It’s Time To Rein In Our Power-Mad Politicians

20 Mar 2006

The United Kingdom needs a written constitution, a new Bill of Rights and a limits on the volume of legislation in order to restrict the powers of politicians, according to the latest research paper from the Policy Institute.

In “Restoring Liberties: Five Principles for a Liberal Constitution”, Dr Craig Smith, politics fellow at Glasgow University, argues that instead of worrying about how to select our politicians, we should concentrate on limiting their powers.

The usual focus of constitutional debate is on voter ‘empowerment’, turnout, the voting age, different types of PR or the scope of devolution. By contrast, this paper contends that it is less important how we select our politicians than what their powers are once in place. It calls for a radical shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state and a national campaign for a liberal constitution.

The five principles include:

A written constitution that is fixed and hard to amend, supported by a constitutional committee and court.

Absolute limits to state power, enshrined in a new Bill of Rights.

To prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’, power would be divided between different branches of government, with bigger majorities required to enact some laws.

Limits to the volume of legislation by placing time limits on parliamentary sessions and laws themselves, through ’sunset clauses’.

Government should be clearly accountable, with particular emphasis on fiscal responsibility including a ‘balanced budget’ clause in the constitution.

As well as securing freedom of speech, movement, religion and property, a new Bill of Rights would also prevent government from “restricting the activities of individuals that do not harm others, or are harmful in a way that is understood and accepted, or else easily avoided”.

To ensure checks and balances Dr Smith has proposed a second chamber consisting of expert peers, regional peers drawn from elected councillors and ‘people’s peers’ chosen by lot from the general population. Dr Smith also proposes fiscal independence for each layer of government - local, devolved and national - with each responsible for raising its own revenue.

Calling for a convention for a liberal constitution, Dr Smith said: “The realisation of a complete liberal constitution faces many barriers, not the least of which is persuading politicians voluntarily to limit their scope for action by adopting stricter constitutional practices.”

However, “By raising these proposals and directing our minds to the issues involved we may hope to move the public debate in the direction of restoring lost liberties through constitutional reform.”

Download “Restoring Liberties” in full from the Research & Publications page of this web site.