The prime minister’s failed attempt to prorogue parliament and other recent abuses of executive power have reignited a debate about the need for a written constitution in the UK. The status of the House of Lords and the boggling complexity of parliamentary procedures has long been a cause of disquiet, but the experience of Brexit has added more issues to the list. Concerns include: uncertainty about the proper relationship of judicial, executive and legislative branches of government, the operation of devolved power and the Speaker’s scope to massage convention and precedent.
At first sight the prospect of reviewing the constitution seems exciting. But what would we actually change if we had the chance, and how would we do it? Would this be an exercise in clarification, just to nail down the nuts and bolts of parliamentary decision-making, or could it be something more radical?
Civil society groups and individuals have long put pressure on the government to resolve the problem of the unelected second chamber and review the powers of the national assemblies. How about we take a review of the constitution a bit further? We could change the electoral system, devise simpler processes of recall, set up citizens’ assemblies and enable them to set parliamentary agendas, and we could lower the thresholds required for members of the public to trigger parliamentary debates. We could reconstitute the relationship between local and national government, change the powers of mayors, police and crime commissioners, and reconsider how budgets are arrived at both nationally and at local level. That may sound an overambitious or utopian programme but the crucial question is: what principles would we use to do all or any of this and who would be charged with the exercise?
Most people probably wouldn’t turn to anarchism to help them answer any of these questions. Afterall anarchists advocate direct action. Their hostility to parliamentary politics and representative democracy is well established, attracting considerable criticism from socialists who measure the distance between political parties in social policy choices. In this light it is difficult to see anarchism as a rich storehouse for constitutional thinking.
Some anarchists and their critics explain anarchist opposition to parliamentarianism simply as a worry that participation legitimises a fundamentally rotten ritual. But this explanation is incomplete. The missing element is a well-established anarchist critique of liberal constitutionalism and a set of creative ideas about organisational alternatives.
The familiar sayings ‘if voting changed anything it would be abolished’ and ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ speak to an analysis of corporate and military power and manufactured consent, now associated with figures like Noam Chomsky. However stark the electoral choices may be, the conclusion that anarchists typically draw from this critique is that voting renews peoples’ misplaced confidence in leadership. It reinforces the idea that determined politicians can prevail over the webs of power that enmesh government and deliver the change that ‘the people’, or the mysterious ‘we’, all demand. This is the logic behind Boris Johnson’s claim to be the man capable of delivering Brexit; optimism, bullying, a dose of pseudo-Churchillian resolve and turbo-charged action at the top is what you need to secure radical change and deliver on ‘the mandate’. Attributing the left’s failure to tackle systemic inequality to the personal weaknesses or reformist sensibilities of its political leaders follows the same logic: we just need the right person in post and all will be well.
Anarchist scepticism says that this search for the strong leader is fruitless and disempowering and that it will always lead to disillusionment. So rather than expend energy on electioneering, grassroots activists are better advised to work on projects that alter existing power balances and advance ‘real democracy’ at a grassroots level.
Anarchist constitutionalising has a long history. Like liberals and republicans, anarchists argue that constitutions enable and constrain power on the basis of principles. They frame rules about rule-making to design and regulate institutions. Unlike liberals and republicans, anarchist constitutionalisers argue that constitutions must emerge from the practices of the groups and individuals who wish to constitute themselves. And because there’s always a risk that power will become entrenched, all elements of the constitution must remain flexible enough to adapt to shifting powers within these constituted bodies. There can be no permanent single point of authority to determine what’s right in each and every case: no anarchist Supreme Court or equivalent. Why? Because no set of social arrangements can ever be perfect and it is impossible to specify in advance who should negotiate remedies for unanticipated and unforeseeable abuses of power.
