The constitutional governance of the UK is falling behind in a world that is changing ever faster. Increasing powers granted to successive Prime Ministers have proved unbalanced; insufficient to speed the pace of reform, overly draconian in unilateral powers. Major constitutional reform, a drastic revision of the checks and balances of power, is long overdue. I offer here a new and innovative way to deliver the institutions of government, a radical Liberal vision – although the label is of secondary importance: what matters is you and me. In the interests of practicality, its design is as much an evolution of the current UK system as I can make it without compromise.
The "supervote" makes several appearances as the preferred voting system. This is explained more fully at the end.
It is in the nature of all creatures to improve their lot as best they can. Cooperation allows greater improvements than mere individual effort can achieve. Any people who wish to improve their lives beyond their individual abilities must therefore form a society.
The more complex and rich the society, the greater the scope for individual improvements. A society of sufficient complexity needs an organizational structure, with specialists to develop and maintain that structure. This structure is called its constitution and the specialists its government.
Human nature has not changed since the days we were one with the apes. Only the intelligence to apply it has evolved to any great extent. Even in the third millennium, the most enlightened of societies must remain subservient to the psychology of the cave man.
It is thus especially important that the politics of hate or disdain should have no place in an enlightened constitution. They are bred of division and in turn they breed division. Dragging down an enemy is no solution, unless you understand with a high order what you are going to put in their place, or it becomes a recipe for disaster. Capitalism disdains the losers of society, Socialism hates and blindly drags down the rich and powerful, we have to find a better way.
The First Principle of any Liberal constitution is to recognise the freedom of individuals to improve their lot as best they can.
Human nature being what it is, the Second Principle must be to allow individuals to defend themselves against the abuses of their fellow citizens. That is, a citizen may act as they please, only provided that in so doing they do not abuse a fellow citizen.
The Third Principle is more active, to enable and encourage self-improvement, and to support those who cannot do so for themselves.
These are in effect a foundational definition of Liberalism. Socialism is broadly similar, but heavily caps the First Principle and, by implication, the proviso of the Second. Anarchy enshrines only the First Principle, leaving the others to a rosy faith in human nature. Capitalism enshrines the First Principle but removes the consequent proviso to the Second. It leaves the Third to the dictates of free markets. Only Liberalism fully enables, protects and nurtures the individual. Thus, these Three Principles must form the core of any Liberal constitution. They should be written down right at the start, as a constant reminder and challenge to all. It is perhaps trite to remark that they can be challenged only through a constitutional reform as radical as that which sets them in place.
The Rule of Law is a principle fundamental to the workings of the UK constitution. It is the Common Law principle that nobody can be molested or disturbed at home without due legal process. This is in effect the same principle which I describe from the other side, as the right to do as you please provided it hurts no-one.
A constitution can never be set in stone but is a living thing. Around the rules and institutions of any constitution, a multifarious ecology of influential individuals and habitual practices must emerge. These people and their behaviour form the true living constitution, what Arnold-Baker called "The Five Thousand". His eponymous book is well worth a read.
But much of that goes well beyond the scope of what can – or should – be considered here. And beyond the constitution itself lie the policy and executive machinations of the government of the day. Some of these are addressed in A Radical Liberal Manifesto.
The operation of any stable constitution must comprise a careful system of checks and balances. Too few, and one clique, or even one person, may rise a position of high abuse. Too many, and change becomes impossible – and what cannot change will die out. One such balance, or tension, exists between the bottom-up wishes of the people and the top-down machineries of centralisation.
The sovereignty of the People is paramount. Their sovereignty is vested in the Crown – a sovereignty which therefore the person of the monarch must abdicate. But the monarch does not disappear. The symbolic, ceremonial and diplomatic functions, even the Royal "we", remain although now as the representative of the Sovereign People and no longer of "subjects". The sovereignty of the People is noteworthy here. It is not the sovereignty of "society", which is a very dangerous and illiberal beast, and to which Socialists so often fall unhappily prey.
Accession to the throne is no longer strictly hereditary, nor is it open to all. Effective discharge of the monarch's duties require experience of the workings of governance which go beyond mere popularity or past vocation. Eligibility must meet strict criteria. For example any member of the Three Houses may offer themselves, as may any close member of a Royal Family, current or recently past. Society may also choose to admit other groups or outstanding individuals. Appointment is via a national supervote. Termination is via death, abdication or the special election of a successor.
