England: the UK’s Last Colony

by Elias Blum

The book I am currently writing, provisionally entitled ‘Reclaiming Britain’s Global Constitution’ argues that the British constitutional tradition is more than just an insular tradition, confined to the British mainland. It is a global-imperial tradition, which finds itself manifested all over the Commonwealth. The UK, rather than being the exemplar, has in fact become the outlier in that tradition. The normal Westminster-derived democracy today has a written constitution, with a judicially enforceable bill of rights, a semi-rigid amendment formula, and a much clearer and more tightly limited statement of the reserve powers of the Head of State. Many also include reformed second chambers, proportional representation and federalism.

My contention is that a modern written constitution – Charter 88’s dream – need not be built out of ‘foreign’ materials, but out of materials which are of British design and origin, which were enacted by the British Parliament, animated by British traditions of parliamentary democracy, and enforced by British-trained judges. In making this point, I’m hoping to normalise the idea of a written constitution and to broaden its appeal, even amongst those who are still locked into a very ‘British’ and somewhat conservative constitutional mindset. I want to show that none of the things on the Charter 88 agenda are terribly radical, novel, or untried – they are mostly standard constitutional practice in many Commonwealth nations.

My difficulty, though, is that I cannot actually bring myself to write about a ‘British Constitution’. I just don’t see the UK – especially if Brexit goes ahead – as something that can be saved, or that is really worth saving. A federal arrangement, even if politically possible, would be clunky, inefficient, and unlikely to satisfy anyone. Sometimes, being independent is just the simpler, easier, cheaper option.

Having in the past written extensively on Scotland, I’m now thinking more in terms of presenting a draft ‘model Constitution for England’. This is motivated in part by a sense that the key to the democratic political renovation which we all so desperately need lies in reawakening in England a sense of itself as a post-colonial country. Perhaps the best hope for all of us, across the UK, is for England to rediscover the civic and political nationhood that was lost in the imperial project of 1707, and to constitute itself anew through a democratic and inclusive constituent process. The project is not, then, to reform the UK, but to replace it – while keeping, of course, the shared Commonwealth heritage and all the opportunities for co-operation and friendship that that entails.