If this all sounds hopelessly complicated, the Occupy camps of 2011 provided a recent example of the sorts of arrangements that anarchists propose. The St Paul’s camp in London, one of the longest surviving, was a case in point. The Initial Statement, agreed on 16 October 2011 by 500 people on the steps of the Cathedral, demanded that the ‘world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich’. It embraced pluralism, recognising that participants were of ‘all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities, dis/abilities and faith’. Often described by critics as anti-capitalist, Occupy London in fact decided not to adopt this label. Some participants believed that capitalism was not necessarily at odds with the movement’s critique of banks and corporations, monopoly and the concentration of wealth and power. Working groups produced statements on economics, finance and corporations. A list of demands to the City of London and a safer spaces policy both for the camp and social media were agreed by consensus as well as a set of agreements outlining the campaigns that Occupy would support or align with. Participants regulated the camp’s internal operations by agreeing policies for the running of its kitchen, security and finance, and policies on drink, drugs and music. All of this was accomplished while participants’ energies were diverted first by the need to fight off the threat of early eviction and second by preparations for peaceful resistance to its eventual removal.
Occupy was not anarchist but it demonstrated three core anarchist principles. The first is that people are capable of running their own affairs and articulating their own values. Occupy’s politics did not fit neatly into the storyboards that party policy advisors produce in order to attract the widest possible electoral support. Occupy’s politics was not about the fear of being ‘left behind’ in a world of global opportunity. It was shaped by the rejection of structural inequality and corporate power abuses which leave swathes of the population impoverished and disempowered and the planet devastated. Second, Occupy issued statements for the camp but did not allow anyone to speak for it, as parliamentarians are wont to do for ‘the people’ – parliament versus the people being the current populist line. Its politics was against representation. After it was evicted, London Occupy produced a statement on the 2015 election, confirming its unwillingness to endorse any political party. It was ready to draw attention to specific manifesto pledges and candidate declarations that dovetailed with Occupy’s aims but left individuals to decide whether to vote or not. Third, Occupy showed that people can find ways of negotiating significant differences of opinion. However imperfect consensus decision-making proved to be, it was adopted in preference to majoritarianism and factionalism. In Occupy, compromise meant building trust, airing disagreements and deciding how differences were best resolved. It did not mean forcing 49 to accept the view of 50+1 or determining a mid-point between two polar opposites in a desperate effort to preserve party unity.
What do Occupy’s processes tell us about the possibilities of anarchist constitutionalising? I think there are two general points. The first is that constitutions cannot be devised and delivered by experts appointed by existing elites, even if expert opinion feeds into them. Occupy London linked its anti-elitist democratic practices with older rights struggles. Magna Carta and the Putney Debates were the historical inspirations. But there are more recent examples, too. After the 2008 crash, Icelanders produced a new constitution by crowdsourcing. This model is adaptable to all manner of grassroots rebellions and networks of public disobedience. Second, constitutional revision cannot rest on the acceptance of institutions or practices that are deemed unalterable. A constitution that upholds the rights of property ownership will of course always advantage owners over the propertyless. But it will also be powerless to constrain effectively the power of proprietors for as long as those rights are upheld. This applies whether the owner is an individual, a corporation or a state. Re-constitutionalising means putting all institutions and practices up for review.
Parliamentarians appear to be conscious that there is a lack of trust in institutional politics, a vast and growing democratic deficit and plummeting participation rates. There’s a spirit of disobedience in the air, too. At the moment this is contained by the Rebel Alliance, parliament’s anti-government bloc. Seeing the Supreme Court give the government the judicial equivalent of a good kicking should not persuade anyone that democratic accountability is now ‘job done’. If liberal constitutionalists win the argument about the need to codify a mass of legislation, custom and practice into a discrete body of constitutional law, institutional relationships are likely to be clarified but the existing power balances further entrenched. Parliamentarians and constitutionalists should be invited to take a step back so that electors can pursue the logic of the spirit of revolt and decide what principles, norms and mechanisms can best curb the powerful and empower us all.
Ruth Kinna works at Loughborough University. She is the author of the pamphlets ‘Great Anarchists’ published by Dog Section Press and The Government of No One (Pelican Books, 2019).