AC Grayling calls for a codified UK Constitution to protect citizen rights to good government

Last week, renowned philosopher Professor AC Grayling made an impassioned plea for both greater constitutional clarity over the future use of Referendums and reforms to the way that MPs represent their constituents in Parliament, in order to protect the right of all citizens to good government.

The lecture, in which Professor Grayling assessed the merits of a formerly codified constitution for the UK, was delivered on behalf of the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society at Wolfson College to a packed auditorium of over 150 people.

Over the course of his wide-ranging and incisive discourse, Professor Grayling addressed both the philosophical principles behind any constitution – to establish how the authority of the state is conferred, exercised, and limited – and how these apply to the UK’s current constitutional circumstances. He observed that:


We should codify at least part of our constitution to put in place certain basic principles that might have prevented us from being tipped into the debacle that the UK now finds itself in.


Professor Grayling opened his argument by examining the existing constitutional arrangements in the UK. These he characterized as a diverse and at times inconsistent body of statutory instruments across the different nations of the Union, described by one commentator as “a set of understandings that nobody understands”.

Tracing the development of constitutional arrangements in the UK since Magna Carta, Professor Grayling brought his acumen to bear on the emergence of parliamentary power that has emerged from the seventeenth century onwards. He developed a compelling case for the right of every citizen to good government, arguing that the parliamentary system of checks and balances on executive power had clearly been compromised in recent years, and that significant reforms to the electoral system and the system of party discipline was urgently needed.

Citing the so-called Three ‘B’s – bullying, blackmail, and bribery – that MPs are subject to by the Party Whips, he argued that:


Parliament has become the creature of the Executive. The whipping system ensures that MPs are there as lobby fodder for the Executive to get their programme through.


Consequently, MPs have become cowed into neglecting their duties as representatives of their constituency. They are sent to Parliament, he noted, to acquire the facts, listen to argument, debate, and use their judgement to act in the best interests of their constituents – not merely to obey the will of the Party.

Having exposed the pernicious effects of this submissiveness to party discipline, Professor Grayling identified the second major problem: that of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system. While conceding that a more proportional voting system would undoubtedly produce more coalition governments, he argued that, given the records of the past two governments, this may very well be a good thing.

Through this line of argument, Professor Grayling arrived at his first proposal for any new constitutional arrangement. Advocating for greater separation between the executive and legislature, he suggested that:


If, under a new constitution, MPs could only be coerced by their party to vote for the platform on which they are elected, but on all other matters they vote according to their conscience and judgement, they would be able to hold the executive to greater account.


Professor Grayling’s second line of argument questioned the role of referendums in representative democracies, and indeed the democratic legitimacy of the EU Referendum itself:


To put an enormously complex matter to an In/Out, Yes/No vote is the height of irresponsibility – that is the case with the 2016 EU Referendum. ... We now live with the consequences.


He drew some telling observations from analysis of past referendums in the UK, revealing that, in the referendums of 1979 and 2014 (on the balance of powers and independence of Scotland, respectively) a majority of 40% of the total electorate was required to be decisive, and the vote was extended to include 16/17-year-olds and EU citizens living in Scotland.

By contrast, in the 2016 EU Referendum, those who would be materially affected by the result – 16/17-year-olds, EU citizens, and expats living in Europe – were all very deliberately denied the right to vote. He proceeded to draw the attention of the audience to the House of Commons Briefing Paper 072123 published on 3 June 2015, which, in paragraphs 5 and 6, stated that the EU referendums is advisory only – not binding on Parliament or Government – and that, should any expectation that it might be binding emerge, then it ought to have a threshold or supermajority requirement.

“On major constitutional matters such as leaving the EU”, Professor Grayling continued, “you need to be very sure this is what a strong majority of the people want” – substantially more than was indicated by the 51.9% of voters, or only 37% of the total electorate, who voted to leave the EU. Instead of debating and deliberating upon the advice given at the time of the election, he reminded us:


To this day, the Parliament of the UK has not debated the proposition whether or not the UK should leave the EU, nor has it voted on it. If Parliament is sovereign, then it must have both the responsibility and the ultimately authority to take that decision. And it never has done.


In concluding, Professor Grayling reiterated the two central proposals for any future constitution, to address the current democratic deficiencies that he had outlined thus far:


  1. “At the very least, we need clarity and definition over the use of Referendums if ever we are to make use of them, so that people know exactly what will happen on the outcome of the referendum and what kind of referendum it is. If it is to have an impact on our Constitutional arrangements, should it have a supermajority? If not, why not, given that Constitutional changes are of great moment?”
  2. “We need to revisit how we conduct elections and how our representatives comport themselves in Parliament. We need explicit conditions to help us ensure that those institutions we’ve devised help us to act in the interests of the whole.”


Professor Grayling was joined on stage by fellow Putney Debaters Sionaidh Douglas-Scott and Frank Vibert, who gave their comments on the arguments for and against a written constitution, and opened up the discussion to a lively session of questions and answers from the audience.  

Professor Douglas-Scott will be appearing at the Putney Debates 2018 at St Mary’s Church, Putney on 2 February, which will focus on the questions of electoral reform and a federal United Kingdom, while Frank Vibert will deliver a lecture entitled ‘A Twenty-First Century Constitution for the UK’ on 6 March, building on the proposals laid out in Professor Grayling’s lecture.

To find out more and to receive invitations to all our future events, visit our Events pages, subscribe to our bimonthly newsletter, and follow us on Twitter.