Over 500 attend Putney Debates 2017 to debate UK’s constitutional future

17 February 2017

Over 500 people attended the Putney Debates 2017 at St Mary’s Church, Putney, and over 2,500 more watched online, in what has come to be regarded as a significant milestone of public engagement in the ongoing debate over the UK’s constitutional future.

The Debates, held on 2-3 February and organized by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society in association with the Faculty of Law, the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, and Wolfson College at the University of Oxford, addressed the constitutional challenges raised by the vote to leave the European Union, and questioned the need for a written Constitution for the UK.

More than thirty speakers debated the issues over four sessions, chaired by the UK's leading legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg, Cambridge philosopher and Cross-bench Peer Baroness Onora O’Neill, and Oxford constitutional law experts Professors Denis Galligan and Paul Craig. Full details of all 37 debaters and the programme are available at the event website.

Over two days, speakers and audience debated the relationship between parliamentary sovereignty and popular democracy; contemporary trends to strengthen the voice of the people through direct democracy, referendums, and social media; the Article 50 case, the Royal Prerogative, and the role of the law; and constitutional principles and how to preserve them.

The Debates were conceived by Professor Denis Galligan, Director of Programmes at the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society, who was struck by the parallels between the constitutional uncertainties posed by the result of the EU Referendum, and those faced in 1647, when the original Putney Debates were convened in the wake of the English Civil War, and gave rise to many of the civil liberties we value today.

Common themes to be consistently raised throughout the debates included:

  • the tension between the will of the people and representative government,
  • the need for greater civic education to confront political apathy and misinformation,
  • the importance of preserving free speech and the popular voice in a post-truth society, and
  • the widespread ignorance of constitutional principles, even within Parliament itself, and the case for a written constitution for the UK.

The debates were livestreamed to a global audience, and can be watched again at the FLJS video page and the links on the right.

A collected volume of the speakers’ contributions will be published later this year and will be available to buy online and in High Street bookshops.

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