The Church of England is disestablished; a multicultural, multi-faith society has room for favouritism. It is quite wrong for the reigning Monarch to display any such thing, especially once they are recast as the servant of the Crown and of the people, and not the other way round.
Beneath the sovereign People and their symbolic Crown representative sit three Houses of Parliament in place of the current two. The new House may be conceived of at one level as the active role of the monarch in government, hived off to new ownership. But, in less capricious hands than those of a single arbitrary heir, greater powers may safely be restored to it. Thus, the long tried-and-tested triumvirate of powers is maintained and protected. This is a more important point than you might think and Arnold-Baker expressed concern at how the powers taken by the Prime Minister have grown ever more draconian.
Democracy is said to be an appalling system of government, its one redeeming feature being that all others are worse. The triumvirate of Houses is therefore designed to wield the power of democracy, while holding its worst excesses in check. Meritocracy is potentially more efficient but even easier to abuse. A third and inescapable arm of governance – and equally open to abuse – is the incumbent administrative bureaucracy, be it at national or local level. The best way to control your enemy is to hold them close. Therefore, each of these three forces of power is established in its own House where the other two can keep an eye on it.
The Lower House is therefore the Commons which we know and love. Its composition based on local "grass roots" constituencies remains substantially unchanged, save for electoral reform: the supervote takes the place of first-past-the-post. However as we shall see, some of its powers – especially those which tempt Prime Ministers unduly – are curtailed and shared with the other Houses.
The Upper House is that of meritocracy and represents an evolution of the House of Lords. The titles of Lordships and Peerages should by and large be retained, for membership has always represented society's de facto recognition of a person's rise to importance in its running and the connotations of Lordship, of elevation to the Peerage, are too embedded in our language and culture to throw away out of blind prejudice. Thus, the Lords should be retained but recast with greater emphasis on achieved leadership in some significant walk of life and less on the individual concerned. This has been happening to some extent in recent decades, and some more thoughts on it are expanded on below.
The new house represents the practicalities of government. Positioned at a Departmental level it sits below the nationwide constituency of the Lords but above the parochial level of the Commons membership. One might therefore describe it as the Middle House and more properly name it the House of Servants, for it gives a greater constitutional voice to the official servants of the Crown. The main aim of this is to help ensure that laws and other measures are both do-able and enforceable, and to do so in a reasonably short length of time. For example many consultations which currently take many months may be telescoped into a single scrutiny by the Middle House. It will be a small house, populated in the main by the heads of the Crown Services and of other de facto participants in the constitution such as local government. These include for example the heads of government Departments, what used to be the Law Lords, and the Chair or President of the National Association of Local Councils. Attendance is compulsory. This exclusive club of the constitution's movers and shakers is designed as much to foster mutual understanding, to influence the practicality of legislation, as it is to enact the legislation itself.
Between them the Upper and Middle houses have stronger powers than the Lords currently has alone. Broadly speaking, together they may block a bill's adoption even if it has passed through the Commons. Either house, together with the Commons, may overrule the third. There is some merit to the idea that any two Houses may always overrule the third, enabling the Upper and Middle to pass a bill which the Commons has rejected. For example a bill may be proposed but defeated in the Commons, while still being passed by the other two Houses. However such an extreme event would create a dangerously unstable political landscape and, if it were to be made possible, it would require serious constitutional checks and balances. One might for example require the Monarch to step in.
A Government and Prime Minister are appointed and dissolved by the Monarch, on the advice of a majority of any two Houses. Thus, should an errant Prime Minister promote a constitutional crisis, they may be unambiguously removed before their time. For it is not the Minister who is sovereign but the People and it is they, through their constitutional bodies, who must have the final say. The Prime Minister may draw their close associates around themself as they see fit.
The checks and balances which control the passage of a Bill through Parliament are among the most critical. Too lax and an energetic Prime Minister may drive though a dangerous and unpopular agenda, too tight and vital but overdue reforms become stultified in red tape. In recent decades, the Prime Minister has gathered increasing powers around their person and fears have been expressed that there is insufficient check on this process. The relationship between the Three Houses offers a powerful check against a Prime Minister who bears too heavily upon his Opposition. It may even prove too powerful in some circumstances, being of value for some Acts of Parliament but not for others.
