal amount of direction and momentum is applied, there’s a danger we’ll still be here in a years time saying “aye, a constitution would be a fine thing… let’s talk a bit more about it.”. 🙂

      I accept talking about it superficially is better than not talking about it at all, but I hope we can do more with it between now and 2014.

  3. A great read Burd! Rather than rewrite, Ill repost a comment I made over at Better Nation. A constitution is now a given and it’s great to see it shuffle up the priorities, if a little slower than I’d like.

    IMO, there is much to be gained from Yes Scotland doing this right now. We should be aiming for a two step process. An initial constitution that is ready for adoption after the referendum should be written now, with a revision in the period before actual transfer of power. Getting the initial base version done now will hopefully take care of the initial heavy lifting that enables a rewrite or revision to happen much quicker, and therefore possible within the short timeframe between referendum and transfer of sovereignty.

    The initial version doesn’t need to be ambitious in intent – it might only codify a lot of the rights we enjoy right now but there is huge value in the actual process as well as the actual document. An open, tangible, participative (ie: the public) process would be a great practical demonstration of the new politics we are trying to initiate, away from the current dregs of so called “debate”. The delivery and publication of a written constitution, 6 months before the referendum would act as a great focal point for the Yes campaign and I dont have any doubt the entire process, as one sided as it will be, will draw people in and engage them in where we want this country to go.

    On the content front, I’d have no problems seeing some ambition thrown in that help challenge common misconceptions of the independence campaign: commitment to international bodies such as the UN, commitment to certain treaties like NPT; commitment to an outward looking, benelovent state by, say, stipulation of a minimal level of GDP to foreign aid; if possible, retention of Monarchy in a ceremonial role only with no political or legal power; etc. These are nice to haves and there would need to be careful consideration about it’s scope.

    I really wish this could be done now. I dont want the same old debate for the next year and a half, and a constitution would be a brilliant prism through which to view the referendum debate. I asked Patrick Harvie on Twitter why Yes Scotland aren’t but have had no reply, while Susan Stewart emphasised that their priority was getting a Yes result in 2014, suggesting they don’t see a constitution, or a process to write one, as being of great value to the campaign. Can’t help but feel they should be grabbing this bull by the horns! Get an advisory committee together now, and let’s get the ball rolling.

  4. Tam Baillie could be said to have started the process with his Right Blether and Right Wee Blether, consultation with Scotlands Children.

  5. Having a written constitution ina n independent Scotland is absolutey fundamental.

    I can think of little however that would be more divisive than trying to decide all the details of one at this point.

    The position should be that there is guarantee that following a succesful referendum the Sottiish Parliament should draw together a wide ranging body of eminent people to take submissions and produce a constitution for us.

    In the meantime the matter should be widely and publicly debated and interested parties should be encouraged to draft proposals for submission to the constitution convention and ultimately through it to our parliament after a YES vote.
    Nothing is likelier to give many of our people a vested interest in achieving independence than an exercise in asking them what they think our country should be like.

    Iceland has shown the way with a community and people centred constitution. Iceland however had the benefit of being already securely independent when it did so.
    We are not and that presents an opportunity for our enemies to unscrupulously exploit differences.

    The late Neil McCormick did a huge amount of work on a draft Scottish constitution for the SNP. Wellworth havin alook at

  6. Much to agree with here. Thanks. Personally I’m not sure a rights based approach is sufficiently radical. Of course, it’s *implicit* that with rights go duties and responsibilities. But there’s something about an emphasis on that other end of the bargain – getting past our own consumer-unit, individual selves – that points to something more like a collective rather than wholly individualistic ethics, a genuine basis in community and a recognition of the necessary dependence and inter-dependence of all of us, and of the country as a whole in the wider world. I’d like a whack more of that please.

    • I agree. We could have a constitution which sets out our common rights eg one of iceland’s crowd sourced amendments is for national/common ownership of all resources not in private hands.

  7. aye an agreement not to do to others what I don’t want them to do to me.I like the idea of a constitution written of course,decided by the people for the people,now is the time for collating the suggestions of rights and obligations,for all the people to have rights there must be obligations to walk with these rights.Its like when I had children and gave them much more freedom than I had I never taught them properly about self-discipline whether it be in eating or drinking,and the reasons for rules.As I now know a rules are made so that we don’t always have to think what is right or wrong.

  8. Politics and vested corporate interests need to butt out.

  9. …nor indeed, academics…
    Yes to that

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