Any Act of Parliament is to be limited in scope. An Act may be classed as one of Constitution, Policy or Execution. Sometimes two or all three may need to be drawn up and presented in a single Bill to be voted upon en bloc. The purpose of this is in part to make changes of constitution or policy and their implications more transparent, and in part to simplify and speed the tinkerings with execution which must continually take place.
Beneath the Crown and the Three Houses lie the Crown Services. Notable among them are the Judiciary, Police, Armed Forces and Civil Service with all its many Departments.
Beneath, and yet above, all this lie the institutions of Local Government. The governance of a nation may be broadly divided into National and Local affairs. Each to its own. Central government deals with national affairs, and in local matters goes only so far as wider society dictates in order to apply national norms. In other respects, national institutions are subservient to the local.
The House of Lords should be fully recast as a meritocracy, composed of people who have risen to particular positions of prominence within society.
For the most part this would include examples such as the leaders of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Unions Congress (TUC) should be sitting alongside the UK leaders of the great world religions. Who is currently occupying the position is, frankly, irrelevant.
The mechanisms of elevation are drastically revised. In essence it becomes the position in society which is elevated, with the current incumbent of that position adopting that elevation just as the person of the monarch adopts the position of the Crown. Such positions would include captains of industry, leading lights of the Trade Union movement, heads of major professional organizations, major charities, press and media tycoons, and so forth. The Lords Spiritual remain, albeit recast to represent all the major world religions. Participation in government thus becomes every leader's obligation. The Lords remains informed and relevant, while also protected to a greater degree than before from the arbitrariness of favour.
For the lesser communities which rate elevation, a new title of "Lord Incumbent" will be introduced. On retirement from their leadership role, the person would step down from the House and become a "Sometime Lord". More important positions remain elevated even after retirement, with ex-incumbents remaining life peers as "Lords Emeritus". The step from a Lord Emeritus to a hereditary title might prove a short one.
Individuals of particular personal merit may be recognised, for they will by definition have achieved some great benefit to some significant community or other. Even though not leaders as such in their chosen field, their off-stage activities may single them out as uniquely deserving. Sports and media personalities and charity workers can sometimes come under this banner. They represent no community other than wider society, so might perhaps be referred to as the Lords Freehold.
The hereditary peerage comprise a particular challenge. I have always had a sneaking unease about unseating the hereditary peerage. Surely the umpteenth Baron Saye and Sele, with his moated castle infested by public visitors while his most ancient ancestors line the historic and rather unique Parish Church alongside, should still be given a crack at the ermine? After all, his lineage extends well back beyond the House of Windsor to whom he also answers. Simply expelling his community of peers on the grounds of prejudice does not seem to me to be either just or democratic. In his way he represents one of many traditions that lie at the root of Britishness and I for one, global citizen that I see myself to be, am loath to let go of my roots. But how to keep such a hereditary position within a meritocracy?
I would here suggest that the key to a resolution lies in the fact that any leader of anything has risen to the top of their particular community. In deciding which meritocrats to elevate, the reformed House is in fact deciding which communities to elevate. One need only take the view that a hereditary Peer is not so much a leader of the wider community as a member of a particular and ancient community, to see a way forward. I would suggest that the hereditary peers do indeed embody some important characteristic of British society and, as a community in themselves, deserve representation in the Lords. The problem then resolves to the commonplace ones of how many representatives to elevate and how to choose them and, in fact, the system since 1999 pretty much represents a first answer to this.
How many should there be? The current tally of ninety seems, when stated in such bald terms, rather high. On the other hand, many such peerages were truly earned on merit following one great service or another to the country and the descendants of the original beneficiaries seek they very best to do justice to the honour. This must be taken into consideration. Also, it is all very well to slash numbers but some thought needs to be given to how many should be replaced by more worthy leaders and which leaders should those be?
The method of choice should, as with all other peerages, be left to the elevated community itself to manage. It may be that the Monarch, who confers the privilege in the first place, should have some say in the matter. Certainly, I find the current party political system to be abhorrent. Party politics has no place in impartial discussion. The current influence of the incumbent government is inevitably also politically biased and therefore fundamentally unfair and undemocratic. It should be much reduced.
Once the institution of hereditary peerage has found a stable place in modern society, the question as to creating new elevations arises. Since they will not necessarily sit in the House the question here is a little moot. It is perhaps unwise to scatter new hereditary peerages around willy-nilly, we do not want to debase the coinage. On the other hand it seem even more irresponsible to allow such a national treasure to wholly wither away; the dying out of a great historic tradition would undoubtedly leave this nation the poorer and the less conscious of its uniqueness on the world stage. One possibility might be to introduce more richness of variety between a minimal life membership and the full hereditary monty. A hierarchy of perhaps three or four honours, with each successive generation of descendants stepping down a level, might allow a graceful fading away of the less masterful bloodlines. On the other hand, a vote among one's peers to re-elevate a new and talented scion could revitalise a deserving heritage. The re-appearance in the House of a line marked by several previous generations of determined mediocrity should surely be something to encourage and celebrate.
The members of the House thus comprise the Lords Incumbent, Emeritus, Freehold and certain Lords Hereditary.
Local government provides the mechanism by which the sovereignty of the people is vested in the daily affairs of society. Sovereignty works bottom-up.
Every individual is sovereign in their own life, except where it impinges on others. In such matters, sovereignty must be shared between those affected.
Any mutually affected group may declare itself as a local community, and as such the people of that community vest the shared aspects of their sovereignty in its constitution.
Such a community may again act as it sees fit, save where it impinges on other communities or individuals. These aspects of sovereignty must again be shared, through the creation of wider, overarching communities. And so on, up to national level.
There is no prescribed structure, it emerges from the bottom. For example a small community may choose to become a Parish, while another does not. The individuals of the unparished area may choose to form, together with this and other parishes, a wider District community. Or they may not. Communities may merge or split as their citizens see fit, without interference from above.
National government prescribes only those matters which touch on aspects of sovereignty which have been shared up to the national level. However it is National government which sets out those aspects of sovereignty which it is to administer and which all local councils must share. This creates a deliberate tension between the top-down diktat of central government and the bottom-up idiosyncrasies of local individuals: the balance is set and adjusted through the ballot box and learned consultation.
Each local community is led by a ruling Council, elected by supervote from its constituency. It may levy taxes to pay for its activities and it may organize those activities as it sees fit.
Several references are made above to the "supervote". This is a democratic vote embodying two distinct principles, in its ballot system and in its constituency.
Most voting systems are based on who do you want? But most people vote on the basis of who they don't want; it's sometimes called tactical voting. For example most Americans vote Republican or Democrat simply to keep the other side out, while most Brits vote Conservative or Labour for the same reason. This is often dismsissed as immoral negativity; we should be voting with higher principles in mind. But that criticism is naive. Tactical voting is based on a profound mistrust of extremists and of corruption. Those aiming for the high ground must recognise the pragmatism of avoiding the quicksands, and voting in the least disliked candidate.
As a ballot system, the Supervote is classed as a form of Alternative Vote or Instant Run-Off, in which the voter lists candidates in order of preference. You do not have to order them all, just the ones you want to vote up. In this way you can try to stop candidates you don't like from winning. Your order of preference will be honoured by the counting system.
Counting is a circular or recursive process in which the weakest candidate is discarded and their No. 1 votes redistributed according to the listed preferences. For example if John Bull is voted No.1 on fewest papers, those votes are redistributed to the No.2 candidate on the paper. The votes are then recounted and the process repeated. In this way, the least popular candidates are steadily weeded out. Eventually, only one is left. Some ballot papers will run out of marked candidates before the end is reached. These may be set aside like any other paper which votes only for a losing candidate. The winner of a supervote is thus not the most popular candidate but the least unpopular.A few countries use this system, and they tend to have multi-party governments and a good deal less in the way of partygate scandals or civil war against the coal miners to deal with. A bad multi-party system (such as proportional representation) gets paralyzed by bickering and blocking moves, but then so does the American two-party system, so you can't use that argument against multi-party politics. Rather, the AV type of system is especially important in culling the worst offenders and enabling government to function. This distinction is vital, as it makes a key contribution to the collaborative atmosphere which must lie at the heart of any just society. First-past-the-post, beloved of the political right, overly encourages the momentary fashions of populism and the election of socially destructive candidates. Proportional representation, equally beloved of the political left, overly institutionalises Party politics. Both those voting systems foster division and hence mistrust and hatred within government. By avoiding the most disliked candidate, who may well be the populist champion of some extreme group, the Supervote avoids the worst excesses of both the other voting systems.
I gave it its own name partly because the conventional classifications are misleading: "alternative" suggests minority politics, while "instant" suggests a single straightforward count. "Supervote" is intended to suggest a more optimal balance.
Due care must also be taken that, where there is significant doubt and no other way forward, a person should be able to register their ID at a polling station and vote. Modern IT systems may be used to confirm whether this ID has already been used to vote. A unique serial number may be used to anonymise the ballot paper or e-vote itself. If the registration IT system is down, then the benefit of doubt must be in favour of the voter or the whole ballot postponed. By definition there are few people on the margins of society, it is better to risk them voting twice than to prevent their voice from being heard at all.
A true supervote system is more than just a counting rulebook, it also embodies the principle that no citizen shall be disenfranchised unless they are unable to express a rational intent. Circumstances such as Crown service, homelessness, lifestyle, physical disability, criminal punishment, mistrust, hatred, or even outright treason, are no criteria to forbid. If so many supporters of some candidate are locked up that they can significantly affect the political landscape, then there is something fishy going on and consensus democracy is being suppressed.
But what if some illegal organisation, perhaps led by a charismatic but violent and anti-democratic nationalist, is gaining strong popular support? Should they not be suppressed? I would answer that if people really are so fed up that they are flocking to a charismatic leader, then those who upset them have no moral right to dictate terms. Suppressing a large popular movement is itself by definition anti-democratic. If a majority of voters wish to abandon majority voting and return to oligarchy, they cannot be stopped; better that the revolution be amicable and bloodless.
Only those who have insufficient mental capacity to understand a ballot anyway may be excused from the degrading spectacle of them trying to eat the pencil - or, worse, the returning officer. This can apply apply only to citizens whose private affairs are already and of necessity in the care of others – children and the registered mentally incapable or insane. However some who have been sectioned for severe mental inability to conduct their affairs may still be able to vote. Unless two practising doctors have certified their inability to understand what is going on, they must be offered the opportunity to vote. Any person who has left full-time education to pursue an independent career should certainly be able to vote; if they are too immature for the one, then they are too immature for the other, and vice versa. Currently, this means that we should consider lowering the voting age to sixteen.
But what about younger still? The arguments against it are that such children are mentally and emotionally immature and are easily led. They are not yet fit to live independent lives, and so also not yet fit to vote. One variation claims that they typically follow their parents' preferences, another that the radical left wing is more likely to appeal to them (as it is to young adults such as university students). These both fail the test of reason. If they vote with their parents, where is the harm in that? The parents are not skewing politics, thay are defining it. Let their kids help define it too. Or, if they vote with the young adults, then let us recall that we enfranchised these young adults for a reason, and after much debate. On what basis can considerations such as these be linked to the completion of basic education and release onto the jobs market? Also, longer lifespans have tilted the traditional age demographic towards the right, why should we not compensate by allowing the youth demographic to tilt it back level again? But there are perhaps sounder physiological reasons why the child's brain cannot be trusted. During the years of puberty the emotional centre of the brain undergoes a radical transformation. In young children it is situated in the back of the brain. During puberty, a large number of as-yet unused neurons migrate forward to the frontal regions, where they form a new emotional centre and the old one evntually withers away. We should likewise wait until the childlike emotions have faded before enfranchising the new fore brain. I confess, I am not neurologist enough to decide on the pros and cons of this argument (and what I sketch here is perhaps over-simplified to the point of being only half-right). But it certainly needs bearing in mind. Might this transformation still be affecting sixteen-year-olds for example?
The blank space on a ballot paper is a smart idea. Also, the British habit of demanding payment to have your name printed on it is based on the idea that if you cannot garner enough loyal supporters for that then you don't stand an earthly of winning. But in today's fast-moving world that is less true than it used to be. And under an AV system such as the Supervote it may be totally false. By all means demand say 1% support and £1,000 for a candidate before their name goes on. However the candidate who is nobody's first but everybody's second choice may not get a look-in. That blank space needs to be there, so the voters can still make their priorities count.
I mention this because although voting is not compulsory in the UK, it is in some countries and all good Liberals need to keep it at bay. The act of ignoring or spoiling a ballot paper is a political statement in itself. A low turnout or a high number of spoiled papers can tell the politicians something important.
Updated 8 June 2022